True Wonder Tales

AS Byatt writes beautifully and insightfully about fairy tales for The Guardian:

There is neither explanation nor teaching in the true wonder tale.

Other things which are not essentially part of true fairy tales are character, psychological causation, and real morality. Princesses are virtually interchangeable – they are either kind and modest and housewifely, or vain and stupid and inconsiderate. They are called “princesses” but peasants and merchants’ daughters have the same limited and recognisable natures. Simpletons and gallant princes have the same chance of solving riddles, obtaining magic feathers, or keys, the same insect or fishy helpers. Lazy girls are caught out by boasts that they can spin flax into gold, and are helped by strange brownies, or dwarves, or other creatures. The best single description I know of the world of the fairy tale is that of Max Lüthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web or network of two-dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.

This article is a condensed version of Byatt’s introduction to The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar, which will be published in the US in June. I have Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales and it is wonderful. Other great books in the series are The Annotated Alice and The Annotated Wizard of Oz.


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