Enchanted Conversations: The Reverse Adaptation of Fairy Tales in Online Culture, by John Patrick Pazdziora (University of St. Andrews)
Editor's Note: John P. Pazdziora is a talented scholar and writer, who is a good friend of EC's and a boon to current fairy tale scholarship. His paper, given last January at a conference in Ghent, sheds light on current online fairy tale journals. Those who wish to be published in EC should take note of his comments on this publication. He shares concerns that are my own. (KW)
Andrew Lang, in his classic Victorian fairy tale Prince Prigio , tells of a fairyland king and a rationalistic queen. The queen determines that their son, Prigio, should grow up undeceived by silly tales of fairies and wonders and magic; she makes sure he has a good, sensible education to leave no room for such fancies (5-9). Prigio, however, is the great-grandson of Cinderella, and receives at his christening dozens of magical gifts from the fairies: seven league boots, a wishing cap, the purse of Fortunatus, and so on. The queen sees only old boots, a battered felt cap, and a worn-out purse, and stores the magical gifts away in the lumber-room (9).
J. R. R. Tolkien alluded to this tale when he compared fairy-tale anthologies for children to ‘lumber-rooms,’ repositories of magical treasures denied their magic (50, cf. 51). He suggests that ‘the association between children and fairy-stories is an accident of domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused’ (50). Through shifting fashions, children inadvertently became the inheritors of a folkloric tradition far older (and perhaps wiser) than the society that discarded it (50).
In the attempt to study or rewrite the fairy tale as a literary genre, this fact is unavoidable: we came to these tales as children. Jack Zipes observes that ‘children are continually exposed to fairy tales through reading, viewing, and listening. They are encouraged to sort out their lives through fairy tales,’ whether for good or for ill (Happily Ever After, 10). Although these tales were in most cases originally conceived for adults, they were adapted to become ‘more appropriate for children’ (5-6). They became, in essence, an entire canon of children’s literature; the lumber-room became sacrosanct (cf. Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick, 1-2).
The rise of online culture has seen a rise of popular retellings of fairy tales as web-based journals and magazines give writers a platform to tell their versions of the tales. I will examine three of these online journals—Scherezade’s Bequest, Enchanted Conversation, and New Fairy Tales—each of which illustrate somewhat different approaches to retelling children’s fairy tales. My interest is both critical and professional; each of these journals has published one of my own short stories. I am attempting to bring the perspective of a literary critic to the work my colleagues and I have undertaken. What do we do when we retell these tales? How do we understand them? Why do we return to the stories we read as children?
Reverse Adaptation and Dual Existence
The ever-rising wave of fairy tale retellings for grown-ups may be suitably defined as reverse adaptation. These stories began, of course, as tales for grown-ups, but it is not the grown-up tales we are retelling. They have passed through the lumber rooms of children’s anthologies and our own childhoods; they are continuations of and reversions from this repertoire of children’s literature.
To explore how reverse adaptation works, I suggest that there are two inherent dimensions of the tale: the linguistic and the mythic. I derive this concept partly from C. S. Lewis’s theory of story. In his essay ‘On Stories’ , Lewis draws a distinction between the technicalities of telling a story—narrative style, character delineation, structure, and so on, what I am calling the linguistic dimension—and ‘the Story itself, the series of imagined events,’ which, he insists, is where the potency of a story actually resides (3). He elaborates this idea much further in An Experiment in Criticism , where he described Story as ‘extra-literary,’ capable of possessing ‘a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work’ (41). He calls this extra-literary story ‘myth’ (42). Such myths are ‘contemplated but not believed, dissociated from ritual, held up before the fully waking and logical mind’; they are works of power and beauty (45).
I suggest that any folkloric story—perhaps, more correctly, any story told to and loved by children, thus becoming a sort of folklore (cf. Zipes, Ever After, 13)—contains this mythical dimension: a pattern of events that affects the reader profoundly, not as a linguistic, verbal experience, but as an object of contemplation like a dream before a waking mind. Thus, each story, possessed of both linguistic and mythic dimensions, can be said to have a dual existence; there are the words of the story, which the reader experiences directly, and there is the Story itself, the contemplative object which the words reveal to us. We might say that the mythic dimension is the artifact found in the lumber-room; the linguistic dimension is how an individual writer has put this artifact to use. Two distinct linguistic stories could thus be argued to possess a single mythic story, albeit not necessarily the Campbellian monomyth. Thus we can recognize the same mythic centre in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Reverse adaptations rise from these mythic centres, and to understand the dynamics of that interrelation, I turn to the online journals.
