“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”
― Albert Einstein
My guest speaker today is Neil Gaiman. We will pretend i got him to write a guest blog and not simply cut and pasted an article he wrote for The Guardian because yay fantasy! Just for the record, i always really, really, really wanted to send him one of the Fairy Tale albums for him to listen to in hopes he’d enjoy it, but i never have. Perhaps one day.
This is an article he wrote just before the film version of Stardust came out (which was surprisingly excellent, i might add. I’m never bothered when films change the books for the sake of the medium as long as they do a good job, and the film really was well done. But go read the book first.) on the importance of Fairy Tales:
Once upon a time, back when animals spoke and rivers sang and every quest was worth going on, back when dragons still roared and maidens were beautiful and an honest young man with a good heart and a great deal of luck could always wind up with a princess and half the kingdom – back then, fairytales were for adults.
Children listened to them and enjoyed them, but children were not the primary audience, no more than they were the intended audience of Beowulf, or The Odyssey. JRR Tolkien said, in a robust and fusty analogy, that fairytales were like the furniture in the nursery – it was not that the furniture had originally been made for children: it had once been for adults and was consigned to the nursery only when the adults grew tired of it and it became unfashionable.
Fairytales became unfashionable for adults before children discovered them, though. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, to pick two writers who had a lot to do with the matter, did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work that included massive volumes such as German Legends, German Grammar and Ancient German Law. And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairytales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.
The Grimms responded to market pressure and bowdlerised enthusiastically. Rapunzel no longer let it slip that she had been meeting the prince by asking the witch why her belly had swollen so badly that her clothes would not fit (a logical question, given that she would soon be giving birth to twins). By the third edition, Rapunzel tells the witch that she is lighter to pull up than the prince was, and the twins, when they turn up, turn up out of nowhere.
The stories that people had told each other to pass the long nights had become children’s tales. And there, many people obviously thought, they needed to stay.
But they don’t stay there. I think it’s because most fairytales, honed over the years, work so very well. They feel right. Structurally, they can be simple, but the ornamentation, the act of retelling, is often where the magic occurs. Like any form of narrative that is primarily oral in transmission, it’s all in the way you tell ’em.
It’s the joy of panto. Cinderella needs her ugly sisters and her transformation scene, but how we get to it changes from production to production. There are traditions of fairytales. The Arabian Nights gives us one such; the elegant, courtly tales of Charles Perrault gives us a French version; the Grimm brothers a third. We encounter fairytales as kids, in retellings or panto. We breathe them. We know how they go.
This makes them easy to parody. Monty Python’s “Happy Valley”, in which princes fling themselves to their deaths for love of a princess with wooden teeth, is still my favourite send-up. The Shrek series parodies the Hollywood retellings of fairytales to diminishing returns, soon making one wistful for the real thing.
A few years ago, on Father’s Day, my daughters indulged me and let me show them Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. The girls were unimpressed. And then Belle’s father entered the Beast’s castle, and we watched special effects of people putting their hands through walls and films being played backwards, and I heard my daughters gasp at the magic on the screen. It was the thing itself, a story they knew well, retold with assurance and brilliance.
Sometimes the fairytale tradition intersects with the literary tradition. In 1924, the Irish writer and playwright Lord Dunsany wrote The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in which the elders of the English kingdom of Eld decide they wish to be ruled by a magic lord, and in which a princess is stolen from Elfland and brought to England. In 1926, Hope Mirrlees, a member of the Bloomsbury set and a friend of TS Eliot, published Lud-in-the-Mist, a quintessentially English novel of transcendent oddness, set in a town on the borders of Fairyland, where illegal traffic in fairy fruit (like the fruit sold in Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market”), and the magic and poetry and wildness that come with the fruit from over the border change the lives of the townsfolk for ever.
Mirrlees’ unique vision was influenced by English folk tales and legends (Mirrlees was the partner of classicist Jane Ellen Harrison), by Christina Rossetti and by a Victorian homicidal lunatic, the painter Richard Dadd, in particular his unfinished masterwork, an obsessively detailed painting called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke – also the subject of a radio play by Angela Carter.
