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Tales of Wonder

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition, ed Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert, Princeton University Press 288 pp, ISBN: 978-0691161655

Everyone knows what a fairytale is anyway, don’t they? A story about fantastic creatures and events with a happy ending; a story about fairies. When I ask students for examples they might mention “Cinderella” – that’s correct – but are just as likely to say “Cúchulainn” or “The Children of Lír”.

The folklorist’s definition of “fairytale” is a story classified in the standard index of folktales in the section “Tales of Magic”, AT 300-750. Three hundred and fifty different tale types which can be described as “fairy tales” have been documented in the world, in oral and sometimes written tradition. AT 300, “The Dragon Slayer”, is one of the most common of all. Over seven hundred versions have been collected in Ireland alone and versions are told throughout most of the world. AT 745A, the last listed in the index, is “The Predestined Treasure”, a much less common and less widespread story, although also found in Ireland, which is very rich in tales of magic, as in many other kinds of folktale. In between are “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and, well, 348 other tale types, some very familiar and some not so familiar to us of the post-Gutenberg, post-Disney tradition. Folklorists writing in English have sometimes attempted to replace the word “fairytale” with “wondertale”, which is a more useful designation since the fairytales don’t usually feature fairies in the usual sense of the word. The Irish fairies, those denizens of the fairy forts or raths, keepers of fairy thorn trees, never make an appearance in a fairytale.

Bengt Holbek, in his definitive study of Danish fairytales, The Interpretation of Fairytales, defines the genre rather narrowly as stories of what we can roughly call “The Dragon Slayer” or “Cinderella” type: stories about a young hero or heroine who passes tests and overcomes obstacles of a supernatural kind, to be finally rewarded with a spouse and riches. The story of the journey from childhood to adulthood is expressed in simple plots of adventure and quest, enhanced by metaphor and symbol. The texture of the fairytales is rich, magical and beautiful.

Eleaser Melitinski writes simply, “The fairytale begins with the break up of one family and ends with the establishment of another.” The hero or heroine moves from the family of origin and, by the end of the tale, is established in a new home with a new “family” (the fairytales never pass the rite of passage of the wedding.) This definition excludes stories such as “Red Riding Hood” or “Babes in the Wood”, which Holbek rather categorises as “children’s fairytales”. 

Debate about generic definitions bedevil folkloristic scholarship. It is generally agreed that the fairytale, as defined above, is primarily an oral genre, although since the Middle Ages some stories and fragments of fairytales have found their way into literature, and the mutual interaction of written and oral sources is complex. We don’t know when, or where, the genre originated. The Middle Ages is sometimes suggested as a date post quam, or age post quam, for the fairytales, but motifs or episodes occurring in fairytales are found in classical literature – for instance, “The Labours of Hercules” is a motif which occurs commonly in fairytales. This suggests that fairytales of some kind were known long before the Middle Ages. It is for obvious reasons very difficult to date oral tradition accurately before it begins to be documented either in writing or with sound-recording equipment – both relatively late arrivals in the history of homo loquens.

Whatever the date of the origins of fairytales in oral tradition, we know when the first collections of the genre were made by writers or editors – and the story gets more complicated from then on. In France, Charles Perrault’s Contes de Ma Mère L’Oye was published in 1697, and in 1812 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their immensely influential Kinder und Hausmärchen. These are landmarks in the history of the fairytale but for different if not entirely mutually exclusive reasons. Perrault’s collection is essentially a literary work based on stories he had heard in the oral tradition, which he rewrote according to his own taste, in his own style, working as a creative writer or artist. Neither the style nor necessarily the content of his stories reflect what he heard in the oral tradition. The Brothers Grimm, on the other hand, made definite attempts to document their sources faithfully – of course they failed, but their approach was more scientific and scholarly than artistic. They can be regarded a proto-folklorists, or even the fathers of modern folklore studies.

Perrault’s tales are closer to the sub-group of stories designated the “art fairytales”. These are stories which are invented afresh by writers, based loosely on fairytale ideas and motifs. Hans Christian Andersen is the best-known writer of “art fairytales”. Some of his famous stories, such as “Big Claus and Little Claus”, are fairytales drawn from oral tradition. Others, such as “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Mermaid” or “The Little Match Girl”, are entirely of his own invention (although the idea of the mermaid who comes onto dry land is found in oral tradition).

