A while ago, author, fellow blogger, chocolate lover and generally cool gal, Zen, wrote a post about fairy tales, wherein she expressed surprise that fairy tales aren’t ideal after all. This is a response to that post. So before you continue, please go and read her post, and the comments. I’ll wait for you.
. . . (are you reading yet?)
Back? Alright, let’s get started. The following might turn out a bit long and/or scholarly, but I’m keeping it to the point as much as possible, so just bear with me, please.
Fairy tales and me
Maybe it’s because I’m German, but I grew up with the originals, the Brothers Grimm and lots of others, some more local, some from neighbouring countries. Fairy tale movies are a big thing, and on one of the best TV channels we have, there’s a special feature, the Sunday Fairy Tale, where they show a fairy tale movie each week. It’s been around for years and years and years. When we went for family walks, my siblings and I used to ask our Grandmother or our Mum to tell us fairy tales. Later, my siblings asked me and I’d tell them the Grimm ones I liked the best or I’d invent some of my own. I also told them to all the kids I used to babysit. If you don’t know, you can make most of these stories quite interactive, and that’s what I did. Of course we also saw the Disney versions, but we were aware the whole time that they did not tell the “true” story.
When I studied to be a teacher, I chose fairy tales as a focus topic for my oral (and final) exam in literature. I read all the classics, I read all the scientific stuff about how to analyze them, different approaches from psychology towards fairy tales, historical documents, books on comparative literature, … Well, I studied them. And because I think fairy tales are an integral and extremely important part of any culture, I think it’s worthwhile to get it clear what they are, what they do and what they don’t do and why they are important.
Also, just to get it off my chest before I go on: I adore Zen, and her blog is one of my favourites and this is in no way intended to be patronizing or anything like that. It just happens to be a topic that I feel strongly about and that I like talking about and her post was just a kind of trigger.
So, why are these stories called “fairy” tales? There’s very few fairies present in any of them! The answer is, quite simply, that ‘fairy tales’ is the wrong word. It has become the word that is used in the English language, but that is just a matter of convenience and usage. What they really are, are folk tales. Tales that have been around for a long time, that have been passed down from generation to generation, that have a long oral tradition.
In German, the word is ‘Märchen’. In literature studies, this word is even used in English, as a technical term for these kind of stories. It’s a diminutive form of the the word ‘Mär’, a very old-fashioned word that means nothing else than ‘story’. So ‘Märchen’ just means ‘little story’. Not that most people are aware of that, as I said, it’s a very old-fashioned term.
Because I don’t want to write “fairy tales” for the rest of this post, I’ll lay off the quotation marks. After all, it is the word that is most commonly used. But let’s keep in mind that really, they are folk tales, okay?
The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm, or rather, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, were not, as some people assume or as they have been portrayed, these adventure-seeking, dangerous-living, travelling guys. So who and what were they then? I’ll give it to you in one word: Geeks. Very prolific, very cool geeks. They were academics, both studying law and reading, reading, reading… They read Schiller and Goethe, were interested in the Romantics and friends with some of the most well-known German Romantics, and laid the foundations for what we now call “Germanistik” (the studies of German language, literature and culture, like for example “Amerikanistik”, the study of American language, literature and culture).
They were born in the 1780s, the eldest sons of a numerous family, the father was a civil servant of middle rank, their grandfather had been a cleric. Their research went into finding the roots and charting the development of German literature and culture, because they thought that the present social and political circumstances could be explained and charted and hopefully changed by this. For their research they studied documents and records and literature from England, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Finland, Serbia, Netherlands, Spain… large parts of Europe.
Together with a number of other academics and writers, all loosely connected to Romanticism (I’m talking about the literary epoch here, guys!), started collecting folk tales. They did not want only the written-down documents, because those only gave the view of the literate and the rich. Together, they went out to ask old people to tell their stories. However, they did not go very far out. They didn’t travel all the lands or anything like that. After all, they worked for their living as well. They went to the surrounding villages on weekends and a large portion of the stories actually comes from one source, an old lady that lived in a village near the town where they lived. They did work scientifically, in that they tried to find at least two different sources for each story, but they did not work scientifically in that they were picking and choosing which versions to include.
