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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 appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014