Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Marina Warner on Fairy Tales at the London Short Story Festival 2015

Myths break, but fairy tales bend

This year’s London Short Story Festival was a feast of tender morsels. If you already know, or would like to find out, what a deep pleasure it is to be read stories as an adult, then make a note to go to 2016’s festival. Combined with beautiful readings, there is much discussion. I thought I’d relate here, like a crone passing on second hand gossip, some of the wisdom provided this year by Marina Warner.

Marina Warner is an expert on fairy tales, and has approached them from many angles in her books. Under time pressure in a brief session with two other writers, she gave a hugely compressed rundown of what fairy tale means, but even in this tiny space, there was much inspiration to be found.

She began by differentiating between ‘a fairy tale’ and ‘fairy tale’.

A Fairy tale, Warner defined as ‘a short story with supernatural elements and some relation to historical folk tale’. This is pleasingly loose, and I’d go as far as to say the supernatural elements need not even be writ large – they may be implied, for you to take or leave as a reader. 

Fairy tale, on the other hand, she described as a language of the imagination. It interprets everyday experience with a system of images that lurk somewhere behind. A story may deploy fairy tale but not be a fairy tale. As an example of this, she invoked the work of Alan Garner, who is a hero of mine. As she put it, he sets his books and stories in a world (Alderley Edge in Cheshire) where all matter is saturated with memory and consciousness. His stories inhabit an enchanted landscape, but are not categorisable as fairy tales. She is absolutely right on this count. It is possible to read a Garner story that is ostensibly about very earthly, mundane things, such as building stone walls, and yet feel as though you have been somewhere magical. His stories in The Stone Book Quartet are perfect examples of this.

Warner made a couple of other points that got me thinking. The first was about the way fairy tales can be re-worked, re-mixed, re-visioned, whatever you want to call it. We’re familiar with this, but she distinguished it from post-modern approaches to old forms, and pointed out that we can still surprise the reader in new work based on old fairy tales. This made me think about the distinction between myth and fairy tale in this regard. If you change something fundamental about a myth – e.g. how it ends – it will stop being that myth at all. If Oedipus doesn’t fulfil his fate, then it’s not the Oedipus myth anymore. The same goes for Narcissus and all the rest. But we can change, over and over, what Little Red Riding Hood decides to do when confronted by the wolf – run, seduce him, eat him, suggest a game of rummy – and some essence of the original story only enriches the new work.

The second point Warner made which I think is so important is directly relevant to this: she claimed that, as adult readers, we cannot go back to the time of fairy tales before Angela Carter got her hands on them, and undo all of the eroticism which now appears so overt in the tales. Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was published the year I was born, and while I hardly grew up on her skewed and sexual retellings, it’s true that I can’t unthink what I have now read. The same is supposed to be true of Freud – it is impossible for us to read many texts nowadays without at least being aware of potential Freudian interpretations, and it channels us towards a certain take on the turns of a story. I think Warner is right to see Carter as having done the same again, forever changing how we can see the glint in the wolf’s eye.

As a writer dealing often with folk tale, these nuggets will keep me chewing for some time. But I think fairy tales and fairy tale as a mode are prevalent in all kinds of contemporary writing, from the political to the commercial, and it is worth considering our odd attachment to them whatever we are reading.