Stand the baby on its head

John Bayley

  • The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales edited by Alison Luire
    Oxford, 455 pp, £17.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 19 214218 6
  • The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales edited by Angela Carter
    Virago, 230 pp, £7.99, July 1993, ISBN 1 85381 616 7

What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber’s ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of traditional tales. ‘The unperplexedness of the story. Fairy tales – cunning and high spirits.’ That comes as close as anything.

The unperplexedness of the story means that it knows what it is doing and where it is going, but neither knows nor cares what it means. An invisible barrier separates old from new fairy stories, like the glass wall round the princess in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. In the new ones, however accomplished and diverting they may be, the meaning is clear but coyly hidden, as in many modern fictions; although the examples sought out by Alison Lurie have as much cunning and high spirits in them as the old tales. In Ursula LeGuin’s ‘The Wife’s Tale’ (1982) it takes us a few pages to spot that the wife is a wolf, her husband a mere man. But the meaning is always there, urging us to spot it, whereas in the old tales it was neither proffered nor implied but intrinsic to the medium. Angela Carter, one of whose jolliest tales, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, is included by Alison Lurie, had a lot of fun with menstrual blood and feminist resourcefulness, but the original Red Riding Hoods and Bluebeard’s wives were serenely unaware of meanings.

For all the change in the message, Angela Carter’s tales are not in this way so different from most Victorian fairy stories. The moral is plain in both, and the medium is used in the same way. ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, published in 1987, which tells the story of Beauty and the Beast in a most engagingly capitalist-baroque fashion, with a few feminist trimmings, is in the same tradition as Ruskin’s ‘The King of the Golden River’ (1850) where his fiercely-held political, aesthetic and ecological doctrines reappear in fantastic guise. In ‘A Toy Princess’ (1877) Mary de Morgan mounts a conventional attack on the conventional Victorian miss; and Frances Browne ‘exposes’ standards of feminine beauty by creating in ‘The Story of Fairyfoot’ a kingdom where large feet are much admired. Hawthorne’s ‘Feathertop’ is in one sense a male version of the Toy Princess – a New England witch makes a fine gentleman from a scarecrow, with whom the daughter of the local rich man falls in love – but Hawthorne’s odd, disturbing gift does not desert him. He points the moral of course: that good straightforward Americans should not be seduced by European affectations, but as in ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’, that most disturbing and effective of all his tales, the symbolism grows and expands like a shapely but slightly sinister magic, and eats up the allegory. There is something enigmatic-naive about Hawthorne, as in the best original fairy tales, a naivety which appears in his notebook jottings, one of which was to remind him that a story he had in mind ‘could be a symbol of something’.

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