About six months ago I sent Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales to a friend to mark the completion of her first novel. I was privileged to have an early read of the manuscript, and was struck by its once-upon-a-time quality, and the elemental nature of the heroine’s quest. I also knew that Holly and I shared a love of fairy tales. Living on opposite sides of the earth, we decided to embark on a synchronised reading adventure, taking turns to nominate a tale then sharing the experience via email. There is little critique; how do you evaluate stories that are hundreds or even thousands of years old, that have been formed and shaped through fireside talk, bits added and taken away in the endless retelling, the product of a collective mind? Like those before us, we share our responses and understandings, connect the stories to other narratives (real and imagined), locate them in time and place. Despite the technology involved, the process has felt oddly intimate and immediate, like we are lying in our bunks listening to the story being read aloud then whispering together in the dark.
Which was just how I first garnered an understanding of what a story was, and could do. My father used to read Brothers Grimm to my sisters and me when we were small (I think he fancied himself king, sometimes widowed woodcutter). I had the bottom bunk in the front bedroom of the crumbling brick terrace my mother had left. There was a dusty sash window that shuddered in high winds. On Wednesday and Friday nights, and every second weekend, Dad would tuck us in, reeking of cheddar and burgundy and pipe, and take us into the dark woods where families were as royally—or commonly—broken as ours. There was lust, envy, treachery, heartbreak, and lashings of cannibalism. He never spared us the blood and guts of the wundermarchen, as the Germans called them—for which I am grateful. ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ was my grisly childhood favourite. But we loved, too, the sapphires and rubies; the wise and communicative animals; the brave and bonny heroes (Angela’s collection goes some way to rebalancing the shortage of heroines in Grimm); romantic love; and all that mind-boggling transmogrification.
UK psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has suggested that the questing nature of fairy stories is their main draw; that we want to see characters find their way out of impossible predicaments. Of course we do! In addition to providing free entertainment, one of the socio-cultural functions of these tales was to give people struggling in dire circumstances a sense of comfort, hope, and agency. They are reliable in their rightful (‘happy’ feels too simple) endings, albeit with brutal justice casually meted out along the way. Honesty and loyalty, integrity, generosity and kindness were rewarded. Courage was definitely rewarded. I wonder now if perhaps my father read us Grimm in lieu of a bible.
I’ve only recently reflected on how much these bedtime stories shaped me as a writer—how I think about narrative structure and purpose; my love of quests, in life and fiction; the mad faith that there will always be a way out of the woods. I love that fairy stories bend the laws of nature and the universe for their characters, and that the stories then do this for their readers, showing them the world anew, using the incredible to reveal stark truths and everyday wunders. Tolkien noted in his 1939 lecture on the form: ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’
Such as whale blubber.
One of the early stories Holly and I shared is the petite Inuit tale ‘Blubber Boy’. ‘Once there was a girl whose boyfriend drowned in the sea. Her parents could do nothing to console her. Nor did any of the other suitors interest her—she wanted the fellow who drowned and no-one else.’ In her desperation and longing, the girl takes a piece of whale blubber and carves out her beloved’s likeness then, impulsively, rubs this effigy over her vulva (‘Oh, if only he were real!’) until… voila, ‘Her handsome boyfriend was standing in front of her. How delighted she was!’ I spent tens of thousands of words in my second novel LEAP exploring the visceral, timeless desire of grieving lovers to resurrect their dead, and here it is in about 250; entirely implausible and just so. The girl goes ahead and marries Blubber Boy but from time to time he begins quite literally to melt away, right before her eyes. Only by rubbing his entire body with her genitals can she revive him. The economy and narrative punch of this story about love, grief and relationships is astounding.
We’ve also relished the compact but boundless ‘Vasilisa the Priest’s Daughter’, ‘East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon’, ‘The Armless Maiden’, ‘Parsley-girl’ and ‘The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold’—an Iraqi version of the Cinderella story with a catfish playing fairy godmother. Our reading adventure continues in 2017, and in the midst of the fun, another tale has been unfolding. Holly’s magnificent debut novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart was taken to market late last year and will be simultaneously released in a scatter of countries early 2018. And I seem to have started work on a novel starring an articulate fish. As ever, what I’m reading and writing are impossible to tease apart.
Myfanwy Jones is author of novels LEAP and The Rainy Season, and co-author of the bestselling Parlour Games for Modern Families. She is currently working on a third novel and would love to hear from anyone with a good fishing tale… www.myfanwyjones.com.