by Terri Windling
I've been asked to reflect on fairy tales – which, as it happens, is something that I've been doing my entire professional life: thirty years of championing re-told fairy tales as a literary art form. I've reflected so long, and written so much, on the fairy tales that have meant the most to me that my difficulty now is in finding a new approach, a new pathway into this old, old territory. And so I'm going to start by telling you a story. It begins, of course, Once Upon a Time.
Once upon a time there was a girl who was forced to flee her childhood home. Why? Let’s never mind that now. Perhaps her parents were too poor to keep her. Perhaps her mother was an ogre or a witch. Perhaps her father had promised her to a troll, a tyrant, or a beast. She left home with the clothes on her back, and soon she was tired, hungry, and cold. As night fell, she took shelter in a desolate graveyard thick with nettles and briars. Beyond the graves was a humpbacked hill and in the side of the hill was a door. The girl walked towards the door and saw a golden key standing in its lock. She turned the key, opened the door, and crossed over the threshold….
I can still remember that moonlit night, but I don’t remember how old I was -- only that I was past the age when a girl should still believe in magic. Cold and quietly miserable in a childhood that seemed never-ending, I sat hunkered down in the grass among the gravestones of my grandfather’s church, trying to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. Like many children, I longed to discover a door to Faerie, a road to Oz, a wardrobe leading to Narnia, and I wanted to believe that if I wished with all my strength and all my will then surely a door would open for me. Surely they would let me in.
I wanted to flee unhappiness, yes, but there was more to my desire than this – more than just escape from the intolerability of Here and Now. My desire was also a spiritual one – for we often forget that spiritual quest is a common and natural part of childhood, as young people struggle to understand how they fit into the world around them. That night, my solemn conviction was that I did not fit into the world I knew, and so I sought to cross into some other world, through the power of imagination. Did I really think it might be possible? To tell the truth, I no longer know. But my longing for that door was real; and my sharp, physical, painful desire for the things I imagined lay just beyond: Vast, unmapped, unspoiled forests. Rivers that were clean and safe to drink. Wolves and bears who would guide my way once I’d learned the power of their speech. My childhood in the ordinary world was a transient, uprooted one; but beyond the door I’d find my place, my power, and my true home.
Like many children hungry for intimate connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I failed to manifest that night I found in my favorite children’s books: in fairy tales, myths, and other tales of border-crossing and enchantment. I read these stories over and over. I devoured them and I needed them. But there came a time when I understood that I was growing too old for fairy stories, and I slipped them to the back of the shelves, embarrassed by my attachment to them. I was dutiful. I read “realistic” books about teen detectives, inventors, and spies; I read teen romances and girl-with-horse novels. I watched the wholesome Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family on television…and nowhere in the popular culture of the ‘60s did I see a life and a family that was remotely like mine. Secretly, I still preferred those fairy stories that I was meant to out-grow. I found a strange kind of comfort in them, though I couldn’t have told you why.
If only I’d known that in centuries past such stories weren’t labeled For Young Children Only, I wouldn’t have felt so obliged to hide these volumes behind Nancy Drew. I wish I'd known that magical tales had been loved by adults for thousands of years; and that in Europe the oldest known fairy tale collections had been published in adult editions, savored by the literary avante garde in 16th century Italy and 17th century France. Thanks to the work of contemporary fairy tale scholars we now know that early versions of familiar tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc.) were sensual, dark, and morally complex. In the 16th century version of Sleeping Beauty, the princess is awakened not by a chaste, respectful kiss, but by the birth of twins after the prince has come, fornicated with her sleeping body, and left again (returning to a wife back home). In one of the oldest known versions of Snow White’s tale, a passing prince claims the girl's dead body and locks himself away with it, pronouncing himself in love with his beautiful “doll,” whom he intends to wed. (His mother, complaining of the dead girl's smell, is greatly relieved when her son’s macabre fiancé comes back to life.) In older versions of the Bluebeard narrative (such as Silvernose and Fitcher’s Bird), the heroine does not sit trembling while waiting for her brothers to rescue her – she outwits her captor, kills him, and restores the lives of her murdered predecessors. Cinderella doesn't sit weeping in the cinders while talking bluebirds flutter around her; she is a clever, angry, feisty girl who seeks her own salvation – with the help of advice from her dead mother’s ghost, not the twinkle of fairy magic.
It was not until the 19th century that volumes of fairy tales aimed specifically at children became the industry standard, supplanting the arch, sophisticated editions penned by authors of previous generations. Advances in cheap printing methods had created a hot new market in children’s books, and Victorian publishers sought products with which to tap into this lucrative trade. Ironically, the way was led by two scholarly German folklorists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, editors of a German folk tale collection published for fellow academics. Upon realizing that a larger audience could be found among children and their parents, the Grimms revised their collection to make the tales more suitable for young readers, altering the stories more and more with each subsequent edition. The commercial success of the Grimms volume was noted by publishers in Germany and beyond, and soon there were numerous other fairy tale books aimed specifically at children -- filled with stories drawn from 16th, 17th, and 18th century fairy tale literature, now simplified and heavily revised to reflect Victorian “family values” and gender ideals.