Yes, you heard right, versions. You don’t think that a story stays the same if it’s told and re-told and re-told by a number of people? It changed from village to village, from family to family, from generation to generation. And that’s just as it should be, since a story is a living, breathing thing. What the Grimm brothers and their friends and colleagues did, was to pick the ones they thought were most representative. They brought out the first part of their collection in 1812, entitled “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (“Children and House tales”, literally).
Time went by and they worked on a large number of things, publishing essays and books and studies analysing or translation or commenting things like myths, epics, legends, … They were scholars, and they did what scholars do. In 1815 they published the second part of their collection and 1819 they brought out a second edition of the first part. This had to be heavily edited. A lot of stories were struck out, other included and most of the stories were toned down to exclude all the too obvious erotic allusions. They also published their notes and study references and later brought out a ‘small edition’ in only one book – that one brought them most of their publicity. Their collection was translated into English and became even more popular.
Although their work was largely scholarly and had to do with language and culture, they also were active in politics, publishing political arguments to the purpose of unifying all the splintered little states to form a republic. Both helped to formulate the first German version of human rights (following the example of the French revolution and other similar influences). Jacob was a representative of the first National Congress of Germany, something for which he was later exiled by the king.
I could go on about those two for a long time, because, as I said, they were cool guys and they did a lot with their lives and their talents, a lot of which is not enough acknowledged. But since this is supposed to be about fairy tales, and not about the lives of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, I’ll quickly inflict one more topic on you.
What’s the point of fairy tales?
Good question. What is the point of stories? Well, entertainment for one thing. Imagine you’re a farmer somewhere in 1700-something, or earlier, or later, any time before electricity and modern infrastructure. What do you do for relaxation and entertainment? Sure, you get together with neighbours and gossip. Or tell tales. Invent histories, lie about your achievements, exaggerate your woes. All those things that we do as humans. Stories are entertainment.
But more than that, stories are how we make sense of the world. They explain human behaviour. No, they don’t tell us of ideal behaviour of a hero, a demi-god (these stories exist as well, but they are myths – dealing with superhuman beings). Fairy tales talk about humans. Humans lie. They cheat. They seek their own advantage. But they also believe in rules of good and bad behaviour and fairy tales are pretty clear on that: good guys become happy and rich. Bad guys get punished. It’s all very black and white. No shades of grey in a fairy story. There are no complex emotional dramas. That does not mean that you cannot imagine them to be there! I’m pretty sure that if there were a father who would abandoned his two children in the woods, would probably suffer intense emotional drama (unless he was a heartless, a-social freak, of course). But detailing that drama is not what fairy tales are about.
Incidentially, anybody who argues, that what some people nowadays perceive as “gruesome”, is a reflection of a harsher life in the past, is guilty of depriving people of the past of their humanity. No sane person would under any circumstances, as harsh as these circumstances may be, suffer a child of theirs to be lost or killed. It’s got nothing to do with that. Again, fairy tales are “only” stories. To instruct (and entertain) children. To help and make sense of the world to people. To entertain adults. Yes, I did say adults. They are not children’s stories, although the Grimms named them that, in a rather savy marketing strategy. If you read the originals, and I mean the original originals, not the edited ones, it’s perfectly obvious that these stories are full to bursting of sex and crime. Although it’s still perceptible in the edited version. Folk tales, not “fairy” tales.
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If you’re interested in getting answers to why fairy tales are important, what other fairy tales there are, where they come from, and what psychology has to say about them (a lot, believe me! and also this: you’ll be surprised!), check back here in a day or so. I’ll answer these questions in a second post.
In the meantime, go and read some of the Grimms’ tales, they are all online, since they are part of the public domain. Amazon features them as free downloads for Kindle, or you can either download them or read them online at Project Gutenberg.
On a related note, if you’re interested in things like fairy tales, myths, legends, mythical or fantasy beings and creatures and fantasy in popular culture, please go and check out this website and blog: Twilight Wanders. It’s a side project on which I’m collaborating. We’re only just starting, so there is not that much to see yet, but it’s growing every day and we’re very open for suggestions, ideas and guest posts!
Also, any comments, contradictions, questions? Need me to clarify something? Want to correct me on something? Please comment!
Beware of reading novels.
