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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Intrigued by Fairy Tales

One of the childhood reading experiences that stuck with me was Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  As I worked my way through stories collected in that old hardcover volume, I remember being mystified by characters performing bizarre actions, such as sawing the heads off children, and then sewing them back on.  Of course, the children return to life.  Well, even I knew back then that such actions didn’t represent reality.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what the stories were intended to convey.  I just knew they were weird. 

In the past few years, publishers have rolled out a seemingly endless succession of volumes relating in some way to classic fairy tales, which are a subset of a given culture’s folktale tradition.  Scholars study old volumes and manuscripts, and then herald what they believe to be the oldest, truest, and most original form of particular stories, accompanied by their exhaustive notes and commentaries.  Popular authors contribute to collections of new Fairy Tales that celebrate this storytelling tradition, or discuss the merits of the old favorites at Science Fiction conventions.  Through them, we learn that the original stories are darker and stranger than anything published today.  Picking up on this trend, Hollywood has produced an explosion of big screen adaptations lately, including three featuring Snow White.  Fairy Tales have also invaded the small screen, with shows like “Grimm” and “Once Upon A Time” that scramble up characters or elements from these old stories and intermix them with those drawn from modern life. 

Ever since that first childhood reading, I’ve regarded Fairy Tales as unfinished business.  I’ve intended to return to them at some point, to study their structure, the common elements such stories share, and their historical and cultural contexts, in the hope of understanding not only what I read as a child, but a tradition that seems to be part of the foundation upon which modern storytelling is built.  Early last year, I read a novel based on “Snow White and Rose Red,” a German story collected by the Grimm brothers.  (This is a different story from the “Snow White” that Disney later transformed into the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)  As with all oral storytelling, the fairy tale evolved with time.  In its shorter, original form, it was called “The Ungrateful Dwarf,” and contained fewer elements than the version later collected by the Grimms.  In her novel, Snow White and Rose Red, Patricia C. Wrede expands the classic story.  She changes the setting to Medieval England, and paints a convincing world in which the lives of magical beings intermix with that of our heroines, Snow White and her less-known sister.  

I found the novel a refreshing change from my normal fantasy fare, and I particularly liked how Wrede intermixed the classic tale with her version.  At the beginning of each chapter, an italicized paragraph serves as an introduction.  After awhile, I came to realize that these paragraphs were actually segments of the classic fairy tale, and each chapter her elaboration of the paragraph.  Thus I could see how a modern writer might update older story elements and structures, and expand them to novel length.  Through reading the novel, I learned that it was part of a series commissioned by Terri Windling in the 1980s, and one of my favorite authors, Steven Brust, had also contributed a novel.  So of course, I had to check out Steven Brust’s Fairy Tale!

In The Sun, the Moon, & the Stars, Steven Brust pursues a different strategy.  Instead of elaborating on a classic story, he gives us an entirely modern one, and weaves into it portions of a Hungarian Fairy Tale called "Csucskari," which is named after the story’s protagonist.  After reading his novel twice, I contacted Brust, and he recommended that I track down Folktales Of Hungary by Linda Degh if I was interested in reading the original story, as well as learning more about the Hungarian Folktale tradition.  So that’s what I did, but more on that tomorrow.

Isn’t it interesting how one good story can lead to another, even if the readings are separated by years or decades?

Dragon Dave

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