“There is more life in fish than in jewels, though diamonds do glint.”
We never outgrow our fascination with fairy tales. It may be easy to dismiss fantastic stories as the stuff of childhood, but fairy tales are deceptively multi-layered. On the surface may be a young girl falling down a rabbit hole, meeting odd creatures in improbable – and often humorous – circumstances, but behind the apparent innocence lies a cleverly hidden sense of menace, separated by the thinnest of membranes.
And why is that? For what reason have writers of fairy tales chosen to couch evil within seemingly innocuous stories? Not an expert on the subject by any means, I would suggest the moral beneath the story is meant to sink into a child’s subconcious, threatening him or her with all manner of punishment for misbehaving. And because the violence is subsumed, only occasionally stated expressly, to an innocent mind it may not be obvious at all. But the moral of the story will certainly creep in, nonetheless.
Like works of fantasy, fiction is thinly disguised reality: depicting stories about love and loss, sorrow and death, characters set apart from the mainstream, and all the tragedy and comedy that is life. Not much about fantasy needs to be tweaked to turn it into fiction, and vice versa. In both, worlds are created – internally or externally. Themes may not carry a distinct, identifiable moral in general fiction, but regardless there is an author writing the story, an author who, no matter how hard he or she intends to be objective, cannot help but insinuate personal bias into the prose. And that bias sinks into the reader, who may choose to accept or reject the principle, but will nevertheless have experienced the impact of subconscious suggestion.
So, is that equivalent to the suggestion fairy tales inject into children? Children are like sponges, absorbing at an amazingly fast rate while they’re young. And adults? We’re still suggestible, but have built up our own ideas of morality and life lessons. So perhaps for us fairy tales, and fiction in general, have less of an impact. But that doesn’t make the reading less enjoyable. As adults we’re capable of seeing both layers of meaning, which may shock us when we remember reading fairy tales to our children.
What sets a fairy tale apart? They’re deceptively simple tales that teach a lesson or moral value of some sort. Innocent children regularly figure in the stories, thrust into a world that feels over-sized and menacing. Often they have a dream-like feel, the same disconnect from reality our subconscious generates, carrying over impressions formed during the day, connecting them in often nonsensical ways.
Evil, or a feeling of unease, is palpable in fairy tales. There is no lasting sense of safety; around every corner is the potential for surprise. And not every surprise is good.
Kate Bernheimer’s collection Horse, Flower, Bird contains eight fairy tales featuring women. In each the female protagonist is ultimately left alone, marginalized or contained in some way. A few choose isolation, and selective mutism, drawing into themselves as a means of self-preservation. The cages these characters choose are real, and often of their own making. Which isn’t to say there is no attempt to find happiness, but, rather, circumstances assume the same larger-than-life control that exists in fairy tales geared toward children.
In the first story, “A Cuckoo Tale,” an innocent child learns she cannot be loved unless she is obedient to the point of subservience. “A Tulip’s Tale” could be summed up by the line, “The home in which you reside is not forever.” Loss is one theme in “A Doll’s Tale,” but so is the development of a child’s imagination as a result of that loss. “A Petting Zoo Tale” is a particularly surreal and strange imagining about what happens to a woman when she subsumes her own happiness for the sake of her husband. That true happiness cannot be held onto too tightly or it will either cease to thrive, or even die, is a theme in “A Cageling Tale.” In “Garibaldi,” a young girl with a physical deformity learns she will never be in a position to ask for what she wants from life. “A Star Wars Tale” is about two sisters too well aware of the looming menace of sexual violence, and, finally, “Whitework” reminded me of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the story of a woman driven to madness, restricted for what others consider to be her own good.
Of course my descriptions are very brief. That’s because the stories themselves are very short. Expanding on them would be the equivalent of spoiling them, which is the last thing I want to do.
I hope readers who don’t consider fairy tales to be normal reading fare will consider giving this collection a try. You just may be surprised how well you enjoy them.
