Today we’re honored to have a guest post from Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of An Unsuitable Princess (which A.M. Justice reviewed in July). Jane presents a thought-provoking analysis of some differences between fantasy and fairy tales.
The Magic in Fairy Tales Is Powered by Humanity
by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
After finishing a draft of what would become my “fairy tale” memoir, I sent copies to friends I trust to give me the requisite feedback. One reaction intrigued me so much more than the others that I’d like to reconsider it now. “It needs a dragon,’’ my friend said. He reasoned the male protagonist who seeks the secret princess in the fairy tale half of the story must do battle with a monster for a number of reasons.
First, this young man must prove himself worthy of her love. The dragon also is needed to reinforce the plot point that the princess is in real peril. If the dragon is a symbol of evil (at least through its avarice), then the implied meanings of a triumph over it are also important. At the very least, victory over the beast could be read as a sign of personal growth or character development.
But I said no to the dragon, and I believe my answer says something about the heritage fairy tales have delivered onto what now encompasses the genre of fantasy. The differences between original fairy tales and today’s fantasies may be distinctions without much significance, according to some. Yet in today’s writing climate, it’s a discussion worth having. Both fantasy and fairy tale are enjoying revivals, so much so that their purposes and traditions appear intertwined. But the point of departure is instructive to those working in either genre and also provides insight into the durability of fairy tales, and by extension, fantasy literature.
I said no to the dragon because I wanted the monsters in my story to be human. And I wanted my humans to be monstrous. This is not to say that the fantasy genre is without evildoers, both petty and capricious. But it is through the fairy tale that we first learned how to survive the gauntlet known as humanity. Yes, fairy tales are animated by the kind of magic and mysterious plot devices that fantasy also uses. But the human element—whether it is frailty, fault, or a rare fortitude—is what animates the labyrinth both victims and perpetrators initially navigated in oral and written forms.
At the heart of my story (An Unsuitable Princess, Jaded Ibis Press 2014) are two girls: one a princess denied her birthright yet imbued with the ability to heal the sick and injured; the other the spoiled 20th century teenager I was. The fairy tale is inspired by events in my life including my relationship with a leukemia patient, who provides the model for the princess’s champion. The princess revives her champion from a mysterious illness, but I, of course, lacked that facility. I was also loud and self-centered, and my avatar, the princess, is mute and selfless.
My invented fairy tale has its obvious roots in “Cinderella,’’ “Snow White,’’ and “Sleeping Beauty,’’ and these three stories, even in their Disneyfied iterations, are good examples of my theory. Cinderella is assisted by her fairy godmother, but she also displays the humility and benevolence that are so lacking in her stepsisters. Aurora may have been cursed at birth, but that curse arises from a social faux pas on the part of Aurora’s parents and the personality offended by it. The king and queen’s answer to the curse is also quite human, one embedded in the hubris people retreat into when a real solution seems unavailable. Finally, aside from the jealousy and envy enfolding her mother, Snow White’s attraction to the poison apple is as familiar as Eve’s encounter with the original fruit. The desires, needs, and failings of the good and the very, very bad drive home the moral lessons.
Fantasy writers are certainly informed by the archetypes established in fairy tales, but they also have a much wider canvas to work with. Hence, the dragon my friend suggested, or a wizard who guides a boy to manhood and to sovereignty over the realms—the domain of man, and the domain of nature. This wizard may have inspired a pantheon of elves and conjurers, who guide beings before the Age of Man—and presumably the end of apparent magic—in their quests and adventures. A lion, with its strength and heritage as king of the jungle, becomes the living symbol of a Christian ethos. These are all possibilities within fantasy, but not necessarily within fairy tales. Surely there is a human element in these seminal tales, but it is more passenger than helmsman.
Yet because of its insistence on the primacy of human wants and appetites, the fairy tale has proved as malleable as the fantasy genre. For the past year I have been entranced by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State (Grove Press/Black Cat 2014) because of what it does to “Rumpelstiltskin’’ and how it lays bare the fissures between parent and child sometimes ignored or glossed over in more popular re-tellings. Gay chronicles a Haitian-American woman’s trip to Hell and back when she is kidnapped in Haiti. In most cases, we are told, these kidnappings end quickly and happily, the ransom paid and the victim restored to family. But in this case, the father refuses: “Always (the father) was paying money, small ransoms here and there, the price of doing business in Haiti. But this was too much.”
Given the seaside compound her parents own, the kidnappers expect miracles of their prisoner, as if she could spin straw into gold. When she cannot deliver, she is punished in ways beyond anything either Perrault or the Grimms could have risked putting into print. At one point, The Commander, who runs the band of thugs holding the woman, inquires after her son, just as Rumpelstiltskin made the miller’s daughter pledge her firstborn child in exchange for his spinning. Years after the kidnapping, the story finally ends when the woman tells us The Commander’s true name. In our last glimpse of him, he is running “like a coward…. He ran because his life was in danger. Animals know when their lives are in danger.”
The book touches on other topics, such as the socio-politico-economic conflict inherent in the interracial relationship between the woman and her often-simpering husband. Much of it is unfamiliar territory for me, but An Untamed State resonates because of both its familiar plot and unfamiliar rendering of it. A less imaginative re-working of the source material would have a princess locked in a tower, or a child separated from its soul, or even a pair of thwarted lovers in a foreboding metropolis where vengeful powers have awakened after having been dormant for too long. It is what Gay is able to do with these foundations–the prosaic but intractable flaws that either ennoble or devour us—that make An Untamed State the achievement it is.
The purpose of all this is not to point out the superiority of fairy tales to fantasy works, nor is it an attempt to place myself on equal footing with Gay and the many other authors working in this revved-up genre (I wish). It is merely to remind writers that we should remember this most vital part of our inspiration, so that the “New Weird” or “interstitial” or “slipstream” or whatever our work may be called some day. I recently heard a joke about television writing: the lead character should be based on one of the seven deadly sins, and the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” are based on all seven of them. If you are ever stuck for plot, segue, possibility, or thought, think of the first tales we told ourselves, and how lucky we are, to have such depth in the stories of our origins.