Yet another sub-genre of fairytale is the satirical anti-fairytale. Readers of my generation will remember the feminist reworkings of fairytales published by Attic Press in the 1980s, and the postmodern tales of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. These usually took the form of satirical rewriting of stories which, it was alleged, had a misogynistic attitude or presented girls and women in a way inconsistent with contemporary feminist ideals. The sources for the feminist fairytales were usually the most popular versions in the storybook tradition: “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Snow White” and “Bluebeard”, for example. It’s an interesting anomaly that while the vast majority of fairytales in the oral tradition focus on male heroes – stories like “The Dragon Slayer” – the stories which are most popular in literary tradition, and especially in the most modern storybook culture, are the handful of tales with female protagonists – stories like “Cinderella”. What this move away from masculine fairytales to feminine fairytales indicates about readers, tastes, and society is open to speculation. The transition begins to happen with writers such as Perrault, who favoured the feminine fairytales. (Possibly what it means is that girls are more likely to read collections of fairytales than are boys, whereas in the traditional storytelling communities men were more likely to tell and listen to fairytales than were women – and they preferred heroic stories about male adventurers, to, say, “Cinderella”. As Robin Flower reports in The Western Isle, men simply dismissed the “Cinderella” tales as rubbish fit for children.)

The practice of rewriting fairytales, whether to satirise them or recalibrate their themes and tropes in the light of contemporary attitudes, predates feminism and postmodernism, as the volume under review, Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned, ably demonstrates. It is a selection of thirty-six tales by nineteenth century French authors associated with the “decadent” movement of the fin de siècle. “What these tales share is their decadent themes: decline and degeneration, anxiety and distress associated with the incursion of the modern and the industrial, atypical gender expression and non-normative sexuality.”

For a variety of reasons which are discussed in the lengthy and excellent introduction, the fairytale – or the “art fairytale” – flourished at the end of the nineteenth century in France. Many writers of the so-called fin de siècle or decadent movement wrote versions of the tales best-known in France – and, by the way, in most of the western world. The decadent movement was a reaction to the rationalism and realism of nineteenth century French writers (Zola, Balzac), and to industrialisation and modern progress in general. “Decadence could be called a philosophical position which took issue with the celebration of progress.” It was politically conservative, although stylistically experimental and innovative (an unusual alliance). The decadents were afraid of change and modernisation, and “were appalled by democratization”. (Think of Evelyn Waugh – although he is not classified as a decadent, and did not rewrite fairytales, Brideshead Revisited is a fairytale of a kind, as is Decline and Fall.)

The introduction, jointly written by editors Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert, is fascinating, and in itself makes this a book worth reading. What of the selected “fairytales”?

Alfonse Daudet’s “The Fairies of France”, dating from 1873, sets the tone. It refers to the Melusine legend (which is not actually a fairytale, by anyone’s definition, but a legend of a mermaid-type supernatural being). Melusina is being tried in court for arson: she tried to burn Paris. She introduces herself as the last fairy in France. Where have they all gone, she asks? “We were the country’s poetry, its faith, its honesty, and its youth.” She goes on to answer her own question: “Paris is what killed us.”

Farmers loved us. They venerated us … But the century marched on. Railways arrived. Tunnels were dug, ponds filled in, and so many trees felled that before long were were lost as to where to put ourselves. Little by little the country folk stopped believing in us. When we used to rap on his shutters in the evening, Robin said, “it’s the wind” and went back to sleep. Women came to do their washing in our ponds.

The story is a lament for the decline and fall of the fairy faith in France. The lament for the loss of the beliefs which imbued the landscape – the ponds, the trees – with magic, the laying of the blame for the decline in folk beliefs on the shoulders of science and progress, have a familiar ring to Irish ears. How often have we heard that rural electrification in Ireland chased away the fairies? The decadents were cynical about progress, but their vision of the past as a poetic rural idyll is not unlike the view of the folklorists of the late nineteenth and – in the Irish case – early twentieth century. As the editors mention in the introduction, the academic folklorists, inspired by a scholarly desire to explore human art and culture, as well as a certain romantic love of the past, used the tools of modernity, rational scientific methodology, and, one could add, the latest technical equipment, to “save” the last fairies, or the last of the fairylore, as they viewed it. Indeed, the ideas in Daudet’s little story find parallels in the thinking of the father of Irish folklore studies, Séamas Ó Duilearga, or any of those who established the Folklore of Ireland Society or the Irish Folklore Commission.