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Coffee House Press (August 24, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1566892473
- ISBN-13: 978-1566892476
An Interview with Author Kate Bernheimer
1. What influenced you to pursue the writing life? Does the reality of it
match what you imagined?
When I was a kid my parents let me lug home all the books I could carry from the Waban Public Library. Thank goodness for the 1970’s librarian there, who had stocked fairy-tale books in the “adult room” upstairs and downstairs, too, where I fell in love with Kenneth Grahame, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E. Nesbit, Joan Aiken, and so many others. It was a love of reading that led me to write—it was a way to be in a storybook world all of the time, to furnish its little rooms and go on an adventure from there. I associated writing with being at home, with reading, and with hanging out at the library. These were the things I most liked to do and they still are. That I get to call reading and writing fairy tales, and teaching and lecturing on them, and working on a fairy-tale revival my actual mode of employment? I never imagined it possible! I was just a kid who loved reading fairy tales.
2. Why fairy tales? What, or perhaps who, originally drew you to this genre?
I loved them the moment I met them as a reader, which was pretty young, via Golden Books, and books like The Lonely Doll and Little Fur Family. The first story I ever published (in a circular my dearest friend and I mimeographed and distributed to family members) was a serialized fairy tale. That was 1977. Fairy tales felt like the world I liked to imagine, perhaps. So I read lots of fairy-tale books, but I also encountered fairy tales other places—movies, ballets. I had a friend who was in the Boston Ballet and I’d go see her perform, get seats in the way back of the theater. My mother bought me paper doll books of ballet characters and books such as “Tales from the Ballet” with the beautiful illustrations by the Provensens, and took me to ballet movies. My grandfather showed us the Disney movies in his basement on a projector—he borrowed the reels through some mysterious business arrangement we never quite understood—I remember that once, during “Snow White” or maybe “Fantasia,” the film started to melt at the edges. We thought the melting was part of the movie! It all seemed very magical, Oz-like, down there. And the friend I did the circular with for years, her father told us fairy tales up in her attic when I’d sleep over, starting at age six or so. Then, in my twenties, I was lucky enough to stumble across the fairy-tale scholarship in the library one day, which I had no idea previously even existed; fairy tales hadn’t made their way into my college classrooms, never one time. The scholarly books were just as amazing as the tales, full of wise mystery and wonder. It all began in the library.
And all of this magnetized me to “the fairy-tale genre,” though I should state that I think of fairy tales as The Genre, the most dynamic and becoming genre, in that, as a minoritarian art form excluded from the literary mainstream (see the National Book Foundation’s award guidelines, which exclude retellings of fairy tales from eligibility), they enter all stories whether via reflection or via resistance.
Certainly, I am drawn to one of the primary motifs of many traditional tales: the weak prevailing over the strong. It’s a big one for me. And I am drawn to their hard facts (as Maria Tatar calls them in her brilliant study, The Hard Facts of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales). Bad things happen in these stories, very bad things. Just like out here. Also some pretty nice things happen too: sublime things that shimmer. “The folktale is real,” as Italo Calvino once said. As a person trying to make art, I am drawn to their techniques and how they help me tell stories better, techniques like abstraction, everyday magic, isolation, intuitive logic, depthlessness. The more fairy tales I read and the more I learn about their history from scholars, the more I am indebted to fairy tales for offering boundless possibility spaces for readers.
3. For someone who hasn’t read fairy tales, how would you describe the genre?
What keywords would you use to describe essential elements?
Really anyone who has read a story has read a fairy tale—Runaway Bunny is a fairy tale. So is Twilight. So is Lolita. So, fairy tales are everywhere you want to look for them, if you follow their breadcrumbs; they are stories with a fairy-tale affect. (A friend just gave me a tiny vintage baby doll head with elephant ears and a trunk for a nose: that’s a fairy tale too.) Some of the key words to describe their techniques—which collapse and expand, disappear and transform, depending on author—are abstraction, realism, intuitive logic, depthlessness, and everyday magic.
