Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fee-fie-fo-fum: why fairy tales matter

by Amanda Earl

As a child I loved fairy tales. My parents, who were from Yorkshire, always told me the story of "the fairies at the bottom of our garden," based on the Cottingley Fairies, a series of photographs taken by two young girls in 1917. Alas the photos proved to be a hoax, but at the age of five, I spent a great deal of time on our half-acre in a small town north of Toronto, by the willow tree, looking for fairies.

I devoured Andrew Lang's "Fairy Tale Books of Many Colours," first because I am and always have been, enraptured by colour, so I was keen on the different coloured volumes, and secondly because the illustrations by H.J. Ford and the stories fascinated me. Lang collected English, Russian, Scandinavian, Chinese, Persian, French, Spanish and German fairy tales. I loved the exotic nature of these stories and most especially the language, oh the language was so much fun, so full of play and rhyme, alliteration, imagery. 

I embraced these tales with the same joy that I embraced Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, their sheer poetry and wonder. I accumulated other fairy tale collections, which to my grief, I did not keep as a teenager, but I remember the vibrant colours and charming images. Artists such as Kay Nielsen, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham brought fairy tales to life.

My father used to recite poems and stories out loud to me from memory, extrapolation and pure fabrication: "Fee-fi-fo-fum/I smell the blood of an Englishman./Be he alive or be he dead/I'll grind his bones to make my bread." he would intone from "Jack, the Giant-Killer," with a strong rolling r on grind and bread.  Fairy tales are the perfect training ground for a future writer, especially a poet.

I was wrapt by the idea that magic could exist. I hoped for it. I closed my eyes tightly and felt sure that when I opened them, I would spy a wee, magical creature, a friend who would tell me stories and transport me to other worlds where I was queen of the flowers. At the same time I was afraid of the terrible ogres, the mean witches, the scary creatures that lurked in the forests. I gloried in that fear. I enjoyed the gruesomeness too. 

The idea that old witches could and would eat children, wolves could fool little girls into thinking they were their grandmothers. "What big teeth you have, Grandmother"... the better to eat you with, my dear…" Ahhhhh…Horrifying…tantalizing…beastly…but goodness, how exciting. Grownups in these stories lied and cajoled children, tempting them with sweets. They were not as they seemed. Don't take candy from a stranger…These were cautionary tales.

In the 70s, my sister, who is ten years older than me, would take me to the movies where I was captivated by fairy tale adaptations to the big screen. I remember at the age of about eight or so, being scared and thrilled by Sleeping Beauty, the 1959 production, I believe. What I loved about these films had nothing to do with the good little princesses and their charming prince-rescuers, but rather the evil queens. I was frightened out of my wits by Maleficent and her great purple robes contrasted with the green pallor of her skin. I would get the same thrill from Dr. Seus' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

What I loved about these giant-screen-sized fairy tales was the vibrant colours and the dark, foreboding music, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, based on music by Tchaikovsky. Wikipedia tells me that the colour stylist and chief background designer for the 1959 production was Eyvind Earl, who had free reign by Disney to paint large backgrounds for the film. Have you noticed that modernizations of these fairy tales by Disney has turned these colours into sweet pastels, pretty pinks, calm blues? The Disney of old wasn't a repository of pabulum as it is now. [THIS JUST IN: Disney's new live action motion picture "Maleficent" starring Angelina Jolie & billed as a fantasy thriller will be out in 2014; from a look at the poster, the film doesn't look like it's aimed at the kiddies.]

Fairy tales have been the perfect inspiration for all kinds of artistic creation from art to music to dance to theatre. This is one of the most exciting aspects of fairy tales for me, their ability to permeate cultural landscapes and inspire artists to create. Is it because the stories tend to encapsulate and simplify good and evil, because they offer endings that give us moral redemption? Because they often portray unspoken evils come to life? Or because they represent basic archetypes?

At one point on Twitter, Remittance Girl and I were having a conversation about fairy tales and she mentioned Angela Carter. Shockingly I hadn't read any of Carter's fairy tales. This has since been remedied. "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories" (Penguin Books, 1979) is a collection of subversive stories based on the characters, landscapes, imagery and plots of traditional fairy tales.  It is a book I read again and again for Carter's vivid, captivating and seemingly limitless imagination.