You get eaten alive. Your thoughts are not your own. Your dreams are being taken over. Your waking moments are haunted by others’ thoughts. Your language changes. Your outlook changes. Your perception of the world changes. Your priorities most definitely change. (I’ll just finish this one chapter, and then, then I can finally sleep, like I wanted to at the beginning of each of the last five chapters.) You are out of your own control.
And not always, upon finishing a book, are you richer for the experience. Often, a bit of yourself stays in that story. It calls you back and makes you remember long-forgotten passages or characters or pictures from a book you read many years ago and have not thought of since and that you cannot recall and that passage will haunt you for days and weeks like a ghost at the back of your mind and not let go and everything you see will remind you of what you loved and then lost and then forgot and then remembered and lost again – that world that you lived in for a few days and cannot go back to, and you will feel poorer for it.
*hint: if you follow this blog, be sure to check out the P.S. at the bottom, even if you don’t read anything else!*
Usually when I write a post here, I just sort of ramble along. I’ll have an idea of what I want to say – roughly – and then it develops while I write and very often ends up something totally different from what I thought it would be, but hey! that’s a good thing! I don’t do much editing and polishing on my posts, except for spelling mistakes and sometimes I’ll exchange a word when I notice that I overuse it. Once written, I hit ‘publish’ and voilà. Why, then, does it take me FOREVER to write a post on my music blog, Cresting the Sounds?
Case in point: the post on Dylan that I just published took me over three weeks to write. I knew what I wanted to do (= a review of his first album), I started listening to the music a lot and made notes on it all the while – and then it still took me almost a month to write it. Part of that, I guess, is that I feel so much more under pressure to write the ‘correct’ thing. I don’t know by heart who wrote which song, so I had to do research (only a little, but still). Also, and more importantly, there are thousands of Dylan fans out there and probably every one believes themselves an expert on his work. So how to write something that was honest, and yet did not turn out totally embarrassing, because, for example, I expressed my admiration for a song that everybody else, all the ‘experts’ thought horrible and immature?
Tough. I had to remind myself all the time that I was really only expressing my own, personal, private opinion – that I wasn’t writing a book based on facts – that all I had to do was be honest and say what I think about each song – that there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in tastes, especially in music taste. If someone else disagrees – well, too bad. It happens. So what.
It’s not that easy. It’s a question of confidence. I’m quite confident on my opinion, but not so very much on my ability to adequately express it. And although I said that here, where I’m surfing words instead of music, I write without notes and without drafting and without overly polishing, I don’t write so very often, because here the hurdle is: do I have something to say? And often my answer is: not really. And even more often: yeah, maybe, but who’d want to read it anyway?
Recently I’ve gained a lot of followers. A lot for me. I haven’t addressed this at all, so far. I see other blogs, where the authors thank their readers and express gratitude. I can’t bring myself to do that, because I’m so much more astonished than anything else. Even scared sometimes (‘The responsiblity!’ *wild-clutching-of-head). Even paranoid (‘Did they really mean me? Why? Why would they choose to follow me? I guess they must have some ulterior motive…’). I keep thinking it must be a fluke, or that people are just clicking the ‘follow’ button in an attempt to get a follow back. Or maybe it’s all just a huge conspiracy to make me believe I can actually write and then – suddenly- they’ll pull the rug from under my feet! It can’t really be about what I say. Not because I think that what I say is so very horrible – but rather for the sheer number of mind-blowing, astonishing, beautiful, amazing blogs out there.
I read so many, and I know you’re not supposed to compare (yeah, right), but … well, so many blogs are just so much better! I keep thinking: ‘I’d kill to be able to write like that!’ or ‘I will never be as good!’ or even ‘I might just as well pack it in right now.’ And it’s HARD to overcome that. Sometimes I even have to get angry at myself and tell myself to stop the self-pity-party and the envy and concentrate on my own thing: no, I don’t have anything to say that nobody else hasn’t said a thousand times before. No, I don’t have a style like Hemingway, I can’t characterize like Jane Austen and I don’t have the humour of Dickens or Wilde and no, my poems aren’t fit to swallow the dust of Leonard Cohen’s and no, I’m not an expert on Dylan, neither his biography, nor his discography.