It might do well to note what fairy tales are not: they are not, when you look at the thousands of variants of stories around the world, insider stories. They are not frothy stories of princesses getting saved and married. Some girls in the stories are princesses who get saved and married, but there are also boys who get saved and married, and girls who get married and eaten, and boys who get married and turned into dogs. There are three-headed men who eat too much, and old women who give birth to hedgehogs and love them. There are girls who are chopped up and carried in baskets and then put back together and live, who are saved by their sisters. There are boys who are foolish, and girls who are nasty, and kind stepmothers and wicked children. They are not whatever celebrity magazines in the grocery store claim when they announce the next “fairy-tale wedding,” unless you consider that often, such a headline is predictive of certain disaster, and you can count on a fairy tale to have certain disaster, even if it had a happy ending at last. Tolkien felt that the happy ending of a fairy tale was drastically underappreciated as an art form; I agree so much that I used his quote about that as the epigraph to my most recent novel, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold.
It’s important to note for readers who might not be aware–which is understandable since this is not much discussed by anyone but me, because I’m obsessed–that fairy tales come in all forms and styles; though every fairy tale will share the affect of fairy tales with other fairy tales, each fairy tale will reveal amplified and minimized fairy-tale techniques that suit its little, temporary author. Every fairy tale is a kind of humpty dumpty: it’s been taken apart and put back together again, by someone. We recognize fairy tales when we see them, though they always look a little bit . . . different. As examples of the variation: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, a great suburban fairy tale, is very different from a much more abstract story actually called “Suburban Fairy Tale” by Katherine Mansfield; Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf” bears little resemblance in length, but shares in exquisite motifs, to the masterful, long Kathryn Davis novel of the same title.
4. What draws the adult reader to fairy tales, in your opinion?
Well, they are great fun to read, and smart, and peculiar, and difficult, and exciting, and they make you think and imagine. Fairy tales perform all of the wonders of reading—through alchemy they bring the reader inside the story, where he seems pretty happy to live: “man and boy, sir, man and boy,” as the writer and fairy-tale enthusiast Lydia Millet’s father used to say (though he said it about smoking, not reading, but I like the phrase and I was challenged to use it publicly over drinks a couple of weeks ago, and I think it works here). The saying means, of course, something enjoyed from childhood to adulthood, and/or passed down from adult to child, but I say “where he seems pretty happy to live” intentionally, and not he or she, beca
use I think men are discouraged from reading fairy tales by misinformation about what they are—again, they are not fragile-princess-gets-married stories at all. And I find that some writers are afraid they won’t be considered serious authors if they admit to liking fairy tales, which is really sad and a sign of prejudice against them. Some writers have told me point blank that this is the reason for their declining my invitation to contribute to an edited book. There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, which I am speculating about in a new essay.
Those many readers I meet who LOVE fairy tales–and they REALLY LOVE THEM–are usually proud to be in the know that in their early manifestations fairy tales were not intended for children, even though they often featured children, and over the years were rewritten to “teach” children (oddly). Retelling after retelling cannot shake them from those knotted and bottomless roots. The adult reader, as a “former child” (Andre Breton’s phrase) still has access to wonder. Thank goodness. Whenever I give a fairy-tale book to an adult to read, they are enchanted—I like playing fairy godmother this way, finding just the right book for this or that person, to reintroduce them to stories they have forgotten were so strange.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that he preferred fairy tales when he was older, because he could “put more into them, and thus get more out of them.” I don’t know that I feel like that, but I’m glad that he did.
5. How is the writing of fantasy/fairy tale books for children different than writing for adults? Is the quality of darkness the same, or do you lighten that for children?
Whatever I am working on at a given time—it simply makes a better or worse book for a particular age when it’s done. For me, sitting at the desk, the art of writing for children is no different from the art of writing for grown-ups at all. It takes exactly the same mind for me, that is to say the only one that I have (so far at least).