As the next century dawned, the pendulum of adult literary fashion swung to tales of domestic realism while fairy tales and fantasy were increasingly left to the kids. Worse was to come as the century progressed, for Walt Disney would do more to turn fairy tales into pap than all of the Victorian fairy books put together as he rendered classic stories into animated films deemed suitable for American family viewing. Responding to criticism of the extensive changes he’d made in fairy tales like Snow White, Disney said: “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway.”
Disney’s fairy tale films, and the imitative books they spawned, went a long way to foster the modern misconception that fairy tales are children’s stories and have always and only been children’s stories. Yet fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out (in his lecture “On Fairy-stories,” 1938) have no particular historical association with children; they’d been pushed into the nursery like furniture the adults no longer want and no longer care if its misused. “Fairy–stories banished in this way,” he said, “cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed, in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined."
Professor Tolkien himself deserves much of the credit for bringing magical tales back to an adult audience, which he did, of course, through the international success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s books surprised critics by striking a chord with readers of all ages and from all walks of life, directly challenging the assumption that fantasy had no place on adult bookshelves. Today, a generation of readers who have grown up with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – not to mention Sparrowhawk, Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, and the whole modern fantasy publishing genre – may not fully comprehend the boundary-busting nature of Professor Tolkien’s achievement.
In the place and time where I grew up, for example, there were only a very few fantasy books available in the local library (the Narnia books, the Oz books, The Wind in the Willows, a handful of others ), strictly confined to the children’s section – and somewhat suspect even there. Fantasy, I understood, was like the training wheels on my first two-wheel bike: a forgivable crutch at the outset, but one I was meant to progress beyond needing. I hadn’t progressed. I still craved such tales, though they stood on shelves meant for much younger kids. A worried librarian actually took The Blue Fairy Book out of my check-out stack, replacing it with a more “age appropriate” (and insipid) story about a perky camp counselor. The message was clear: fantasy belonged to the children who still played with dress-up dolls, and my craving for it led me to think there was something wrong with me. It was only later that I learned that others shared this craving, including adults. “I desired dragons with a profound desire,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien of his own adolescence. “Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood…. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”
It wasn’t until I turned fourteen that I discovered Tolkien’s trilogy, although the books had been available in American editions for some years before that. I began The Fellowship of the Ring on the school bus on a grey winter morning, reading with pure amazement as Middle Earth opened up before me. Here, in the language of fantasy, was a story that seemed more real to me than any “realistic” story I knew -- a story about danger, terror, and courage; about the cost of heroism and the importance of moral choices. In Middle Earth, as in my parents' house, an epic battle between good and evil was waging, and even a humble, seemingly-powerless creature like a hobbit could affect its outcome.
Some months after The Lord of the Rings, I discovered Tolkien’s slim volume 'Leaf by Niggle' containing his lecture/essay “On-Fairy Stories” – which was, for me, a more influential text than all the good professor’s celebrated fiction. It was here I first learned that fairy tales had an old and a noble lineage -- and that they’d once been more, so much more, than the Disney versions known today. I dug out my favorite fairy tale books and I read the old tales with new eyes; and this time I understood why I’d clung to these stories for so many years. Like Tolkien’s books, they addressed large subjects: good and evil, cowardice and courage, hope and despair, peril and salvation – all subjects not unfamiliar to children raised in embattled households. Fairy tales spoke, in their metaphorical language, of danger, struggle, calamity – and also of healing journeys, self-transformation, deliverance, and grace. The fairy tales that I loved best (Donkeyskin, The Wild Swans, The Handless Maiden) were variations on one archetypal theme: a young girl beset by grave difficulties sets off, alone, through the deep, dark woods. Armed with quick wits, clear sight, persistence, courage, compassion, and a dollop of luck, she meets every challenge, solves every riddle, and transforms herself and her fate. This was my story, my myth, the central text and theme of my young life’s journey. This was the story I needed to hear again and again and again.
There is irony in the fact that the door I’d been looking for that night among the graves had been right in front of me all along, in the pages of those old fairy tale books. But I’d needed Tolkien’s lecture to understand what it was I loved about fairy tales; his words were the golden key that finally opened the door for me. I then crossed the threshold into the land of Story, where I have been travelling ever since: wandering its vast forests, drinking from its clear, cold streams, learning to speak with wolves and bears (which, as it turns out, is not half as hard as you would think).
If I could have one Magic Wish today, I would like to travel back in time and to find that miserable girl among the graves, appearing before her like a classic Good Fairy, draperies flapping in the wind behind me. This is what I would like to tell her (and, indeed, every other child just like her): “There are better worlds out there, my dear. And I promise you, you're going to find them.”
Terri Windling is an American writer, artist and editor of fantasy for children and adults. She has won more awards than you can shake a stick at: you can look it all up on Wikipedia, here. A world of brilliant fantasy opens up from a reading of some of the many anthologies she has edited, such as ‘The Armless Maiden and other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors’, a collection of powerful stories about ‘the darker passages of childhood’; and, with Ellen Datlow, many wonderful myth and fairytale-inspired anthologies for young adults such as ‘The Green Man’ and ‘The Faery Reel’.
From 'East of the Sun' by Kay Nielsen
'Fafnir' by Arthur Rackham
'Faerie Folk' by Arthur Rackham, 1914, frontispiece, Imagina by Julia Ellsworth Ford, New York: Duffield & Company. Picture found at blog: 'Art of Narrative'