March 3, 2008

Developing a relationship to fairy tales - closing remarks

(Some observations about the arbitrariness of genre)

Although it's obvious that I think certain modes of dealing with fairy tales completely miss the boat at times, upon reflection, I can't truly assert that those approaches are either without value, or that they have not contributed something important to my understanding of fairy tales or to the understanding of fairy tales in general.To begin with, let's posit that there's something akin to dreamwork that applies to fairy tales; let's call it "fairy tale work." One of the central tenets of dreamwork is that one shouldn't rush jump straight to interpretation. One needs to absorb the tale, play with the tale, live the tale. Only when one has finally experienced the tale on several different levels should one venture to say what it "means." One thing that has to be kept in mind when talking about fairy tales (and when talking about all literature for that matter) is that all categorization of literature into genre and sub genres is arbitrary. To get a sense of just how arbitrary, indulge me in considering the following potted history of literature.

Story telling began around the campfire 150,000 years ago. After the tribe had sated itself on whatever beast they had roasted that night, Ogg, Igg and Oog would perform a dramatic re-enactment of catching a particularly worthy antelope: the world's first narrative. The story would have everything. There would be the foreshadowing of the place and time they found the magical creature through omens along the trail. There would be the enchanted moment when they beheld the beautiful animal, and it looked back at them, and consciousness beheld consciousness. There would be the tests of strength, endurance and courage the hunters underwent, as they chased the wounded prey across the landscape and almost got hopelessly lost (or they actually did get lost but magical beings and powers aided them in returning to the tribe).But was that the only kind of tale told around the fire? Well, no.

In succeeding generations Org, appointed by the elders to remember everything that happens to the tribe, as well as all the stories he was told by elders before they croak of, would give recitals of certain stories of particular importance to the tribe, including Ogg's famous story of stalking the enchanted antelope. Org's stories tended to be what we would call history, or legend nowadays.

Big Mama, Ogg's main woman (monogamy hadn't quite caught on just yet), would sometimes be called on to tell about the visits she got during the night from the Sky Mother, whose tits are the stars and whose womb is the waxing and waning moon. Sky mother would tell her which plants to use to cure various illnesses tribe members suffered from. Sky mother tended to talk in riddles, so the tribe would have to play around with Big Mama's dreams to figure out which plant Sky Mother meant and how they were supposed to prepare it. Very often the solution was a horrible pun that made the whole tribe groan and then giggle. Sky Mother has a strange sense of humor.

Then again, there were the tales told by Jackal, the tribe's shaman. These tales were always fantastic, and involve travelling to other worlds; some of them are like the world the tribe knew, and some were very different than their world, inhabited by gods, people and beings unlike anything they knew.In his tales there were heroes who leave their tribes to find women and treasures they have seen in their dreams. To triumph in his quest, the hero (or heroine) must bravely fight battles with creatures unlike any beasts the tribe knew from it's world, and the hero must perform tasks requiring great skill and cunning.Once Jackal told about visiting a world of people with white skin who live in square boxes and travel inside things that look like shiny turtles with clear ice on the sides they can see through. There were so many things in this story that no one could understand, like the giant seed pods these people hold to their ears to talk to other people who are far away. Jackal said he didn't understand this world either, but he went there and watched how people do things if he needed ideas for how to make better tools. He said he couldn't go there very often because it drained his spirit; although the people in this world are god-like, it was clear to him that most of them are lonely, and afraid of each other.

Oops. Got carried away there. But my point is this: although it's the shaman's tales that would most easily be classified as fairy tales, the historian's tales as "legend", Big Mama's tales as some sort of "religious" text, and the hunter's tales as something else, all of them would cross lines into one another. The hunter's tales have elements of the religious tales, the historian might relate an important ancestor's encounter with with a supernatural being, or his voyage to another world, which are more fairy tale-like.

The same goes for the collections of folk tales created in the 19th century. When some philologist doing field work found a peasant who was willing to offer up some of the yarns common people told each other around the hearth (a modernized form of the campfire, mind you!), there was no telling what she/he might tell the scholar. It might be a ghost story. It might be a local myth. It might be a legend connected to a local landmark. It might be a fable. And many times it was some mixture of these "genres." Many times it's not exactly clear what category a narrative fits into, but it has to be put into some pigeonhole or other.

And the picture is further muddled by the fact that various collectors attempted to edit and rewrite some tales. It is evident when reading some collections that editors made attempts to "prettify" some tales, and to make the language, plotting and other elements more consistent with the standards of the current literary (read: high culture) texts of the time.

(Next: to interpret or not to interpret)

1 comment:

anthromama said...

I wonder if that's why I find so much nourishment in "young adult" fiction--because I never knew that fairy tales were a genre just for kids. They tell you that, and you believe it, and then you're lost to that wisdom. Trans-genre fiction is just so much more interesting to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a Regency novel with magic and fairies.

That Sky Mother, she's a tricky one. She's going to make you work for it.

(Psst: check over your title!)