Thursday, October 4, 2012

Disenchanted: the Fairies Return to Post-War England

Maria Tatar's introduction preps the pallet for the fairy tales that follow in Peter Davies's The Fairies Return: Or, New Tales for Old, a 1930's book republished for Jack Zipes's Oddly Modern Fairy Tales series.

The settings [of the Anglicized tales from Europe and the Orient] are Devonshire, Scotland, Ireland, and London--anything but the native soil from which some of the tales sprang.  As importantly, the untroubled appropriation of stories from the world over suggests that the tales have truly become British, that they have migrated with ease into a new culture and medium, making themselves available for literary adaptation and refashioning, once they have established themselves as part of a native storytelling tradition.

Though it is certainly not the only ingredient, the Englishness of these re-told fairy tales is the first and strongest to catch the attention.

"Jack the Giant Killer," by A.E. Coppard reads like newspaper headlines overheard as gossip on the street.  When three giants arrive in London from nowhere-in-particular, the citizens spend a lot of time talking about doing something and never doing it.  Enter Jack, a young fisherman from Cornwall.

Jack shows up at the Boss's house.  Love-at-first-sight follows with the Boss's daughter, 

. . . a fine piece, as plump as a leveret, and her name was Primrose.  She sat down beside their grandfather's clock and looked at Jack.  The more she looked the more she liked.  She grew quite fond of him.  His hair was red and his figure was good.  He liked her and the look of her.

He told the Boss he would undertake the extermination of the giants.  'Pray do,' said the Boss.  'I myself will privately double the reward. . . .'

'Never mind the reward,' Jack answered.

'What!' cried this Primrose.  'It is twenty thousand pounds now, and you are but a poor fisher lad!'

'I know,' said he; 'and of course I wouldn't mind it, in a manner of speaking, and I wouldn't refuse it, but I'd do it just the same for love--if you understand me rightly.'

The beauteous Primrose went up to him and put her two milk-white hands on his shoulder.  'I do,' she murmered.  'You are the dream of my life.'

[. . .]

'Shall I see you again?' [Jack] asked Primrose.

'Any time you like,' answered the princess--for such she undboutedly was.

It is all very practical and un-romanticized.  If it weren't for the obviously tongue-in-cheek tone, I might mistake it for a forerunner to magical realism.

copyright Michaela Knížová

In contrast to the bread-and-butter plainness of the 20th century English "peasantry," we have the depiction of the more elegant, much more ridiculous aristocracy in Lord Dunsany's "Little Snow-White," "With reverent apologies to the memory of Grimm:"

It will of course be remembered that Lord and Lady Clink, after the second marriage of the former, did a good deal of entertaining at their house in Grosvenor Square.  Ostensibly the innumerable parties were to amuse Blanche, the daughter of Lord Clink by his first marriage; but, as she was often in bed before they started, there were those who attributed the lavish entertainment to a certain frivolity in Lady Clink, or a merely perverse intention to flout those taxes that are so much a feature of our country.  Of these entertainments it is scarcely necessary to remind the reader, culminating as they did in the festivities on the occasion of the coming out of Blanche Clink, an event scarcely likely to be forgotten, either on account of the magnificence of Lady Clink's hospitality or because the unusual circumstance that Blanche came out at the age of seven.  [emphasis mine]

Instead of a magic mirror, the queen-figure has a gramophone which "speaks" to her.  It is the best money can buy.  

I am reminded of Chesterton's swift condemnation:  "The gramophone is a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have."  There is biting irony in Lord Dunsany's use of this new invention as the wicked magical medium of Snow White's evil stepmother.

Instead of a huntsman, there is a chauffeur.  Instead of dwarfs, there are seven miners--not entirely new in itself but relevant enough to the scene.  Instead of a prince, there is the son of an entrepreneurial businessman named Mooch.

Dunsany's dismissal of wonder is easily summed up in the sentences, "And one of these bumps shook the bit of apple out of Blanche's mouth, the bit where it joins the stalk, where the arsenic solution had gathered.  And the effect of this, as anyone who understands poisons will tell you, was to bring Blanche alive again."

Ms. Tatar notes that, "Satire, with its historical specificity and commitment to topical issues, does not inhabit a 'once upon a time' but the 'here and now.'"

Both satire and fairy tale are driven by lack, by a sense that something vital is missing and that social circumstance shave made life short, nasty, and brutish. . . .  If satire is missing the rainbow promise of "happily ever after" found in fairy tales, it contains the Enlightenment promise that reason and wit will lead to steady improvements.


In the wake of the Great War, in the deep bowl of economic depression, on the doorstep of World War II, these stories are the cultural tradition of a disillusioned generation.  These are not fairy tales in the tradition sense.  As I read on, I don't believe they will offer an inkling of things-working-behind-the-scenes that seem to pull the strings behind the old folklore.

Still, they are skilfully and delightfully executed renderings, a treasure-collection of the talents of the time, and plain good literature.  I recommend them without hesitation.


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