Scheherezade’s Bequest: Fairy Tale as Subgenre
Scheherezade’s Bequest began online in 2005 as an imprint of the larger website Cabinet des Fées. Its aim is to reflect a wide diversity in tales, both in the sources and the retellings (“About CdF”). Many of the writers featured are already established in genre fantasy and speculative fiction, with publishing credits among the best and most competitive SF markets (Wilson; Bobet; Hopkinson; Malcolm-Clarke; et al.). In the order of publishing, the fantasies and science fiction come first; reverse adaptation comes later. In Scheherezade’s Bequest, fairy tales appear to function as a subgenre of speculative fiction.
The retellings are primarily deconstructions, many of them feminist. Characters are re-gendered, re-oriented, and eroticized. Plots are re-shaped, re-arranged, even obliterated. The happy ending—what Tolkien called the ‘Consolation’ of fairy-tales, ‘the sudden joyous turn’—is certainly questioned, and frequently absent (75). There is a marked lack of heroes; the preference is either anti-heroes or ordinary protagonists.
In Patricia Russo’s story ‘Afternoon Tale,’ a little girl asks her aunt to tell her ‘a for-true-story’ about heroes. Her aunt demurs. ‘Well, I said, I can’t honestly say I ever knew any heroes personally. [...] But I can tell you a story about a person who set an example. Will that do?’ The erstwhile role model is a sour, unkind old woman who nonetheless exemplifies selflessness and dignity. Tales of wonder are shown to be of didactic value to children, but ‘heroes’ are beyond experience—not ‘for-true,’ and thus not worth imagining.
Dismantling the fairy tale may be part of the point—a revolt against the stories of childhood as incompatible with the real or desired world of adulthood. This appears to be the case in Mike Allen’s short story ‘Then a millstone came along…’ The story begins: ‘So all the stories were true.’ Nathan, a quiet, suburban professional, has come home to discover in his foyer a legendary millstone enchanted to crush evildoers. When it doesn’t crush him, he fears for his family. ‘None of them were home at the moment. He had time to stop the fairy tale from coming true.’ This becomes the quest of the tale: to stop the true tale from coming true. Nathan is saved by an unexpected visit from his mother-in-law, but the concept informs the retellings in Scheherezade’s Bequest. The story is in some sense ‘true,’ but it must somehow be stopped. Reverse adaptation serves here as a simultaneous embrace and rejection. The stories from childhood can be kept, if they can be metamorphosed into the grown-up tales we’d rather tell.
The hopeful tales read more like short fantasies than fairy tales. ‘The Souk of Dreams’ by Keyan Bowes, for instance, is a touching romance about a gay couple who rediscover their faith in love and human goodness. However, the setting of the tale—a fantasy market in the desert—is described much like a sci-fi convention with real extraterrestrials. Any moorings to mythic versions of fairy tales have been cast off. Hope is discovered in reinventing according to a new medium—speculative fiction. Reverse adaptations are primarily to rebuke and tear down the alleged deceptions of childhood.
The question arises—and it is, I think, helpful for understanding Scheherezade’s Bequest—why tell reverse adaptations at all? The answer appears in Amanda Downum’s story, ‘Brambles.’ A soldier finds a fairy, a wood-wife, caught in a cruel trap. She is beautiful but vampiric, and in pain. The soldier considers killing her—‘One more little beauty snuffed’—and thinks perhaps she deserves it. Instead, he cuts her free and lets her go. ‘Her next kill is on my hands, like so many others. But at least one beautiful thing is left unbroken.’ If we see the wood-wife as a type of the fairy tale, then these tales are worth retelling because in their mythic centre is beauty; their cruelty and harshness merely serves to remind us of our own. They are worth exploring and adapting so that, despite the horror of the world, ‘at least one beautiful thing is left unbroken.’
Enchanted Conversation: Fairy Tale as Cultural Artifact
Enchanted Conversation is a different sort of publication from Scheherezade’s Bequest. Enchanted Conversation serves to promote unknown and unpublished writers, hobbyists and beginners more frequently than career professionals. Thus the literary quality of the stories is usually not so refined as in Scheherezade’s Bequest, but the fairy tales are more likely to be retold on their own terms. The tales are treated less as a literary subgenre than as cultural artifacts to be preserved and remembered.
Each issue takes a single tale as its theme. Thus the various linguistic versions share, or have potential to share, a single mythic version. The retellings intersect at different points of the tale, creating ideally a prismatic effect or dialectic, but occasionally simply redundancy. (There is, for instance, a limited number of times the villain of a piece can tell his side of the story before that storytelling technique loses its luster.)
