Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A.S. Byatt and That Fairy Tale Feeling

After promising to provide more exploratory posts this year, I am kicking off 2013 with something I have been working on for a while, trying to find the best words and phrases to translate my vague feelings into something tangible...

Please let me know your thoughts! Not just on the content, I'd also like to hear your opinions on the length as this piece is over 1000 words. Does this work on a blog?

A.S. Byatt and That Fairy Tale Feeling

I have been puzzling over 'that fairy tale feeling', the one that takes hold of me whenever I read the fairy tales I grew up with, instantly transforming me into a child again. After puzzling away for a good long time, I started to wonder whether 'that fairy tale feeling' is a certain lack of emotion, or sense of detachment.

These terms may sound quite negative, or like an accusation, but I am referring to writing style rather than substance. I think it exists subtly within most stories, although I would say it is most recognisable in the Grimm's collections, as they are based on the oral tradition. This detachment allows the stories to exist as  just something that happened, once upon a time. 

Detachment in fairy tales

I came across A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book as I began writing this, and was delighted to find Byatt had put across her ideas about fairy tales through her characters, who were also struggling to articulate 'that' feeling:
Griselda said that her aunt's fairy stories frightened her. So did Hans Andersen, he made her cry. But not this sort of tale. She didn't know why. It should be scary, there was a lot of blood. Toby said these were memories of some other time, long ago, and he agreed, they weren't scary. 
"They are just like that," said Griselda, feeling for what intrigued her, not finding it. [pp 51-2]
They are what they are, just something that happened, once upon a time. In this quote, Griselda has seen the Brothers Grimm version of 'Cinderella' acted by marionettes, and recognises it, yet doesn't recognise it, as she is used to the version by Charles Perrault, 'whose stories were written for young ladies, and usually had fairy godmothers.'

When fairy tales are 'designed', regardless of who they are designed for, that sense of detachment is in danger of becoming lost due to the intent within the words, the desire to steer emotions and beliefs towards a particular way of thinking. The Grimms may have had an audience in mind, albeit different to Perrault's, but their 'detachment' allowed Griselda to see the story through her own eyes rather than through theirs, and saved her the pain of emotional blackmail that she feels from reading Andersen.

image sourced here
Later, Griselda goes on to study fairy tales at Cambridge; she wants to know why they aren't just myths, how the versions of tales are the same and also different, and what the rules are that they follow. She discusses her decision to do this with her friend Julian:
"That's another thing I want to study. I don't think the real tales do frighten you. I think you accept the rules. They work in a fenced world which isn't the real world, where nothing ever really changes. Witches get punished, and goose-girls become princesses, and what was lost is restored." 
"I don't know. I was particularly horrified as a small brat by the eyeballs stuck on the thorns, or the dead men impaled on a fence round the glass hill, or the witch in the barrel full of nails." 
"I would suggest it was a kind of gleeful horror? Whereas H.C. Andersen's stories do hurt the reader. The Little Mermaid walking on knives and losing her tongue." [p488]
Byatt, A.S., The Children's Book. London: Chatto & Windus, 2009.

Griselda's opinions on Andersen seem to mirror Byatt's own. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, she says:
From very early I had an unthinking category in my mind of the "real"(authentic) fairy tale which centred on the brothers Grimm, and some of the Nordic stories collected by Asbjørnsen. It included some of Perrault and some English tales - "Jack and the Beanstalk", for instance. These tales might be funny or horrible or weird or abrupt, but were never disturbing, they never twisted your spirit with sick terror as Andersen so easily did. They had a discrete, salutary flatness. [italics my own]
So Byatt/Griselda states that the 'detachment' is due to an understanding that the story takes place in a world with generally accepted rules. Byatt has named what I call 'lack of feeling' as 'flatness'. She also says, 'Character feels wrong in folktales' after explaining that it would be impossible to actually fall in love with Little Red Riding Hood because she has a series of boxed in, finite gestures. She talks about the link between the 'impersonal oral and the 'authored' story with psychology,' and explains how the Grimms tip the balance more towards oral, and Andersen towards psychological, which is why his stories are more damaging. 

We know that the Grimms, who first published Kinder-und Haus-Märchen in 1812, went back and re-wrote their stories in later years to imbue them with more family-friendly, middle-class values. However, because they remain more true to the oral tradition, their stories retain that sense of 'detachment' that is lost in a more authored story.

1857 cover. Source.

Detachment in the modern world

This 'detachment' is relevant beyond my attempt to understand a vague feeling that came over me as a child: it is relevant to those people in contemporary life who are part of current debates, and those who continue writing in the fairy tale tradition.

It has been much reported in the news recently how parents are up in arms about the 'damaging' effects that fairy tales are supposed to have on children, because they are full of cruelty, murder and violent justice. I can see where they are coming from, but I don't believe their claims take the bigger picture into consideration. 

It seems to me that fairy tales with this 'flatness' or 'detachment' allow a child to understand that what transpires is just something that happened, once upon a time. They may not guide a child to take sides with the good guys, but then again these tales aren't always in black and white. They're not Aesop's Fables with a clear moral at the end; their original purpose was entertainment, but equally, that doesn't mean there aren't one or two lessons to pick up along the way. 'Fairy tales' has been used as an umbrella heading in this attack that doesn't take into consideration the wide variety of stories out there.  

The 'Shrek' movies gave new personalities to popular princesses.
Image sourced here
'Detachment' also allows new authors of fairy tales and fairy tale inspired work to re-examine the stories. Writing in the 'authored' style we fill in the gaps that weren't considered gaps when we heard these stories as children, and ask questions that don't need to be answered to keep the original tale credible. We extend them, look at them from different angles and get under characters' skins in a way that perhaps wouldn't be so possible if these stories were completely authored or 'attached' in the first place.

And why do we writers and readers continue to delve into these worlds, which are 'flat', 'boxed in' and where 'character feels wrong'? I think the true magic of this detachment is that it has allowed us all, no matter our age, to be permanently enchanted by events that just happened, once upon a time.


  1. This is great! The 'flatness' is definitely a part of what makes a fairy tale and it's certainly part of the reason these tales are always being adapted and reshaped.
    I really enjoyed this and personally don't mind the length. I think generally, a healthy mix of longish and shortish posts are whats best in blogs. (Of course, my own always seem to be on the long side, but I'm new to blogging so I don't really know how much that's working.)

    1. Thank you!
      Although, because you've always done long posts on your blog you come to expect it...maybe consistency is the thing so people don't go 'whoa, essay!' and stop reading! Plus your blog posts are always so interesting and well written, I'm hooked from the first word and always discover something new and fascinating :)

  2. This was a very thoughtful article. I really appreciate you discussing Byatt's observations as I admire her skill (and I think 'power' would also be appropriate) with language. I've only made it just over halfway through The Children's Book, but this is because I find her language almost too rich to stay with for extended periods. But she undeniably has the power to enchant.

    Even more than your talking about Byatt I appreciate your attempt to understand or explore that feeling, the 'vague feeling that came over me as a child'. I think we'll always be trying to understand that feeling, and it does us good to hear others recognizing it.

    You might enjoy reading some of my blog, The Black Dionysia, where I'm posting chapters from a fairy story I've written.

    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment! I whole heartedly agree with you about her writing; 'rich' is the perfect word to describe it! Especially having so many different story lines at once, it can seem a bit dense...but in a good way!

      I think 'that feeling' links in with what you talked about in your article for SSiG, of 'familiar otherness', which I very much enjoyed reading. I'm definitely going to check out your blog, if there's a monkey in the attic, I'm there!

  3. First: Not a bad length, at all. 1,000 words doesn't read that hard. Youv'e done it perfectly, too, by dividing it up into segments and bolding reading markers. Makes for easy and undaunting reading.

    Second: I HAVE to read A.S. Byatt this year, just have to. "Still Life" is sitting on my shelf, but I think I'd like to start with "The Children's Book," and then "Possession."

    Third: Perfectly named, even in the absence of naming, the "something that just happened, once upon a time." What _is_ that feeling? It's almost something that has to be explained in the negative. And you're right, once you get a particular author, or voice, behind it, it starts to diminish.

    Though I don't think it's accurate that Anderson's tales are damaging, I've no doubt that's how Ms. Byatt experienced them. There's always something redemptive at the end. This actually ties in neatly with a discussion I was having with Jenna St. Hilaire on her blog about beauty and ugliness! About the value of suffering--if it is not meaningless but sacrificial--and how in that way ugliness can be a type of beauty. But there we are--opening the flood gates of psychology.

    Unlike in the folktales where things just ARE.

    I _think_ I was touching upon something similar in this article (http://www.fairytalemagazine.com/2012/11/the-ordinary-and-concrete-in-fairy.html). At least, it is related. But, as is the way with fairy tales, and one of the reasons why I love them, one germ of thought or an inkling of experience can breed a lifetime of interesting discussions!

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I got the idea for bolding passages from you, as your posts always read so well...I hope you don't mind!

      I've never read anything of Byatt's before, I don't think she even popped on to my radar before I saw the cover for this book. I want to read more now :)

      Ah! That's a great way of putting it, explaining it in the negative...my head is hurting just trying to think about whether its possible to have a negative without knowing the positive, and what that would mean...I wonder if there's a psychologist or logician somewhere who's done this before...

      I haven't read enough Andersen to make a proper judgement myself, but I can understand why the violence and pain in a more psychological tale would be _able_ to do more damage. Perhaps what she means is that in real life, suffering doesn't always lead to something good, that redemption isn't always available? How funny that you've been having this discussion too, as I've been puzzling over the same thing having just finished reading The Water Babies; this dilemma about beauty and ugliness is exactly what happens to the main character: Tom is a chimney sweep who, after seeing a clean young girl, realises he is 'dirty' and he ends up drowning in order to become 'clean'. Being a water baby seems to purge him of his ugliness and after time he is able to return, clean as a whistle.
      The flood gates have indeed opened!

      How did I miss your post on EC?! I'll go and read it now, thanks!

    2. Now I'm reconsidering what I said. Traditional fairy tales like Grimms' have a sort of "oh well, that's what happens to bad people" mentality while Anderson's inspire much more empathy. Could that be what she meant by damaging? I think I just recoiled at that negative-sounding word. But it's true, Anderson gets much more into a reader's psychology. The girl without hands versus the little mermaid walking on knives. It IS different, though I can't put my finger on why at present.

      Oh, the Water Babies! That's on my list with Byatt!

      I think in our reality, there are many truths that have to be explained in the negative. It reminds me of Eastern Orthodox iconography, in which God is depicted as a black spot because he is only knowable in the unknown. Right there--now there's some fairy tale similarities if I've ever heard them, with the sense of the "other" and the unknowable.

    3. P.S. About the bolding/highlight . . . I picked that up from several blogging tips articles. It's by no means unique to me!