Once Upon a Time . . .
Is it because I’m teaching Children’s Literature this semester that I see fairy tales everywhere I look and listen?
I just finished listening to the audiobook recording of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, a remarkable novel and lovely to listen to (in Virginia Leishman’s recording). Possession is a poetic love story–a love story between and about poets–with literary scholars populating the cast of characters and intelligent musings about the power of words to name things, of poetry to reveal and conceal things, and about the nature of attraction between the reader and the author whose works s/he loves. One of the central themes of the novel is an epic poem on the legend of the mermaid Melusine:
who functions as a symbol of feminine completeness and mystery. Her tale is told as an epic poem and as an allegory for the life of the poetess who was compelled to write her version of the Melusine legend. Melusine appears in the novel alongside other fairy stories of Brittainy and England, as ways of interacting with and understanding the world and the passions that move people in it. So, as the novel marched on, I was making mental notes about fairy stories and their telling in the dark months of November and December and the ritualistic incantation of otherworldly tales at the moments when the seasons change, when legend has it that the doors between the worlds are temporarily open.
And where A. S. Byatt’s work is very grown-up and sophisticated, the Roald Dahl book, The Witches, I’m reading with my EN201 class is also a fairy tale. Here, too, the narrator wants you to know that surfaces are deceiving, can be manipulated. There is a “real” underneath the surface that the listener of the tale is compelled to recognize and un-cover. (like poor Melusine in her bath. But these witches, Dahl lets us know, have it coming to them.)
Fairy stories and tales, with their consistent structural elements, their foundational mythologies, their mirroring of the processes of human development (depending on whether you look to Propp or Bettelheim for your inspiration) are so useful. Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Martian Chronicles, chastises those citizens of the future who refute and destroy fairy tales because they are fanciful and untrue. The technocrats who see contradiction and lies in tales, Bradbury suggests, don’t understand, can’t see (or are afraid of) the human truths that these stories reveal: truths about love, fear, greed, envy; what constitutes success and failure in a human life.
My Children’s Literature course does not focus exclusively on fairy tales. But I think they’re going to come up again and again. One of these days: an entire course dedicated to fairy tales and their “precipitates” in contemporary literature. And we’ll write our own tales–or maybe, with Melusine, our own tails.