Unless we are unlucky we get hooked on stories before we are old enough to ask ourselves why, or to distinguish one kind of story from another. But we tend to remember the old tales of magic not necessarily fairies in a special way. They are part of the furniture of our mental attics and cellars. Remembering them is like remembering our first taste of sugar crystals, or avocado, or vanilla. A quiddity of pleasure. We recognise that these tales are endless shape-shifters, within definite bounds.
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Unless we are unlucky we get hooked on stories before we are old enough to ask ourselves why, or to distinguish one kind of story from another. But we tend to remember the old tales of magic not necessarily fairies in a special way.
They are part of the furniture of our mental attics and cellars. Remembering them is like remembering our first taste of sugar crystals, or avocado, or vanilla. A quiddity of pleasure. We recognise that these tales are endless shape-shifters, within definite bounds. We like to believe that "our" version is definitive, and know it is not. In The European Folktale the Swiss scholar Max Luthi gives one of the best descriptions of the essential qualities of the tale as opposed to the myth, or the legend, or the authored fantasy for children or adults.
He says tales are characterised by "depthlessness", a brilliant, abstract mosaic of isolated objects and colours - red, gold, blue, rings, fish, swords, cauldrons - and an assumption that their world is the whole world, though it is recognisably not the world we inhabit.
They make, he says, "a provisional view of humankind and the world as a whole". All the great collectors of folktales, from the Italians, Basile and Straparola, through Perrault to the Grimms, introduced authorial voices and habits of mind.
Maria Tatar has now edited one of the most sumptuous coffee-table books of tales I have ever seen, also for Norton. I wondered at first who were its intended readers. It mixes folk favourites - Russian and Scandinavian and English with Perrault and Grimm - but adds five authored tales by Andersen. It has footnotes and variants of some tales and parts of tales, biographies of writers and illustrators, and an excellent bibliography of further reading.
It is at first sight too scholarly even for enterprising children. But it does contain almost all the tales which haunted me from my wartime childhood and it is a thing of beauty. It has a magically shimmering cover that changes from puce to gold as you turn it, and is satisfactorily, simultaneously ancient and modern. A perfect present for a serious-minded child, or curious adult. The "depthless" matter of fairy tales has been squeezed into all kinds of shoes and rings, stuffed down chimneys and minced into sausages by commentators, elaborators and disintegrators.
Why is all this depressing rather than amusing or informative? Partly at least because Orenstein, like most of her cited texts, takes an automatic cultural-studies attitude to the tale and its nature. It has been made up by "society" and it has designs on us - which change as "society" changes, from primitive sexual indoctrination to complex feminist messages, satire and consumer jokes.
We know better than the Victorians. We are enlightened by "subversive" and "revisionary" readings. Orenstein accepts the assumption that Red Riding Hood and Cinderella were originally role models - and largely accepts the modern assumption that heroines of tales were passive, sweet, instruments of male fates and objects of male desires.
Tatar asks one of the pertinent questions about that: why have we taken to our hearts Cinderella in the ashes, rather than the resourceful Donkeyskin, who is escaping the incestuous desires of her father? Angela Carter wrote great, modern, authored fairy tales because she wrote them out of her own fantasies or so she said. She was never a role-model maker, either way. Both Disney, the revisionists including the satirists and the commentators have tended to snuff out the life of the tales that once scuttled and slithered through our minds.
Voices have been raised against tales - the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, comparing them with myths, said that they were lies and simplifications, "a false longing for the writing of myths".
His quarrel is mostly with Hans Andersen, who did combine a dangerously enchanting approximation to the narrative necessity of fairy tale with a coercive personal and religious message.
For Carter, the world of earthy dreams and forest dangers has been superseded - whether we like it or not - by video culture and soaps. She too finds the vitality of the other world in virtual realities - internet true stories of space abductions, the return from the dead of Princess Diana and Elvis.
Perhaps we have killed the old tales with saccharine and dissection.
The annotated classic fairy tales
Into the woods with Little Red Riding Hood, up the beanstalk with Jack, and down through the depths of the ocean with the Little Mermaid, this volume takes us through many of the familiar paths of our folkloric heritage. Gathering together twenty-five of our most cherished fairy tales, including enduring classics like "Beauty and the Beast," "Jack and the Beanstalk," " ," and "Bluebead," Tatar expertly guides readers through the stories, exploring their historical origins, their cultural complexities, and their psychological effects. As Tatar shows, few of us are aware of how profoundly fairy tales have influenced our culture. Disseminated across a wide variety of historical and contemporary media ranging from opera and drama to cinema and advertising, they constitute a vital part of our storytelling capital.