And alas! I have not been bestowed with the gift of ‘lightening’ things up, pretty much ever. But lots of children’s books don’t lighten things up. There are some pretty glum moments in Bread and Jam for Frances—those sad songs she sings to herself! She was the world’s first depressed little badger! And not-lightening, that’s why Goodnight Moon can give you the shivers though it’s hardly frightening to children. “Goodnight nobody, goodnight air.” Heart-wrenching for me when I read it to my kid—that nothing beyond—it’s hard to read that with her in her pajamas, all beatific and cozy in bed, without tearing up, but I’m a sap.
My short stories for grown-ups are often considered quite dark—and I must say, I am not the cheeriest person. But I do keep things sparse, because I am easily frightened by my own language—this is how it may seem that I ‘lighten’ things up. I take things out of the sentences, but leave their shadow in there. That is, perhaps, a way of lightening, now that I think about it.
6. I have to ask… What is the significance of the color pink in your latest collection?
Did I guess correctly that it has significance?
Thank you for asking this question. Pink is, indeed, often in Horse, Flower, Bird. I also have a new collection recently completed with many pink moments, including a story called “Pink Horse Tale” about a glass figurine. This color also appears a lot in my novel trilogy about three sisters (Lucy, the happy sister, is literally enchanted by pink; Ketzia, the sad sister, once wears an awkward pink dress embroidered with little mice figures; and Merry, the mean sister, denounces the color. )
I have a long history with the color pink; some but not all of it happy. Associating pink with fairy tales specifically began with The Pink Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. It was the first one of his volumes I read. I chose it for the color of the cover of course, and it forever affixed the color pink to fairy tales. Pink itself wasn’t much of a factor in the stories themselves. But yet—it happened. The saying about looking at things through rose-colored glasses interested me as a kid; I didn’t understand what anyone meant by the saying but the idea of rose-colored glasses—a world where people looked through these—seemed amazing to me. As a child I named my bedroom “The Pink Palace.” Imagine my delight when as an adult I discovered that Joseph Cornell has an artwork of the same title. I had a pink shag rug. I wanted very much to be a ballerina in large part because of the opportunity to wear pink toe shoes and tutus. So, as with fairy tales, I was simply drawn in . . .
But a deep association between the color pink and my own fairy tales was set in stone when my dear friend, the poet Sarah Hannah, and I learned in high school via research that Sylvia Plath (who loved fairy tales) wrote the drafts of her poems on pink paper. So Sarah and I began to write on pink paper too—fairy-tale poems—and sent each other pink gifts over the years after college (which we attended together): candles, stationery, t-shirts. She once mailed me two pink curtains. When Sarah died I committed myself even more to pink fairy tales. The color, for me, represents, too the egregious belittlement of girls’ nursery rooms, which have been for a very long time one of the safe havens for fairy tales.
7. I also saw the theme of the isolation/marginalization (is that a word?!) of women
in your book. Is there a message you sought to convey, or is this the natural
direction your writing took you?
Isolation is an interest of mine—that is, I like to think about it. Fairy tales isolate their characters; they’re pretty much always isolated from home or connection to family. The trilogy of novels is very much a meditation on isolation. The girls are isolated inside of books—as avid readers of fairy tales. And they are isolated as characters too: though they are unaware, much of their solitude has been the result of stigmatization. I am interested in how fairy tale characters are isolated from social community and must often fend for themselves—yet how the traditional tales escape tedious self-involvement (a selfish character in a fairy tale is frequently punished). The trilogy is, for me, the girls’ safety zone, but alas, a false one: a “little coffin of hope,” to borrow a phrase from novelist Timothy Schaffert. There is no innocent magic, as Kathryn Davis’s lovely blurb for the book suggests. And the details of fairy tales are isolated too. In a room, like the room in my story “Whitework,” there are only a few things, just the essentials, what the story needs to go forth and continue: things are isolated in rooms and in stories, which is a technique, and it is not the same thing as minimalism.
