Last week, I arrived in Brighton at 1am on a train severely delayed by ‘extreme weather conditions’ (everyone from outside the UK, feel free to laugh at our public transport!) and forged my way through the ankle-height-and-still-falling snow to meet my friend Carla. To my surprise, she said I’d brought that night’s weather on us – before going on to explain: “In Germany, when it’s snowing, we say Frau Holle is shaking out her bedsheets. Frau Holle is the same as Hel.”
This lovely mythographic tidbit (which also ties in quite well with my previous post about my name) was an entirely appropriate end to the day. Earlier that evening I had been at the talk on “Feminism and Fairytales” from Sophia Morgan-Swinhoe, organised by KCL FemSoc. (As I said a while ago, I’m ridiculously proud of how far KCL’s feminist community has come, and I’ve ended up taking a sort of grandparental interest in their events…)
It was a genuinely fascinating talk, covering familiar and unfamiliar ground – with interesting information also coming from the audience that packed out the seminar room. While I won’t attempt to reproduce my notes in full, here are some of the points from the lecture (provided with Sophia’s permission!):
– The written versions of fairytales we have often came from female oral storytellers, but transcribed (and often adapted) by literary gentlemen who went into communities to ‘bring back’ stories. Some of the storytellers were fiercely protective of their stories: Sophia mentioned an account in which a woman refused to give up her story to the Grimms, who then paid a child to visit her and memorise it for them.
– The seeming disjunct between the female origin of most fairytales and the sexism we see in them is in part attributable to the men who edited and prepared them for the printed word; additionally, many of the stories can be seen as a guide to coping with pre-existing patriarchal structures, rather than necessarily endorsing them. For this point, Sophia particularly noted the stories of Marie de France, which showed a preoccupation with forced and unhappy marriages.
– The designation of fairytales as ‘for children’ was first effected by Andrew Lang, a Victorian who collected numerous anthologies of ‘Fairy Books’. (I discuss Lang’s influence on my childhood – as well as fairytales, gender, and queerness more generally – in my article “On Fairies and Marriage” in the first issue of False Moustache magazine.
– Patricia Duncker has described the fairytale form to be inflexibly sexist and ultimately conservative. Sophia disagrees (as do I!) – while today where we seem to have ‘retold’ fairytales everywhere (from TV series Once Upon a Time to last year’s two Snow White films to the latest hilarious schlock piece Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters…), there have always been subversions: in the old oral accounts, in the aforementioned Marie de France, and in Victorian writing. Apparently that last one was because fairytales were deemed a ‘safe’ thing for women to write about – which then allowed them to slip extra things beneath notice. (Carla tells me a similar thing happened with East German film – fairytales were designated politically ‘safe’ subjects, which resulted in the creation of some wonderful films: apparently the Cinderella of Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a skilled huntress who repeatedly bests the prince, and whose respect he has to earn.)
– Finally – and leading in to the other purpose of this post – Sophia discussed two principles of rewriting fairytales: deconstruction and demolition that exposes what’s at the heart of it, or rebuilding and reclaiming the elements to create something new. On the latter point, she quoted Barthes on myth: “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn…” The talk – and ensuing discussion – then turned to discussing modern revisions and re-visionings of fairytales: my notes from this section are probably worth another blog entry in themselves, so I’ll leave that for now.
The discussion of writing within the fairytale form – as deconstruction, or as reclamation – got me thinking about what I’m doing with my own fairytales project. In the Q&A after the talk I mentioned to the room that I was writing feminist fairy tales of my own. I realise I haven’t actually yet discussed on this blog what I’m doing – or trying to do – with these stories.
A little context: I read ‘The Prince Who Loved A Monster’ at Transpose last year, and it went down very well – so far, that’s the only one I’ve read aloud publicly, but I would love to start taking my fairy tales to similar events. I’ve been writing more and more, and thus far I’m honoured by the high praise from people who have seen them.
I’ve variously described them as ‘queer’, ‘alternative’, ‘modern’, ‘political’, ‘feminist’, and ‘dark’ fairytales. None of those are quite right – they seem either to imply a more overtly didactic approach than I’m taking, or a sense of belonging to the traditions of gritty urban fantasy or fairytales that have been ‘updated’ or ‘retold’. The other day someone used the term ‘fairytales for our times’, which I quite liked, although I wouldn’t really think of them as being particularly ‘of the zeitgest’: if they’re ‘of’ anything, I expect it’s ‘queer/feminist subculture’.
So what are they? Well. For a start, they’re new stories. That’s not to put down the tradition of retelling fairytales – if you’ve caught me at one of my more reflective poetry gigs then you’ll perhaps know that translation, adaptation, and transformation of myth and folklore is something that I utterly love doing. I’m a great fan of Angela Carter’s (often brutal and sexual) stories built upon ‘extracting the latent content’ of traditional fairytales; Emma Donoghue’s (often fantastically queer) metaphorisations of existing fairytales; and if we’re talking extremely modern versions, The Mechanisms’ transposition of fairytale characters into a dystopian intergalactic war. But – so far – that’s not really what I’m doing with the fairytales collection.
What I’m trying to do is write totally new stories – ones which aren’t obviously deconstructions of any one specific fairytale, while being still very much in dialogue with the existing tradition. (And to be clear – I don’t think that this is some new thing that I’ve invented. Hell, what’s the fantasy genre if not new stories in dialogue with a mythic tradition? But still – writing simultaneously within and against a tradition is amazing, and important, and something I want to keep feeding with my own work.) The fairytales I’ve written so far share common elements with traditional fairytales – important themes like love and morality and sacrifice, motifs like magic and bodily transformation, settings that are both familiar and alien, now and not-now, here and not-here. Stylistically, they’re quite diverse: some in the recitative style of oral fairy tales, some more like the written iterations, some poetry, some prose that’s more ‘modern’ sounding. Perhaps most crucially, they’re informed by my understanding of the world, which is a queer, feminist, and broadly left-wing* understanding. It isn’t my intention to be polemical with them as such – there’s nothing fun about feeling like an author is shouting at you, unless the shouting is itself the point** – but given that the fairytale is to some extent an intrinsically didactic form, and that art cannot help but reflect the artist in some way, this world-view certainly comes through. So – political, yet not polemical? I don’t think I can do much better to explain what I mean than quote myself from that False Moustache article – because despite feeling acutely aware of that article’s flaws (with hindsight of over a year!), it still works as a manifesto for this endeavour:
Looking through my diary from earlier that year, I found this scribbled at the end of a rant about stereotypes and identity: “WE NEED NEW MYTHS. OUR OWN ONES.”
And whether that ‘we’ means women, or feminists, or queers, or kinksters, or polyamorists, or anyone else who lives on the borderlands of heteropatriarchal society – yes, yes we do.We need to tell our own stories and watch them ascend through culture until they displace the old patterns that reproduce power and violence and damaging gender-norms. We need new templates that give precedent and permission to whole kaleidoscopes of genders and sexualities and relationship structures and ways of being in the world. We need fairytales of our own, that teach about the world as it is, but also that give us hope to build it better.
*I say ‘broadly’ because I don’t currently subscribe to any one particular strain of left-wing thought, and I don’t expect I will do until I’ve done considerably more reading in this area.
** See my ‘shouty’ poetry, for example…