The retellings are, by and large, whimsical (cf. Loory; et al.). Yet here, again, the idea of heroes and happy endings are challenged, even despaired of. Prince Charming is a letch and a womanizer (Walker). The Beast is immortal, reverting back and forth from human to animal as his lovers die (Cowens). Hansel and Gretel’s father turns out to be a serial axe-murderer (Jones). The happy ending formula learned as children is not seen as compatible with a grown-up way of looking at the world. So Cathy Hall, in her poem ‘The Problem with Fairy Tales,’ writes:
Once upon a time, long, long ago,
You fed the fairy tales to a
Wispy-haired, apple-cheeked girl,
Wide-eyed and wide open. [...]
What are you supposed to do,
Now that she’s grown up, up, up and can’t find
A single beanstalk, or an employed Prince,
Much less a soul-waking kiss? (1-4, 9-12)
The stories, Hall insists, are divorced from reality; the promise of fairy tales have been subverted and betrayed. The girl who grew up delighting in the sweetness of the tales cannot escape from a mundane, uninspiring world, and finds no meaning or self-authentication in romantic relationship. The problem with fairy tales, Hall suggests, is that they are lies. They are not responsible storytelling. These cultural artifacts deserve to be lost in the lumber-room—all felt hats and old boots.
Even if happily ever after is not true, does that mean the tales themselves are not true, or should not be told? Most of the stories in Enchanted Conversation are not so bleak. There is a purpose, they argue, even in telling not ‘for-real’ tales; quaint or not, these artifacts retain their beauty. And here, I think, they have struck something essential to the mythic dimension of the fairy tales.
This is illustrated in Claire Massey’s poem ‘The Sleeping Beauty: a showman’s tale.’ The poem is a dramatic monologue, the narrator a showman, displaying a clockwork model of the enchanted princess, which he swears is the real girl. ‘You’ve heard the story / now come and see a real / princess’ (17-19). She is a fake, and he runs a sideshow, huckstering deceits as truths; the fairy tale has become a flea circus. But something other than the model’s figure draws the crowds; something enchants even the cynical heart of the showman:
I pack her in rags,
load her in and out of the cart,
oil and wind the clockwork parts
where her heart should be
and sometimes as
the movement winds down
I swear I see her eyelids flutter. (31-37)
A clockwork heart beats where a real heart should; a mechanized, deceptive world has replace the natural, credulous promise of childhood. And yet the magic, the enchantment, is not quite gone, not yet. In the liminal moment, between sleeping and waking, life and death, even the shrewd and worldly-wise showman believes his own tales. It is a poignant image of the potential of fairy tale. These lifeless things from the lumber-room flutter suddenly in the hand. The spell of loss and forgetfulness will break, and beauty will be restored to the world.
New Fairy Tales: Fairy Tale as Creative Tradition
It is this restoration of beauty that informs, in part, the third publication, New Fairy Tales. Unlike Scheherezade’s Bequest and Enchanted Conversation, New Fairy Tales does not publish retellings of old tales, but new tales told in the old way. The mythic versions of these tales are unique, not directly derivative or interrelated. Also, New Fairy Tales commissions original artwork for the stories, so that the mythic dimensions are from first printing already interfaced with visual art; often the illustrations are more evocative of the mythic dimension than the stories are. New Fairy Tales represents the writing of a new folklore; the fairy tale stands apart as a continuing creative tradition. The editor, Claire Massey, explains that
Fairy tale bequeaths us a language rich in motifs which I believe we should feel free to plunder. Fairy tales have always belonged to the tellers, their listeners and readers; they belong to us all. And rather than stuffing them away in a cupboard we should play with the form, experiment with its language, make it our own, tell the stories that mean something to us,the stories that dance at the edge of our dreams… (‘Letter from the Editor’, 3)
Here the process of reverse adaptation does not consist of taking a mythic version, distorting or changing it, and draping a different linguistic version around it. Rather, it is an adaptation of a form, the memory not of a particular story but the state of wonder certain stories created, and an attempt to recreate that wonder in a new story.
In Frederick Hilary’s ‘The Giant’s Last Feast,’ for instance—a tale that interfaces with Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’—a giant emerges from long isolation in search of a child to eat (22). But all the children are gone; other giants eat turnips and tree roots now. Craving the taste of ‘sweet dreams and innocent tears,’ he discovers at last a child—‘the last child’—playing by the river. I will let you eat me, the child tells him, if you ‘let me swallow you up, and spit you out whole’ (25-26). The giant is so hungry that he agrees, and the child does. Then the giant discovers that he is no longer a giant: he has become a child.
The child—for he was giant no more—looked down upon his small hands and at his bare feet. In his reflection in the river he saw his blue eyes and soft golden hair like lamb’s wool, and laughed. He spun his gaze around. He saw summer meadows, looked towards the farthestsighted hills and felt all kindness radiating from the earth. There was only this one bright, happy spot, and the land of giants was no more. He had been one once, but would never go back that way (Hilary 26).
