Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Keeping Fairy Tales Fluid



I've started reading The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, and something jumped out at me in her Introduction. It has to do with the advantages of oral storytelling and the dangers of canonizing specific versions in an archive.

It's great that people like Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers recorded versions of fairy tales for posterity, but we lose something when we sit down alone to read a story that way. Hans Christian Andersen was famous for crafting his own fairy tales, but he also loved to read existing fairy tales to children and he was quite animated about it. He put his own personality into the telling and kids loved to listen to him.

Tatar writes, "Reading these stories (in the way Andersen did) is a way of reclaiming them, turning them into our cultural stories by inflecting them in new ways and in some cases rescripting what happened." She goes on to say, "The fairy tales in (The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales) did not require editorial intervention in an earlier age, precisely because they were brought up to date by their tellers and tailored to the cultural context in which they were told."

In other words, the reason that so many earlier versions existed is because oral storytellers kept changing them based on the needs and interests of a) them as storytellers and b) their audiences. That's a "no duh" kind of statement, but the implication of it hit me in a new way. If I only know one version of "Little Red Riding Hood" from a specific book and I only tell my child that one version of the story, then I'm limiting the kind of experience he can have. Knowing other variations helps parents adapt the stories for - and more importantly, with - their kids. For instance, the fates of Cinderella's stepsisters and Little Red Riding Hood are very different from version to version, even just from Perrault to Grimm. Which is the "correct" or "true" version is up to the teller, but also the hearer.

Different hearers focus on different things from the same story. According to Tatar, Angela Carter heard "Little Red Riding Hood" and giggled when her grandmother pretended to gobble her up while telling it. Luciano Pavarotti connected to the horror of it, saying, "I identified with Little Red Riding Hood. I had the same fears as she. I didn't want her to die." Charles Dickens wrote that Red was his "first love" and that "I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss." Is "Little Red Riding Hood" a thrilling adventure, a horror story, or a romance? It can be all three and more, especially if the teller is observant enough to know what the listener wants to take away from it and is willing to modify it accordingly.

When I think about this as a writer, I get a little uncomfortable with it, because it gets very close to the attitude of fan entitlement. But collaboration between teller and hearer in an oral story is different from a reader (or viewer) demanding specific details in a piece of finished art. For one thing, the collaboration in oral fairy tales is traditionally between an adult and a child. And the adult did not create the story from whole cloth to begin with. There's no sense of ownership by the teller, so when they give the story to the child, the act is all about giving the child what she wants to receive. It's a selfless act, as is so much of good parenting. It's a very different thing when a storyteller presents her story to an adult audience as a finished piece of art and the audience childishly demands something other than what they've been given. The teller/hearer agreement is not the same in both situations.

Back to fairy tales, the very act of writing them down changes the teller/hearer relationship. With a written version, the teller is no longer the parent, but the person who wrote it down. The hearer is still the hearer, but there's no way to literally change the story as it's being told. That kind of action is done internally by the hearer as she develops her own head canon. Which is the same kind of thing we do with Star Wars and Game of Thrones. It's a valid activity (within limits), but it's not the same as interacting directly with the storyteller as the story is being told.

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