Sofía Oria in “Blancanieves”, a 2012 Spanish film based on "Snow White" by the Brothers Grimm.
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Rowan Williams: why we need fairy tales now more than ever

Fairy tales are capable of depicting the hardest challenges we face as human beings.

Once Upon a Time: a Short History of Fairy Tale
Marina Warner
Oxford University Press, 232pp, £10.99

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
Translated by Jack Zipes
Princeton University Press, 555pp, £24.95

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange
Translated by Malcolm C Lyons; introduction by Robert Irwin
Penguin Classics, 496pp, £25

In 1947, J R R Tolkien published a celebrated essay on fairy tales in which he insisted that their association with childhood was recent and unfortunate; it misled us into thinking that the genre was not worth serious analysis, not something to “think with”. Marina Warner’s wide-ranging and handsomely produced book Once Upon a Time will reinforce Tolkien’s insistence that these stories are very far from being a simple style of narrative to be outgrown. She surveys the literary history of the fairy tale, from the elegant fables of 17th-century French aristocrats to Angela Carter and beyond, discusses the feminist move to reclaim women’s agency from generations of patronising images of languishing princesses, and offers a parti­cularly interesting analysis of recent film treatments of the classic tales. Her conclusion is that “fairy tales are gradually turning into myths”: paradoxically, in our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them, because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. The fairy tale now has to carry an unprecedented burden of significance, and it is not surprising that modern versions – retellings or radical rewritings, like those of Angela Carter – produce a darker, more complex, less resolved narrative environment than hitherto.

The point is that myths don’t need happy endings; they are not ways of resolving the unfairness of our experience or the frustration of our emotions. They provide a framework for imagining our human situation overall. But the fairy tale has its roots in a mixture of what Warner calls “honest harshness” and “wishful hoping”, depicting the hardest challenges we face as human beings and the possibility of “alternative plot lines”, ways out or through. But when we become culturally more suspicious of ways out, something changes: stories have to be coloured with a tragic palette, a recognition of what can’t be wished away.

This is fair comment up to a point, but there is a bit more to it, as Warner’s own argument elsewhere in the book suggests (and she does not discuss at any length pantomime, which surely is the most widespread form of contact with fairy tales). There are undoubtedly contemporary versions of fairy-tale themes (Warner points to Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves of 2012, a visually beautiful and narratively dark reworking of “Snow White”) which refuse traditional closures. But the force of this refusal must lie in the fact that we know the story: the provocativeness of a new version is highlighted by our knowing what it is not saying. It isn’t just a replacement of an old story by a new. What becomes important is how we hold together “resolved” and “unresolved” versions. It’s not that there is no way out, but that the thicket from which we seek deliverance is more tangled and painful than we thought. Modern audiences probably miss something significant about King Lear if they don’t know that Shakespeare deliberately destroyed the happy(ish) ending of the source material: the ancient British king Leir regains his throne.

It is one thing to say that a narrative can open up over time, so that an original “happy” ending appears more hard-won or fragile; another to say that we can no longer see the story as an attempt to create an alternative world. Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, to which Warner also refers, puts this in stark form at its conclusion, juxtaposing the killing of the girl Ofelia with a dreamlike sequence of her homecoming to a mother and father enthroned in numinous serenity. We are left to make our minds up as to whether this is more than simply a transient moment of fantasy.

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatising the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviours, winds and waves mobilise to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favour; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.

The faun from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. There is indeed, as Warner (in the wake of scholars such as Jack Zipes) makes clear, a strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, if not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

Zipes’s translation of the first edition of the collection by the Brothers Grimm is a wonderful addition to the material available in English. Previous versions have always worked from later editions, and Zipes draws attention to the ways in which those editions smoothed out some of the more embarrassing material with the aim of creating a pure Germanic folkloric heritage worthy to shape the minds of a society. The tales of the first edition have a more discernible bias towards the underdog; they sometimes (though by no means always) give us wicked mothers rather than just stepmothers, as in the earliest version of “Snow White”; they include stories later deemed to be insufficiently strictly Germanic in origin; and they are occasionally more explicit about sexuality (as in the original version of “Rapunzel”, where the witch discovers that Rapunzel has been receiving a male visitor when her clothes become too tight). Zipes explains how the Grimms saw their role as more than that of dispassionate recorders of folk material: they polish and harmonise, they combine versions to produce an enriched narrative. They are, in short, performers of the stories just as much as their informants were – sometimes more so, by the sound of it: there are stories here obviously recorded from rather perfunctory summaries, a script to be realised rather than an actual telling.