The giant is a type of jaded grown-up; childhood and the dreams of childhood are things to be destroyed, taken advantage of, scorned as weak. He twists the narratives of childhood to match his own desire. But when he submits to them—when he is willing to enter into the story rather than crush it for being smaller than his grown-up world—he discovers a wonder and a beauty that turns him into a child again. In other words, by entering into the tradition of storytelling, enjoying the tales like a child rather than looming as critic over them, he lets the stories shape the world and infuse it with hope.
If there is a theme running through New Fairy Tales, it is that story has power to change the world, and especially that fairy tales can give wonder and hope and meaning even in a troubled and broken world. Strikingly, in these tales the sense of disenchantment—anger against heroes and happy endings—is nearly absent. The new tales can still be subversive, and still challenge stereotypes in traditional fairy tales, but they do not discard the notion of a fairy tale itself.
‘The Ice Candle,’ by A. K. Benedict, tells the tale of a little boy, Mark, who is trying to understand his grandmother’s approaching death. He wants to find a way to make her better. Escaping from the sick-chamber of his home into the forest, he meets the Ice Gardener—who this figure in ‘white overalls, white wellies, and a long white coat’ is, we never quite learn—who tells him he’s lucky.
“I don’t feel very lucky.” Mark looked back up at Grandma’s window. The curtains were drawn and the house blanked him. “My Grandma is really sick. And there’s nothing I can do.”
“There’s always something you can do,” the Ice Gardener said, looking up into the sky. (12)
By turning Mark’s gaze from the death-chamber to the sky, the Ice Gardener reorients him from despair to hope. And he gives Mark a quest. Mark is to make a lantern for the Ice Candle from snowballs gathered at three places that frighten him. The tale moves swiftly from each place as Mark’s love for his grandmother overcomes his fears, and he brings the Ice Candle in its snowball lantern to his grandmother. But she does not get better. Mark returns to the Ice Gardener, enraged at the seeming betrayal. The Ice Gardener has lied, Mark claims, and has given him nothing to help his grandmother. But the Ice Gardner tells him, ‘You can help her by telling her your story’(Benedict 15). So Mark does. ‘“I’ve got a story for you,” he said, “Like the ones you told me”’ (15).
He doesn’t prevent his grandmother’s death, but by living and telling a story, he helps her die peacefully and content in the knowledge of his love. He returns the gift of story and wonder she had given him. The reverse adaptation is itself reversed, as a child discovers new stories to tell grown-ups, to help them make sense of the world. Even though the world does not work according to happy endings, that is no reason not to tell fairy tales. That may in fact, be the reason to tell them.
We have seen three sorts of reverse adaptation: as subgenre of speculative fiction, as rediscovering a cultural artifact, and as ongoing creative tradition. Each method has its own peril. The peril of the first is deconstructing so hard that nothing is left; the genre pieces contain distant echoes of fairy tale and nothing more. The mythic centre is lost. The second risks redundancy, the simple repetition of tales already told, asking of tales questions already asked, a possessive enclosing of the mythic centre in retellings that ultimately direct away from the original tale. The third risks wandering too far, turning fairy tales back into a literary pastime for adults, or replacing the great mythic centers of childhood folklore with tales of lesser strength. But of all the perils, I think the last may also be the least.
It seems fitting to end where we began. Prince Prigio is too ‘extremely wise, and learned, and scientific’ to ‘believe in fairies, [and] in fairy gifts’ (Lang 34). Until, unwitting and unexpected, he falls madly in love. Lang writes:
Now, at this very moment—when the prince, all of a sudden, was as deep in love as if he had been the stupidest officer in the room—an extraordinary thing happened! Something seemed to give a whirr! in his brain, and in one instant he knew all about it! He believed in fairies and fairy gifts, and understood that his cap was the cap of darkness, and his shoes the seven league boots, and his purse the purse of Fortunatus! He had read about those things in historical books: but now he believed in them. (37)
The old tales are meaningless to Prigio until he has an experience that gives them meaning. Having once loved, he can forever understand. This, indeed, may be the mystique of the fairy tale—why we, as grown-ups, return to the stories of our childhood, in anger or weariness or hope, to listen and to tell them again. The tales transform us back from jaded giants into delighted children. The world can be a place of wonder, despite our pain. The lumber-room becomes enchanted again.
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[Note: John's paper was originally presented at "Never Ending Stories: Adaptation of Canonical Texts in Children's Literature," 20-21 January 2011, University of Ghent, Belgium. Special thanks to Sara Van den Bossche, Sylvie Geerts, and Stijn Praet.]
Image is by FS Church.