But I have my own view on things, I have my own voice and nobody perceives the world exactly the same as I do, so maybe… yeah, maybe it’s alright. Maybe I’m not just shouting into an empty wood. Maybe there are people in there listening. And it might just maybe be possible that they like what I have to say – not because it’s so very special, so very beautiful, so very perfect, but maybe because it’s unique?
P.S. And by the way – I AM totally perplexed and grateful and humbled by all of you who have liked one of my posts, commented on something I wrote or are following my blog – I never expected this. Thanks for making me happy. And thanks for making me freak out. After all, if it didn’t mean anything, I wouldn’t obsess about it so much!
(Disclaimer: This is not meant as emotional blackmail to make you say that ‘of course’ you like my blog – although if you really want to say that, I’m not stopping you! 😉 I’m not asking for reassurance, I’m really only bringing to paper the frequent dialogue / struggle that goes on in my head!)
Part of my morning routine is to open my feedreader and ignore all the multitude of updated feeds and go straight for one special one. Then I’ll lean back, sip my tea or coffee and read. That one feed is the feed linking the ‘Poem of the Day’ of the Poetry Foundation, that delivers a new and fresh poem to me every day.
It’s a revelation every day. Some days, I might not connect with the poem. Other days, I just don’t like it. Most days, however, it’ll give me something. A smile. An insight. A thought. A feeling. On the best days, a surprised gasp, a disbelieving re-reading with a growing warmth rising up from my stomach to my chest to my head, where it will pop like bubbles into untamed joy and wonder. Those days are special.
I’ll save that poem and probably write about it or talk about it or share it with friends. Those that are into oetry and those that aren’t. I don’t pay any attention to that – the latter category will just have to give it a try. That poem will colour my day, set the tone for it, provide atmosphere. I save them, and when I read them again, I can recall that first joy, like remembering that first butterfly in your stomach when you realize you are falling in love with the person you’re looking at.
Because they are special (to me), I want to share some of these poems. Or rather, since they aren’t mine to share, I want to share my feelings about them and maybe give others the chance to feel something similar. Or something different. Each according to their tastes. So I’ve decided to start a mini-series. I’m not a fan of weekly schedules and I don’t want it to feel forced, to me or to others, so I’m not going to write a weekly installment, but rather whenever it feels right to do so. I’m still thinking of a clever title for that venture and so far I haven’t got it. (Titles are my great stumbling blocks, I hate having to think them up. I’m open for suggestions.)
The first one I want to share is one that has come back to me the last couple of days. I first read it some months ago, three, four, something like that. I’ve thought of it in the meantime, but for two or three days it’s been very present in my mind. It’s set in spring and written from a guy’s perspective. I don’t know why it speaks to me so much right now, in the middle of summer. I’m guessing that it might be something to do with my itching feet and the fact that I want to travel and see new places, meet new people, have fresh winds blowing in my face. Or maybe it’s just he fact that it’s a great poem. Judge for yourselves. Here goes:
……..A Color of the Sky by Tony Hoagland via The Poetry Foundation
…….. Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
…….. driving over the hills from work.
…….. There are the dark parts on the road
…….. when you pass through clumps of wood
…….. and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
…….. but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.
……… I should call Marie and apologize
…….. for being so boring at dinner last night,
…….. but can I really promise not to be that way again?
…….. And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
…….. in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.
……… Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
…….. the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
…….. are full of infant chlorophyll,
…….. the very tint of inexperience.
…….. Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
…….. and on the highway overpass,
…….. the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
…….. MEMORY LOVES TIME
…….. in big black spraypaint letters,
…….. which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
…….. Last night I dreamed of X again.
…….. She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
…….. Years ago she penetrated me
…….. but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
…….. I never got her out,
…….. but now I’m glad.
…….. What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
…….. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
…….. What I thought was an injustice
…….. turned out to be a color of the sky.
…….. Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
…….. and the police station,
…….. a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
…….. overflowing with blossomfoam,
…….. like a sudsy mug of beer;
…….. like a bride ripping off her clothes,
…….. dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
…….. so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
…….. It’s been doing that all week:
……. making beauty,
…….. and throwing it away,
…….. and making more.
I love every line of this. Every single line. In the following, I’ll just jot down a few notes on what this makes me feel and think. (I give you leave to not be interested in that, so you don’t need to feel bad if you stop reading at this point. The important thing is the poem itself.)