But the stories set down were, for the Grimms, the native genius of the German Volk, in action – an ambivalent legacy in the 20th century, where it suited the ideologies of the Third Reich to co-opt some of this material in the service of its own mythology (through propagandistic film versions of the stories showing heroes in Nazi-style costume, and monsters and villains with Jewish features, as Marina Warner notes). It was important to record the form in which stories had been communicated, but even more important to continue working on that form so as to find the most worthy way of expressing the racial spirit. The improved versions of the later editions are not, therefore, deceptive in their claim to embody folk traditions; they simply try to secure the best kind of embodiment, for the sake of building up the continuing life of Poesie among the German-speaking peoples.

It remains true that the Grimm stories have their roots in non-literary transmission, even where there may be remote literary sources or where the collectors add literary touches. The collection of early-medieval Arabic “wonder tales” translated with clarity and vigour by Malcolm Lyons is, on the other hand, very definitely a literary compilation, though not (as Robert Irwin makes clear in his introduction) a work of exceptional polish. It illustrates a process clearly going on to a less marked degree in the Grimms and still more in Hans Christian Andersen and some modern fabulists: the weaving of very diverse folkloric materials and themes into new stories.

Standard Arabic folklore themes, such as the jinni carrying a woman in a box and the giant bird encountered on a sea voyage, or elements of a wider thematic repertoire (the forbidden room with an enchanted prisoner inside, the curse on the infant prince or princess that royal parents try to circumvent) are incorporated into lively and complex tales, often interspersed with poems, whose focus is on the “wonders” that this collection’s title points to. There are stories of quests for treasure, separated lovers, wonder-working apes: material foreshadowing the style and sometimes the content of the Thousand and One Nights, but reflecting a rather earlier cultural milieu and often a less sophisticated storytelling idiom.

Irwin rightly notes the subtext of Islamic orthodoxy – the crucial significance of acknowledging God’s supreme power at moments of crisis and trial, the recognition of divinely ordained destiny at every point and the basic importance of wonder as an emotion opening the heart and mind to God. But this is an Islam quite a long way from the world of modern Salafist zealotry: a great deal of alcohol is drunk, even by the pious; there are strikingly many “interfaith” references, descriptions of visits to Christian shrines and Christian hermits, oracles from pagan deities and the like, and a general background of unanxious acceptance of religious diversity (when one character declines the invitation to become a Muslim, there is no hostile reaction reported). One of the nice ironies in several stories is the way in which the Christian and Byzantine past appears as an opulent and exotic world, rather like the oriental fantasies of later westerners. Irwin argues that the author was well informed about Christian practice; it would be more accurate to say that he has just the kind of knowledge of this that a 19th-century western writer of adventure stories might have had of Islam or Hinduism: he knows a bit of the vocabulary and enough to give a flavour of alien splendour, but not much more.

We are further away from myth here than in many stories in the Grimm collection; indeed, Irwin suggests that “pulp fiction” is the nearest we might get to a fair description in contemporary terms. (This is a rather severe judgement. Pulp fiction does not concern itself much with the kind of joyous extravagance evoked in these tales, nor with wonder of a theological variety – though their attitudes to women and other races are, like a lot of their medieval western counterparts, worthy of Bulldog Drummond or James Bond at their worst.) Yet there is unmistakably the same flavour of a world in which every moment is surrounded by possibilities over which we have no control, for good and ill. The individual fairy tale is not itself a myth, but it presupposes a mythic framework of surprise, dependence or vulnerability, the balancing of anxiety with expectation: a thumbnail sketch of human experience in a bewildering natural and emotional environment.

Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need. 

Rowan Williams is a lead reviewer for the New Statesman. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury, £20)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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