Fairy Tale Logic and Language

Fairy tales have been enjoying a renaissance for a while now. They were my bread and butter growing up: Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, the bright-coloured anthologies of Ruth Manning Sanders, all the collections from China, Egypt, Wales, Australia, South America, the First Nations…

This was my childhood. Right here.

This was my childhood. Right here.

Even then, I had this odd acquisitive feeling about folk and fairy tales. It wasn’t enough just to read them. I needed to know them, beyond simple recall-and-retell. It’s a strange, instinctive need to stamp them into my bones, so that they become part of me. Because yes, even now, I’m most comfortable with a story when I feel like I’ve gotten it inside me, somehow. It’s almost like I’ve spent my life waiting for my parents to ask whether I want the farm, the gold, or their blessing. Or like I’ve been looking for the witch over one shoulder; expecting the talking cat; preparing myself to meet Coyote.

Fairy tales have rules, after all. Things happen in threes. The youngest child gets the crown (as an oldest child myself, I slightly resent this). When someone tells you not to look, they really mean it.

Knowing the rules always soothed my young, anxious self—still does, actually. For a while, I thought maybe that was it. The more stories you know, the better you understand the rules. Except, that wasn’t enough reason. This need to take fairy tales into myself ran deeper than that. They needed to be a part of me. But why? Fairy tales as currency?

Then two things happened in quick succession. I was re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for the umpteenth time, and I was working on my thesis Preface.


Not shown: small black cat on lap.

The Waste Land, of course, rests on allusion. Specific lines gain extra resonance: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Beautiful alone, more poignant when carrying the weight of Dante’s descent into the Inferno. Whole sections echo with added emotional weight­—Philomel, so rudely forc’d, and poor, blind Tiresias. The entire poem suddenly snaps into focus if you know the story of the Fisher King.

It’s possible to read The Waste Land without knowing the allusions, and I know that I don’t know them all. The language operates in two different registers at once: knowing the myths and stories lets you hear the second, hidden one. Almost as though the poem itself is in a language that changes meaning if you change the particles. Or notice the particles in the first place.

Nor is this just Eliot. Byron, Byatt—heck, even Stephen King. Their stories assume we have a common base of stories to draw from, that we’ll recognize forms and patterns and emotional resonances as they appear. Think about the way we talk: “It was a Cinderella story.” “He’s no Prince Charming.” “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.” In so many ways, fairy tales are our common language—they are the basic forms to which we keep returning, the forms that structure our other stories.

Which brings me to my Preface. Laying all eight stories out, and consciously figuring out what I’d meant to do with each, I realized something:

With the possible exception of one, all eight stories are about loss.

Without exception, all eight stories are fairy tales in one way or another.

How do we make sense of things? By telling stories about them. And for various reasons—personal, preferential, social, cultural, biographical—folk and fairy tales underpin my understanding of how stories work. No wonder I kept trying to acquire them as a child. The more stories thrum through these bones, the more stories I can tell. I can mash up East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon with The Descent of Inanna. I can take La Fête de la Sainte-Catherine (itself a variant, I’m fairly sure, of Rose LaTulippe), throw in a pinch of Godfather Death, and finish it with bit of fairy tale logic I made up—but that fit the pattern.

How do I understand death? How do I lay out grief? How do I grapple with relationships that mutate and shift into something I simply do not understand?

Stories. The stories I started with. It’s like coming home.

And the broader the base, the more you see patterns in other stories. At heart, learning these stories is simply learning another language. Again, small surprise I felt I needed them inside of me—there’s a difference between memorizing the phrase book and being fluent.

So back to my preface I go, ready to speak.


What I’m Listening To This Week

Handel is my boy—I love Baroque music because it when it works, it’s like clockwork. Everything just fits. There’s no other way it could possibly be, because every piece just fits into place and plays off the next one. It’s like a finished Sudoku puzzle.

It pleases me.

The strings do go on a bit in the first minute, but then suddenly around 1:15, you realize this repeating run of notes is not just chugging along, it’s a locomotive that just jumped the tracks. Then we get the choir entering like a crash of thunder. High G’s! All the high G’s!

Followed by typically Handel-esque fanfare and cavorting. Another thing I love about Handel: he knows how to use silence and contrast to his advantage. Watch how he places rests in this piece. It’s just enough to let you gasp before he jerks you off somewhere else.

Yep. That’s my boy.

Posted on August 16, 2015, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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