Magic Listening Machines or WHY I LOVE FAIRY TALES by A.M. Offenwanger


I did not hear my first fairy tales at the knee of my grandmother. Nor did someone read them to me as bedtime stories out of a venerable fat hardcover copy of Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. No—I got my introduction to the Land of Faerie through the record player. That’s right, children: Once upon a time, in a world far away from that of today, stories were told by a magic machine. Flat black discs with thin grooves engraved on them were placed upon a platter, a magic wand was laid on top, an enchanted lever was pressed, and suddenly the strains of music and the voice of a storyteller filled the room—though of the musicians and the tale teller there was no sight to be seen.

Oh, we did of course have paper books of the stories, as well. I still have on my bookshelf our first copies of Andersen, Hauff, and the Arabian Nights, all of which I enjoyed reading. But some of my favorites were, and still are, the Grimms’ tales I got from those vinyl records: “Snow White and Rose Red,” “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats,” “Puss in Boots”…



The other day, I was listening to audio versions of fairy tales again. By now, the magic machine I use is so small that it fits in my back pocket, and it can do all sorts of other magical things (such as making phone calls). I plug in my headphones, boot up the Librivox app, and while I peel carrots for supper I let myself discover fairy tales I’d never heard before. And there are so many! I’m currently half-way through Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book, and as there are forty-eight stories in that book alone, and twelve of the “Coloured Fairy Books” altogether—you do the math. Story after story of Princes, Princesses, clever tailors or soldiers, enchanted castles or beasts or objects… Just what makes us keep telling these stories, over and over?
The tale I discovered a couple of days ago is a Polish one, “The Crow.” (http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/lfb/ye/yefb16.htm) Very briefly: a Princess meets with a poor injured crow, who says he is an enchanted Prince and she can save him if she’s willing. Far from saying “Yeah, right—anyone can claim to be an enchanted prince! Forget it!” the Princess readily agrees, and for the next three years goes through all kinds of nasty experiences for the sake of Mr. Crow, until—bingo!—he’s de-crowed and re-princified. Wedding, gorgeous castle, “a hundred years of joy and happiness,” the end.

Now, what struck me about “The Crow” is that it’s a tale entirely about the girl. So far from falling into the stereotype of “prince rescues helpless princess,” here, the Princess rescues the Prince—just because he asks. And she’s extremely heroic about it. When the scary creatures come in the night and nearly toss her into a boiling cauldron, she never once cries out—because that would be bad for the Crow. This is a girl with agency, a woman of power. And she is, very much, rewarded for her efforts.

And here’s the thing: I may not be a beautiful young princess living in a palace, but when I listen to this story, I identify with the Princess. I consider whether I would save the Crow, I agree to do it, I bite my tongue when the scary monsters come (because I’m that courageous), and in the end, I get a handsome prince and a castle for my reward. Fairy tales let me be someone else for a while—someone on a grand scale, someone who triumphs, someone who lives in a world where things beyond the ordinary are possible.
To a certain extent that’s true for any fiction, but with fairy tales, it’s at the very core of what they are. The Princess in “The Crow” is just “a Princess”—no name, no description. In other words, anyone can step into her shoes. It’s the very flatness (what folklorist Max Lüthi calls one-dimensionality) of the fairy tale that allows me to live inside the Princess’ skin, to be her, for that short time. Or to be a young boy climbing a bean stalk, or a boot-wearing cat outwitting an ogre, or a peasant girl making friends with a bear… I can be all of them in turn, and in being them, I share their triumphs and rewards.

And that is why I love fairy tales, why I still take out my magic listening machine and travel to the Land of Faerie. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it—and there is still a lifetime’s worth of stories to explore.
A.M. Offenwanger, contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine, is a writer, reader, blogger, and editor.
Follow her blog Amo Vitam
and follow her on Twitter @amoffenwanger
and on Facebook here


All Photos: A.M. Offenwanger

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff
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Comments

  1. Great article, Angelika. Never thought about the ambiguity of the princess (or others) helping the reader identify with her and imagine themselves as the character. Nice observation!

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