Tuesday 2 May 2017

On Fairy Tales - by Gillian Polack

Last month I gave a speech on fairy tales to the Australian Fairy Tale Society. This is not that speech. Be very thankful! This is, however, some of the thoughts leading to it.

Many writers and tellers of tales throw fairy story re-tellings at me. What I’ve noticed is that fairy stories (and some of the retellings!) develop their own history, which is not always the history of that tale. Sometimes it’s not even close. Today, I want to think about why some things are close and some aren’t. This is not, then, the history of a fairy tale, or even a group of fairy tales. It’s how we look at fairy tales from different views and find different stories. All these variants are part of the history of the fairy tale. 

It all starts with a specific bunch of people (often blokes) who collected tales and codified tales and analysed tales. 

This beginning is long after the stories began to be popular. Very long after. It was after the first wave, second wave, third wave and (possibly) fourth wave of literary tellings of fairy and folk stories. I regard the first wave as the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, the second wave as the late Middle Ages and the third waves as the courts of France later still. The court tales may be one wave, or they may be two. 

There are plenty of other ways of assigning periods to fairy tales. The important thing is that storytellers were collecting specific stories for their personal use long before the Grimm brothers were born. Marie de France told her lais and the seventeenth century tellers of works like the Pentameron came first.

What this means is that Europe has focussed on fairy tales on and off for a very long time. When we talk about nineteenth and twentieth century collectors, we’re marking a new phase in an old phenomenon. The critical thing about those nineteenth and twentieth century collectors is that they were as much focussed on collecting and collection as on telling. Their perspectives have given the twentieth century analysis of fairy tales a district flavour.

I did a course on märchen and other tale types at university many years ago, in another life. We focussed on types of tales and how they were told, how they were broken down into motifs, which cultures used what and how. This is one of the academic approaches to fairy tales. It builds on collections of tales and of motif and on codification of tales and motifs and it looks at form and content. This is one of the results of the nineteenth and twentieth century approach. There’s a track from collectors such as the Grimms and Andrew Lang, through the codifiers (Vladimir Propp, Stith Thompson and Andrew Lang being the ones we mostly looked at when I was nineteen) and to studies by some of the experts. 

Not all of the experts, for this is not the only path. It’s like the roads in the tale of Thomas of Ercildoune: there is a fair one, a twisted and difficult one, and one that might go anywhere but actually leads to fairyland. When I was nineteen, the path to heaven (the difficult path) was through Propp and the motif indices. Now, of course, I’m a writer, and the path to fairyland is the only one.
My studies have taken me to quite different places than those I trod when I was in my teens. What this means is that, although I read work by recent experts in fairy tales and other folklore (Jack Zipes is a favourite of mine) and that they do fascinating things, I’m not longer up-to-date with their approaches and methods. This is a shame, for I’ve finally reached the point where I can see just where what I learned fits in a much wider perspective. I can see how European it is and how linked to a series of literary events, starting with those later collections.

So, where were we? Tales were collected. Tales were codified. Tales were studied.

Let’s bring that European perspective into it and see how it limits things. Vladimir Propp started with tales close to home, so many of the studies have a Russian bias. The Grimm brothers generally used easily accessible sources, so their tales also don’t reflect the universality I was once told they did. This is why the path to academic fairy tale study is thorny and difficult. It’s complicated, and it changes as our understanding changes. Culture is a dynamic creature and fairy tales are always affected by this dynamism.

Analysis these days is much work by many scholars: it’s a whole academic discipline. Quite a few scholars take the traditional path and work through Propp and others and then add their own work. I suspect there’s a comfort in the traditional and that people who love fairy stories want that comfort. What they do with that path is create a narrative about fairy tales that has a European base and bias. It sometimes acknowledges this and discusses the restrictions the bias imposes, and it sometimes doesn’t.

Others find joy in researching the path an actual story has taken, from its first being written down in a particular place and time until it reaches a form they can define as the standard form for that tale. Writers often use these studies like kaleidoscopes and create new visions of old stories simply by the twist of a wrist. My novel, Ms Cellophane, is a variant of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, set in Canberra and featuring a middle-aged woman whose curse is a failed career, rather than a spindle and whose evil fairy is her ex-boss. I alert readers to the fairy tale by the inclusion of a magic mirror. This turns it into my story, my re-telling.

There are modern writers who do their research (including doctorates) on a specific fairy tale (Kate Forsyth just tackled Rapunzel) where they write their novel and also write a book that explores the origins of the story. The dream is to play with folklore and to explore its variants. This fits into one of the academic views: that there is no single perfectly correct text. These writers shift their work closer to the academic norm by giving it a very thorough research underpinning, but are still playing with the kaleidoscope, in reality.

