My mother used to take me to the library once a week to change my books. Considering the book-buying habit I have these days it seems odd that I don’t remember ever feeling that I needed to own any of these books. Or perhaps it was that I felt that I did own these books. After all, there they all were – I could take any five I wanted.
One of my five was always a book of fairy tales. Do children’s library collections still have whole sections devoted to these? Certainly my local library doesn’t. But the library I visited as a child had several shelves of fairy tales and there always seemed to be one on the shelves that I hadn’t yet read. My favourites were the Ruth Manning-Sanders books, A Book of Princes and Princesses, A Book of Enchantments and Curses and so on. Then there were the Hamish Hamilton ones, The Hamish Hamilton Book of Kings and the rest of them. And last, the Favourite Fairy Tales Told in… series. It seemed to me that there was one of these for every country in the world.
Why this fascination with fairy tales, I wonder now? I’m currently reading one of Andrew Lang’s fairy books, the yellow, and I’m enjoying it, but I couldn’t tell you why. The characters are all puppets. If they have motivation, any inner life at all, all the reader is told about it is that they were hungry or jealous or desperately wanted a baby. Some parts of the stories are repeated in almost identical detail several times, no cutting, no ‘and on the next night exactly the same thing happened.’ In others, scenes that could be suspenseful are rushed over, so that you get from dire peril to happy ever after in one breathless paragraph. Occasionally, a story changes its focus in the middle, so one story seems to have been grafted onto another. It’s not all this way, of course. Lang’s collections are a mixture of translations and rewritten tales, and some are more satisfying to read than others. Possibly those which frustrate me are the ones which have been collected from oral sources rather than those which were purposefully written to be read from a book.
What’s particularly odd about my fascination for fairy tales is that I in general I’m irritated by the brevity of short stories. Is it the themes of fairy tales that draw me? The adventure, the magic, the escapes from death, the rags to riches, the finding of fortunes and comeuppances of evil-doers? Or the essence of the characters – trying to find their place in the world or avoid harm or solve a puzzle?
There are a whole lot of modern novels, movies and TV series made that relate to stories which are very well-known in Western cultures, such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. These modern versions play with the characters, give them back-story and motive, spin out the stories, and may throw in a healthy handful of social and political adjustment to make the story sit better in our time. And I enjoy them, these retellings. Many are cleverly done, witty, charming and inventive – and they keep the old stories fresh. I do wonder though, how many of the people who’ve watched Maleficent, for example, have ever read a version of Sleeping Beauty in an old fairy tale book, or had it read to them. I wonder what they would think of such a version. I don’t mean to imply that they should read some ‘original’ version. The whole point of these stories is that there is no original of most of them. These are stories have changed through time across the world, through countless oral retellings, countless written versions.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing my own, but I can’t clearly see what I could add. Having said that, my latest batch of 500-words-a-day are tiny moments from fairy tales: how the witch feels when she ends up with baby Rapunzel, Hansel sneaking out of the house when his stepmother’s back is turned so he can collect pebbles, what it’s like to climb a beanstalk. I very much doubt that these will ever be anything but writing exercises, but they spill out of the end of my fingers as though they were already there in my head. Which they probably have been, for years, ever since I first read these brief little stories and began to think about them.