With her astonishing collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, Carter was the first writer I encountered who took fairytales seriously, in the sense of not trying to explain them or to make them less or to pin them dead on paper, but to reinvigorate them. Her lycanthropic and menstrual Red Riding Hood variants were gathered together in Neil Jordan’s coming-of-age fantasy film The Company of Wolves. She brought the same intensity to her retelling of other fairytales, from “Bluebeard” (a Carter favourite) to “Puss in Boots”, and then created her own perfect fairytale in the story of Fevvers, the winged acrobat in Nights in the Circus
When I was growing up, I wanted to read something that was unapologetically a fairytale, and just as unapologetically for adults. I remember the delight with which, as a teenager, I stumbled across William Goldman’s The Princess Bride in a north London library. It was a fairytale with a framing story which claimed that Goldman was editing Silas Morganstern’s classic (albeit fictional) book into the form in which it was once read to him by his father, who left out the dull bits – a conceit that justified telling adults a fairytale, and which legitimised the book by making it a retelling, as all fairy stories somehow have to be. I interviewed Goldman in the early 1980s, and he described it his favourite of his books and the least known, a position it kept until the 1987 film of the book made it a perennial favourite.
A fairytale, intended for adult readers. It was a form of fiction I loved and wanted to read more of. I couldn’t find one on the shelves, so I decided to write one.
I started writing Stardust in 1994, but mentally timeslipped about 70 years to do it. The mid-1920s seemed like a time when people enjoyed writing those sorts of things, before there were fantasy shelves in the bookshops, before trilogies and books “in the great tradition of The Lord of the Rings”. This, on the other hand, would be in the tradition of Lud-in-the-Mist and The King of Elfland’s Daughter. All I was certain of was that nobody had written books on computers back in the 1920s, so I bought a large book of unlined pages, the first fountain pen I had owned since my schooldays and a copy of Katharine Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies. I filled the pen and began.
I wanted a young man who would set out on a quest – in this case a romantic quest, for the heart of Victoria Forester, the loveliest girl in his village. The village was somewhere in England, and was called Wall, after the wall that runs beside it, a dull-looking wall in a normal-looking meadow. And on the other side of the wall was Faerie – Faerie as a place or as a quality, rather than as a posh way of spelling fairy. Our hero would promise to bring back a fallen star, one that had fallen on the far side of the wall.
And the star, I knew, would not, when he found it, be a lump of metallic rock. It would be a young woman with a broken leg, in a poor temper, with no desire to be dragged halfway across the world and presented to anyone’s girlfriend.
On the way, we would encounter wicked witches, who would seek the star’s heart to give back their youth, and seven lords (some living, some ghosts) who seek the star to confirm their inheritance. There would be obstacles of all kinds, and assistance from odd quarters. And the hero would win through, in the manner of heroes, not because he was especially wise or strong or brave, but because he had a good heart, and because it was his story.
I began to write:
There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.
And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely new (for every tale about every young man there ever was or will be could start in a similar manner), there was much about this young man and what happened to him that was unusual, although even he never knew the whole of it.
The voice sounded like the voice I needed – a little stilted and old-fashioned, the voice of a fairytale. I wanted to write a story that would feel, to the reader, like something he or she had always known. Something familiar, even if the elements were as original as I could make them.
I was fortunate in having Charles Vess, to my mind the finest fairy artist since Arthur Rackham, as the illustrator of Stardust, and many times I found myself writing scenes – a lion fighting a unicorn, a flying pirate ship – simply because I wanted to see how Charles would paint them. I was never disappointed.
The book came out, first in illustrated and then in unillustrated form. There seemed to be a general consensus that it was the most inconsequential of my novels. Fantasy fans, for example, wanted it to be an epic, which it took enormous pleasure in not being. Shortly after it was published, I wound up defending it to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.
“What’s it for?” he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.
“It’s a fairytale,” I told him. “It’s like an ice cream. It’s to make you feel happy when you finish it.”
I don’t think that I convinced him, not even a little bit. There was a French edition of Stardust some years later that contained translator’s notes demonstrating that the whole of the novel was a gloss on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which I wish I had read at the time of the interview. I could have referred it to the journalist, even if I didn’t believe a word.
Still, the people who wanted fairytales found the book, and some of them knew what it was, and liked it for being exactly that. One of those people was film-maker Matthew Vaughn.
I tend to be extremely protective when it comes to adaptations of my work, but I enjoyed the screenplay and I really like the film they made – which takes liberties with the plot all over the place. (I know I didn’t write a pirate captain performing a can-can in drag, for a start …)
A star still falls, a boy still promises to bring it to his true love, there are still wicked witches and ghosts and lords (although the lords have now become princes.) They even gave the story an unabashedly happy ending, which is something people tend to do when they retell fairytales.
In The Penguin Book of English Folk Tales, we learn that mid-20th-century folklorists had collected an oral story and never noticed it was actually a retelling and simplification of a strange and disturbing children’s story written by the Victorian writer Lucy Clifford.
I would, of course, be happy if Stardust met with a similar fate, if it continued to be retold long after its author was forgotten, if people forgot that it had once been a book and began their tales of the boy who set out to find the fallen star with “Once upon a time”, and finished with “Happily ever after”.