So many books I’ve seen recently take the tale of one particular tale and trace it back and across and around and find out what it’s done in its career. A lot of their research rests on the Grimms of this world and on the codifiers and on earlier academics. I think of it as the Fairy Tale Fortress.
Some are like the writers who want to add variants of their own. A few pursue a single ancient text. An ur-text. This led to scientists using biological descriptions to persuade the world that these ur-texts not only exist but go back thousands of years into our past. Their family trees for tales don’t allow for the complexity of the history of story, so I don’t place any faith in the ancientness of this tale or that.
One fascinating but very real problem with tales is that some cultures don’t divide material into fairy tales as we do. We can damage these cultures when we try to force their stories into a fairy tale model.
The first set of tales written down by an Indigenous Australian was David Unaipon’s collection and it has very little in common with the children’s writers of the same period who wrote their adaptations of Indigenous stories and their interpretation of the Australian landscape to create what they thought were New Australian Fairy Tales. Unaipon’s stories encode lore and law. They’re not simple re-tellings of interesting stories. When writers take what they think of as Aboriginal tales and tell them, divorcing the stories from their origins and their original function and their original owners they not only damage the cultures the tales come from. Doing this without understanding the role of the stories in the original culture says “our belief that fairy stories are universal to humankind is more important than any role these particular stories might have in your culture.”

David Unaipon Image courtesy: http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/

Songlines mean that tales in Australia change according to country. Some of these stories have been classified as fairy tales according to some definitions and  a lot of people told them as fairy tales until quite recently. There are assumptions that rest under these classifications and some of these assumptions are worrying. 

A single tale assumes a single teller, not the complex cultural negotiations that explain language and lore and land within Indigenous Australian communities. It assumes that the form is correct, even if the story has been transformed to match European tales. It assumes that the collector/s have the authority to tell the tale. It’s a vast and troubled subject and I’m not even a beginner in this field. One thing I know is that modern fairy tale studies are capable of destroying parts of the cultures by trying to translate tales into the European standards we know and love. 

Whose tales are we telling? Do we have the right to re-shape them? When I gave my talk to the Fairy Tale Society, at this stage I explained that we can’t know these things unless we ask. Research, research and more research. Respectful research. Research that considers consequences.

We borrow fairy tales from many cultures other than our own. English-language cultures and the cultures related to many other European languages and also to some Asian languages (Japanese is one) see that this is a legitimate thing to do. This is a big question in the annals of cultural appropriation. I can’t even begin to address it here. All I can do is raise the subject, suggest that research is a powerful tool and that understanding is not an optional extra, and move on.

Let me move onto tales that were inspired by fairy tales rather than actually being folk stories of a particular kind. 

Quite a few of the stories we think of as fairy tales are actually court tales, especially those from the 17th and 18th centuries. They’re written for reading aloud or for publication, and some of the writers (Mme D’Aulnoy, for example) are very well known indeed. These stories are very different in form to the fairy tale studied elsewhere. They’re the opposite of the short märchen in so many ways. Culturally, structurally, in terms of audience and underlying themes. This is much studied, particularly in the volumes devoted to the history of a single story.

Less studied are the tales families own. 

When I teach things Medieval, I like to point out that we often have personal versions of the fairy tale. Our own fairy tales. My family has a story about an ancestor that some of us tell and others avoid as being embarrassing. It’s a bit like Richard I’s ancestral one, in that they are more motifs than stories and help us develop a sense of the family. These snippets fit what we need to tell about ourselves. My family needed something quite different to Richard I. Richard I boasted about his ancestress the devil. Mine is much more ordinary, for my cousin told me that we claim royal ancestry. Both stories are equally untrue. Truth isn’t the point of them.

Quite a few important families in the Middle Ages had these kind of stories. They were used in different ways for different reasons and different audiences. The simple codification doesn’t show this clearly, but the moment you read the tales themselves, it’s there. Fairy tales have a deep cultural basis. 

When we read the story of Melusine and think “What a nice story about a fairy!” it’s not immediately obvious that Melusine herself was one of these demon ancestors. She was written into a long tale in the alter Middle Ages. That’s the path that reached the English world. 

Melusine has other paths: there are local stories in various parts of France that don’t owe their lives to Jean d’Arras’ romance about her. Following a clear path is easier, but it can lose us so many types of story. It’s about rural France as much as it’s about Australia.

This is a complicated subject. It can become even more complicated. 

My favourite set of complications was when I applied all the factors I’ve talked about in this article to the various stories of King Arthur. That’s another story for another time. This essay has been quite long enough, and it’s only skimmed a part of the surface.


Penny Dolan said...

"Skimmed part of the surface?" Yes, but how well, and with the interesting Australian slant on European tales too.

This is such a wonderful post, Gillian. It makes me wish I'd heard the lecture!

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you!

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post, Gillian - thank you!