It starts right off with the picture of driving on a road through woods, with glimpses of the ocean, and straight away I want to be off, driving down that road. I think I have driven down that road, and if I haven’t, I will. I also like that kind of wry humour, when he says ‘but that doesn’t make the road an allegory’.
I love the honesty. He should follow the social conventions, but, whatever… can’t be bothered, will only do it again anyway, so what’s the use… And anyway, the tossing trees are much more interesting. (I agree, by the way)
Is it possible to top that part about ‘the only metaphysical vandal in America’? I don’t think so. It’s a funny, intelligent, throw-away remark, as is the line underneath: ‘which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back’. It makes me smile and nod in recognition. It’s the kind of half-silly, half-deep thing you’ll think when your thoughts are drifting and maybe you’re a little tired, but at peace with yourself.
And there, buried in the middle of it, as if to hide it, is that lyrical, wonderful, suggestive stanza, that sounds as if it’s straight out of a beautiful pop song: ‘What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.’ Can’t you just hear that being sung? I definitely can.
The end, everything onward from ‘Outside the youth center …’ is perfect. I cannot even pick out one line or one part that I want to highlight especially, because I feel that once you’ve read it, there is nothing left to say. The dogwood tree, that is ‘loosing its mind’ – can’t you just see that? Coupled with the tossing trees in sexual arousal and the spring wind from the beginning, it makes such a painfully vivid picture.
I could write so much more about it, and actually, the more I write, the more I have to say, but this is already very long, and anyway, I’m sure you’re much more interested in using your own imagination and go and explore the pictures this poem has conjured up for you. I hope you have fun.
I never learned to love poetry. On the contrary – every time poetry came up at school, all it did was bore us and later on, faintly embarrass us (all that soppy stuff on love and passion! A poem on flowers – yawn! Poetry on dead people! How bizarre. Poetry on wars?! wtf?!?). And always the same questions. ‘What did the poet mean?’ – ‘What rhyming scheme was used?’ – ‘What literary devices can you make out?’ – ‘What is the historical context of this poem?’ – … ENOUGH ALREADY! While I generally read at the same pace as I was able to eat chocolate ice-cream (= very fast) and in amounts that sometimes seemed equally unhealthy to my family, I never touched poetry. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I didn’t see it until I read Leonard Cohen.
I’d listened to Cohen’s songs since my early teens, and they were some of the first reasons that I really went through the struggle of applying my school-taught English to a specific task (understanding the lyrics; ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in particular). I’d never considered the lyrics as poetry though. So one day, as I looked through the books in my Dad’s study, I came across a collection of Cohen’s poems. The ones he transformed into song, and even more that were just poems. I sat down on the floor and started reading. By then my English was good enough to get at least the gist of most of them.
And what a gist it was! It blew my brain. There were images that I could see without ever having seen them, sensory explosions in my mind as the written words travelled through my eyes into my brain! And the rhythms… and none of it rhymed or was forced or dealt with any high-brow topic – just a guy talking about the women he had loved, who had left him and who he missed and hated at the same time… just talking about this personal stuff, so very vulnerable and in such simple words, and yet every single thing he said was universal and I could understand it – no, not just understand it, feel it – even though I couldn’t be more of an opposite to him – female, two generations removed, grown up in a different culture and time, not even having really been in love before… And yet, I GOT what he said with every fibre of my bone.
It was a revelation.
I’ve stayed true to the master, and I will defend to the end my opinion that he is one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he also helped me to appreciate other poets. I’ve bought books full of poetry; anthologies and books by individual poets. I read poetry online. I listen to the poetry of songs. A new poem finds its way into my mailbox every morning and reading it has become a treasured part of my morning routine. Hell, I even write poetry myself! And since that time, the only criterion that I use when approaching a poem is this: does it resonate with me?
That is the only thing you really need to teach about poetry in school: to read a great deal and a great variety and to pay attention to what each poem does with you. All the rest will follow by itself. I wish they’d taught me that. I might not have missed out on years and years of enjoying beauty.
I’d like to read
one of the poems
that drove me into poetry
I can’t remember one line
or where to look
The same thing
happened with money
girls and late evenings of talk
Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved
to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee
(Leonard Cohen – I’d like to read )