Anatole France’s “The Seven Wives of Bluebeard” is a long, clever piece of pseudo-scholarship and history. In it, he satirises folklore theorists of the late nineteenth century, including the famous Max Müller, highly regarded for a time – Queen Victoria admired him immensely – who insisted that all fairytales were solar myths. According to this analysis, Red Riding Hood is the dawn and the wolf the night, for example. Bluebeard is the sun. This piece is highly amusing if you are aware of the contemporary scholarly – and pop-scholarly – background, but possibly of less interest to anyone who is not familiar with the extremely imaginative but reductionist theories of Max Müller and some of his contemporaries. (In France, in particular, theory tended to take precedence over the practical empirical methodologies employed by researchers in German and the Nordic countries; one brilliant and plausible theory of the meaning or even origin of tales conveniently rendered redundant the need for painstaking collecting and research. Most of the brilliant theories have been disproved. It is interesting that Anatole France spotted the absurdity of some of them.) The stylistic devices of this piece – the use of absurd footnotes, references to archival documents – would be comfortably at home in works of high modernism (such as At Swim Two Birds.) One is reminded that these classifications are always post quam, and in practice literary movements are always overlapping – Anatole France is in this piece employing the classic techniques of postmodernism, although he wrote it in 1909.

While some of the stories or pieces in this collection are highly sophisticated (“cleverality” is a stock attribute of decadent literature), several are accessible and amusing in a more robust and obvious way – which sometimes means that they are not sharp enough to be really funny. For example, Willy’s “Fairytales for the Disillusioned”, which gives the collection its title, presents a colloquium of fairytale characters who treat us to sequels to their fairytales of origin, as it were. Bearing in mind that the real fairytales all end with a happy wedding but never venture further than the wedding day, these are perhaps somewhat predictable, given the cynicism of decadent writers. So, Cinderella reports:

I sacrificed myself for my beastly sisters … and they beat me. Then I fell for a cobbler, who stiffed me in turn. And my children imitated their father. Such is the destiny of women; to keep house and take knocks while dreaming of adventures that never come.

Sleeping Beauty is similarly disillusioned by the real world:

I was sleeping in the castle. The prince came looking for me, although I hadn’t called him. I was waiting for love, and I began loving the first one to come forward in its name. Alas! After only a few days the prince was bored and began to yawn. ... When he finally fell asleep, even with my caresses I was unable to wake him. And in his insulting sleep, he dreamt of other women!

Fairytales are often told at bedtime, to ease children into sleep and dreams. The stories in this collection are not soporific, nor are they recommended reading for children, unless they are prodigious geniuses of a cynical and satirical disposition. They are stimulating, thought-provoking, entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the history of the fairytale, that most fascinating of all folklore genres, it is indispensable. For a writer, it reveals new vistas, new possibilities. I confess that I found the book astonishing, enlightening and inspiring: I had not been aware of the existence of this particular sub-stratum of fairytale.

One question which the collection raises is why choose the fairytale? There are many genres of folktale and literary story which lend themselves to satirical reworking or ideological renovation. Indeed, from time to time a new version of an old novel appears – for instance, On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s reworking of Howard’s End in homage to EM Forster, or Bridget Jones’s Diary, loosely modelled on Pride and Prejudice. Recalibrations of novels in the form of plays are common enough. But it is the fairytale above all traditional oral genres and perhaps above all narrative genres whatsoever that is most often selected by writers for updating, renovation – or mockery. And it is a relatively small handful of the enormous quantity of fairytales documented – at least four hundred and fifty different stories ‑ which are chosen for renovation, either cosmetic or radical. The focus on “Cinderella”, “Red Riding Hood”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Bluebeard” has to do with accidents of tradition: they are tales which were selected by the early compilers of anthologies, in particular Charles Perrault. These stories and their motifs – the handsome prince, the sleeping princess, the irresistible frock, the cloth of plenty, the seven-league boots, the glass mountain, magic slippers etc – are familiar to most of the population of the western world. If satirising a text, or remodelling it, it is always best to pick one that is widely familiar. The audience needs to be able to subtract the original from the renovation, in a sort of arithmetic of the imagination, if they are to “get it” (and, incidentally, understand how clever the new writer is!)

But there is probably an even deeper and less cynical reason for the choice of fairytale as model for new styles of art, thought and feeling, and that has to do with the nature and form of the original oral fairytales. They are meaningful in an elemental way. They recount, poetically and artistically, in a rich code of metaphors and symbols, the basic journey of human beings from childhood to adulthood. They are, in short, both simple and profound. Their structure is elementary and unfussy, their ideas basic and universal, their style beautiful and attractive. It is because of these attributes that they survive through the ever-changing time and place, transferring from medium to medium – from the most basic narrative medium, speech, to manuscript, print, sound record, film – from art form to art form. And it is for this reason that they can be successfully deployed to express a multiplicity of ideologies, philosophies and attitudes to life.

1/6/2017

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a novelist, short story writer and literary critic.

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