Thursday, 22 March 2012

Once upon a time there was a revival

Even Grown-ups like pretending
 The story ‘Five Hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany’ has been riding high in the ‘most read’ sidebar on Guardian Books for about a week now. It’s hard to imagine this having been the case five years ago. Let’s set aside for now the bubble-bursting interjection from folklorists that firstly, very few of these five hundred are new and secondly, they are just the tip of the unstudied iceberg of fairy tales waiting for their folklorist princes to kiss them into life. What is interesting about them is the interest in them.

Until recently the thrust of any mainstream media comment on fairy tales was usually coming from the ‘PC’-obsessed camp: either those outraged-of-the-21st-century types fearing traditional tales would give their children blood-soaked nightmares, or the ‘PC gone mad’ hecklers defending children’s blatant fascination with the macabre, full-blooded nature of such stories. Many fairy tales have been re-written, either in earnest or with an ironic PC eye, for modern children. Roald Dahl’s efforts in Revolting Rhymes are famous for being funnier and possibly more violent and subversive than the originals, but there are plenty of sanitised facsimiles out there.

But the new obsession is nothing to do with provoking the little ones. It appears to be largely about replacing glittery vampires and trashy werewolves as a lore-heavy mode of telling a passionate tale ostensibly aimed at teenagers. There’s a theory afoot (not just now, but pretty much since Freud and Jung) that we can safely explore the riskier areas of the human psyche by transferring our human dilemmas of the soul into a realm other than ours: one in which things exist such as sirens (seductresses, not emergency services), or witches who can turn men into pigs, or wolves that can convincingly imitate grandmothers. Turn a romance into an unlikely one, between a girl and a supernatural being, and it becomes more appealing for its sheer impossibility, rather like the alleged real-life avoidance tactic of falling for the gay/married/World-of-Warcraft-obsessed man.

However, it is not just teenagers who are drinking down this re-branded magic potion. Just as adults unashamedly read Harry Potter on the tube, the Worlde of Fairie has moved, hot on the tail of broader fantasy fiction, from being the domain of the Glastonbury hair-braider with wings to the mainstream. I do modern fairytale a deliberate disservice with this dismissal, only to make the point that the spectrum of fairy tale writing now is as wide as for any range of fiction. Yes, there is fan-fiction fairy porn, but there are also serious, literary writers creating new folk tales in much the same way that talented, accomplished musicians such as Gillian Welch create new folk songs. You don’t have to be steeped in the tradition to do it well, nor to enjoy it, and there is now a burgeoning market for new and retold fairy tales in writing, art and film.

If you are one of the new breed who welcome a twitch in your vestigial tail bone, or a bristle of hairs at your neck-scruff, I would point you towards a grand anthology called My Mother She Killed Me,My Father He Ate Me, edited by KateBernheimer, who is a one woman effort in keeping fairy tales alive. She also edits the Fairy Tale Review, which is full of wonders. You might also like There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Nothing like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but all the better for it.

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