I would be remiss if I did not inform you about a wonderful CBC Radio recorded episode of Eleanor Wachtel's "Writers & Company" where you can hear the great Angela Carter read two of her stories. The broadcast also features an interview with writer Marina Warner about her book "From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers." 

Are we in an era where the fairy tale is once again in vogue? I think so. Magic realism and fantasy seem to have come back to the cinema with screen adaptations of CS Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" from the series, "His Dark Materials," and Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

By the way, Did you know that Tolkien wrote an essay about fairy tales  in which he said that the association of children to fairy tales is "an accident of our domestic history,"  and specified that the only true fairy tales were those where humans interacted with Faerie:

"When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods 
to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the  cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator."]

In the twenty first century, the fairy tale has been modernized, reinvented and deconstructed in literary fiction.
One of my favourite contemporary novels Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox (Hamish Hamilton CA, 2011) is an inventive series of stories within a story that is inspired by the fairy tale "Blue Beard's Castle."

Adding to this rejuvenation of the fairy tale is Barry Webster's delightful suite of linked stories, "the Lava in My Bones," (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012) a fanciful and imaginative series where we hear about the main character's queer identity, the work he does in  climate change and his intimate associations with snow, rock and ice, his sister who oozes honey from her pores, a father obsessed with mermaids and more.

I loved "Garden of the Perverse: Twisted Tales for Adults" edited by Sage Vivant and M. Christian (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006), the only erotic fairy tales collection I own. The quality of the writing by Hilary Jaye, Catherine Lundoff, Michael Michele, Mackenzie Cross, Lisabet Sarai, Remittance Girl and others is excellent. The stories are imaginative and sexy. I would love to see an illustrated version of this book, in the style of many of the great fairy tale illustrators.

On occasion I have written fairy tales and fables. I wrote a fairy tale called "the Queen of Yellow," which is as yet unpublished. I want it to be part of a series of stories about the Kingdom of Colour. I also rewrote Cinderella as an erotic story, "Cinderella and the Glass Dildo,"  also unpublished so far. I am currently working on an imaginary commonplace book, which will, if it happens, be a collection of collage, artwork, invented quotations, poetry and other sundry magical flotsam and jetsam that will incorporate some of the elements of the fairy tale.

In his essay, Tolkien said that fairy tales offer the reader recovery, escape and consolation. It is no wonder that they continue to be relevant and inspiring sources for artists and writers today, and continue to be of interest to readers.


  1. Thanks for your wonderfully encyclopedic post, Amanda! I remember the Disney rendition of Sleeping Beauty very well. I loved the dragon, which as I recall was gorgeously rendered. The three fairy godmothers, in contrast, were comic relief - rather like the grave digger in Hamlet.

    I'd love to read your fairy tales. I'm sure they deserve to be published.

    1. thanks, Lisabet. it was a long post. couldn't contain myself ;) i'm going to have to find that 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty again. i had forgotten about those comedic fairy godmothers & the dragon!

  2. What you say about fairy tales and a writer's imagination rings true, Amanda. Perfect training ground indeed. The lively imagination you were instilled with so early must have stuck pretty tight. Seems as though you had an unbroken inspiration line for fiction. Makes me a little jealous I got caught up in the bricks and mortar world for so much of my life. Of course, it does provide its own fodder for ideas, so non regrette. But I do regret not having started writing fiction until so late in life. Perhaps If I did as you did, I'd be in better touch with the world of fiction in general.
    And as long as we're talking modern erotic fairy tales, let's not forget Liz Adams, a fellow writer for Naughty Nights Press.

    1. i haven't read any of Liz Adams' work. thanks for the tip. i think we all come from different experiences & different walks of life & that's what makes for a variety of compelling writing.

  3. I loved fairy tale books. including the Lang color series, in somewhat the same way I loved stories about far-off (to me) places and people and times, like Frances Hodgeson Burnett's Secret Garden and Kipling's Jungle book. Magic added to the historical and far-away aspects was frosting on the cake.

  4. Great post, Amanda. I also loved the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty (the Tchaikovsky soundtrack added a lot to it) as well as Disney's Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast (more complex because enhanced by computer technology). At one time it seemed as if all children were exposed to the same traditional stories -- apparently not so much any more.


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