Grandmother, what big feet you have . . .
I’m one of those readers who has, for all of my life, taken stories at face value. Which I suppose contributes to my failure as a member of bookclubs: because I was never able or desirous of finding meanings within stories, subtle or otherwise.
Even with fairytale, for me it was always the story. If there was a blatant moral or caution, so be it, but as a youngster I just enjoyed the telling. As an adult I refused to find any ulterior motive within the story. Not fairytale, Noddy, Swallows and Amazons . . . none of them.
Recently I acquired The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar. Maria’s introduction and subsequent notes made me really sit up. She quotes John Updike who said: ‘They were the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of a pre-literate people.’
Gosh! Porno? Trash? I read on. Little Red Riding Hood, in a french adaptation at the end of the nineteenth century, was raunchy violence at its most wierdly grotesque. Perrault in the seventeenth century and the Grimms in the early eighteenth century certainly reiterated the story’s inherent violence, but excluded the ribaldry of early oral tellings.
My my, Grandmother Fairytale, what big storytelling imprints you leave!
Then of course there is Hansel and Gretel – loving father leaves adored children in forest to die, children find life-size gingerbread house to eat and are caught by cannabalistic witch, little children have strength to push old woman into an oven and burn her alive. Tatar mentions that the punishment of the witch has been read as a portent of the horrrors of the Third Reich – a dreadful thought and even worse to have it attached to a popular fairytale.
There are so many stories – stories I’ve never read till now. Like Kate Crackernuts, Donkeyskin, Molly Whuppie and Vasilisa the Fair. I commend Tatar’s book and found it fascinating to read the meanings and interpretations but I rapidly returned to my original thought. I don’t want interpretation. I don’t want to try and understand some great moralising motivation behind any fantastic tale, even behind Lord of the Rings or The Narnia Chronicles. I just want to read a damned good story.
But another thought has stirred amongst this intellectual whinnowing. What prompted the creation of the marvellous creatures of folktale in our pre-literate history. Why was the Cabyll Ushtey created? Or Jenny Greenteeth, the Caointeach, or the Teine Sidhe?
As a writer of fantasy who dangles her toes very cautiously in the waters of myth and legend, I wish I could ask one of the original bards. Who first saw Jenny Greenteeth in a river and heard of someone dying because of the unseelie old hag? And I have so many other questions to boot.
In the meantime, I read fairytale for its multi-faceted plots, for its fantastic adventures, for its comforting words of ‘Once upon a time . . . ‘ and ‘Happily Everafter.’ I write fantasy with the hope that such faceted dimension fills my own stories. But in the end, only a reader can be the judge . . .