I like your idea that the stories in Horse, Flower, Bird might seek to convey messages, via telepathy, or if you read the book backwards, or soaked it in water and put it out in the sun and saw which letters faded, leaving only a secret code that you then keyed into a locket that opened. I’m often asked what meanings I am trying to conceal in my stories. Truly I am always trying to write the most lucid and clear possible thing.
8. Nicoletta Ceccoli illustrated your children’s book The Girl in the Castle Inside the
Museum, and I see she’s illustrated many other works with fantasy/fairy tale
elements. What drew you to her work?
I was introduced to Nicoletta’s work through my editor at Random
House, Anne Schwartz (of the brilliant team Schwartz & Wade). She invited Nicoletta to illustrate that story—and what a perfect invitation it was. When the first images arrived in the mail I got shivers; they’re gorgeous, haunting, strange, and very lonely, but not in the end, which is the whole idea of the book: that art can make you less lonely, that a book or picture is always your friend. She got that—and our correspondence over the years since the book came out has been so meaningful to me. More to the point her work is just amazing, all of it. I had the honor of writing a foreword to a book of her adult art that just came out in France, called Beautiful Nightmares—I would love to collaborate with her again. Her work—like that of Mark Ryden, Ruby Osorio, Kiki Smith, Julie Heffernan, Rachel Feinstein, and many others—reveals the deep influence of fairy tales on contemporary art.
13. Do you believe eBooks will eventually come to replace paper and glue books?
I’m fairly sure that the fairy-tale revival we’re seeing—which I have dedicated the past 15 years of my life to introducing to readers—has a lot to do with a great love of story books—that magical turning of pages—and will help to preserve them, at least for a while.
14. Are you alarmed by or accepting of the rapid rise of digital technology and
There are wonderful scholars of the book, and heroic archivists and librarians—such as Gary Frost of the University of Iowa, whom I saw speak last year at the Omaha Lit Fest—who are not alarmed, who are accepting, and I will go with them, since they’re experts in the history of books, and have dedicated their lives to books more selflessly than I have.
And as a fairy-tale author and reader, I’m made happy by the heightened awareness these technologies have brought to bear on theoretical questions of authenticity, originality, property, narrative distribution, replication, reproduction, and copies. Less worship of the individual hero—more appreciation for something that (gasp) may not be ‘original’—is nothing but good. Technological inventions have helped set the stage for us to look back and forward for fairy tales in thousands of versions, and appreciate these replications as art. I am kept awake worrying about extinction, but not of books. I think that we are returning to fairy tales in part because we wish for the alarming extinction to cease.
15. What’s next for you? Are you working on anything presently?
Thanks for asking! I recently completed a collection of stories in the style of Horse, Flower, Bird and I am about to finish writing a novel about suicide based in part on Goodnight, Moon and other childhood favorites (boy, that sounds cheery). It is set largely at night in a park a lot like my favorite city park: Mt. Tabor in Portland, Oregon. I’m also working on a script with someone who is interested in optioning The Girl in The Castle inside The Museum for animation. Starting in June—when my lecturing and reading and teaching schedule winds down and I meet a few pressing deadlines, all wonderful but keeping me from the storybook desk—I am really looking forward to beginning a long series of classic fairy-tale retellings; these are not the stories I have ever approached for a number of reasons as an author—though I have as an editor and critic, of course. I feel, after fifteen-plus years of study, I am ready to set myself free upon them.
Thank you for asking and for such wonderful questions on the whole—for caring about fairy tales. Readers, please head to the library and take out some dusty old volumes, and ask your librarians to add specific fairy-tale books to the collection; some libraries allow patron donations of brand-new volumes, if you can afford that. Speaking of which, I have started a program, still in nascent stages, called the Fairy-Tale Repository—in an effort to gather forgotten fairy-tale books. Please check it out here: