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Write Now! 3 – Grimm Art of Fairy Tales

  • Posted on June 18, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Kate Bernheimer’s article on The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales  intrigues me in ways I can’t describe. Since I was a little girl, fairy tales have always been a big part of my life. I found comfort in the idea that, like Vassilissa the Fair, my mother would never leave me wanting, and like Snow White, my kindness and general likability would gain me safety. These small morals were the cornerstone to my personality. So of course, I’m obsessed with them now! However, after getting in touch with my love of horror and suspense, I find that the sweet, normal fairy tales of my childhood don’t quite… do it for me anymore.

And after reading Miss Bernheimer’s article, I figured out why. All of them lack something. They lack the original source. They lack the social commentary, the deep, terrifying moral of all fairy tales. Baba Yaga was a warning against disobeying your elders’ wisdom and, at the same time, a celebration of how that wisdom can, at times, be dangerous. Sleeping Beauty was a warning about how sometimes, not inviting the right people can ruin your entire life. The little mermaid did what Romeo and Juliet could not, and warned me away from stupid, single-minded love.

Intuitive logic, Flatness, and Happy endings, the article describes, are the three fundamentals of a fairy tale. to quote:

Intuitive Logic. The fairy tale world does not conform to the rules of this world, outside of a book, but it does have rules. They will not be explained with insistence. A teapot will sing. A path will appear just when children need to escape terrible danger. A girl will outsmart a witch. Your chopped off hands will turn into silver and save your life later. In my early fiction, my characters often argued with those around them that they were misunderstood; when I removed all efforts to justify logic (try removing transitions like “Therefore” and “Because”), my readers stopped arguing the stories were illogical.

Flatness. In many old fairy tales, characters are not very deep, psychologically speaking. Snow White, the target of murderous impulses by relatives (sisters or mother) does not suffer depression as a result. She does have responses however: fear, sadness, etc. They are logical and not lingered on deeply. There is nothing wrong with stories that explore ideas about psychological depth; I like many of these stories. Yet flat characters leave room for the reader. In the space left behind, one can think in new ways – Imagine new planes of existence. By flattening characters out, fairy tales exceed limitations of individuality, uniqueness, and self.

Happy Endings. Happy endings are underrated and misunderstood. In lots of old fairy tales, terrible things precede the beautiful images that begin and end most fairy tales; besides what’s wrong with a little consolation in a world teeming with senseless violence, poverty, grief? J.R.R Tolkien once defended happy endings as a vital technique in literature – reflecting, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” If I want to end a story about death with an image of a white horse running down a beach, as men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns wander drunkenly into the sea, leaving a pretty girl on the beach, counting pennies in the moonlight – if I can create poetic joy in the words – this is okay. […]

Fairy tales are storybook worlds. You can cast the spell.

The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales,  Kate Bernheimer

Her exercise then is to find a very short, very old fairytale, and break it down into these three instances. I chose Vassilissa the Fair, as it’s my favorite tale. It’s the story of a girl who’s mother, on her deathbed, gives her a doll and tells her if she runs into any trouble, to feed the doll and ask it’s advice. Since this is a fairy tale, Vassilissa of course runs into trouble.

Now, the intuitive logic here, is that the doll will in fact come alive. No one asks how. Or why. Just that the doll, when fed, comes alive and helps the one that fed it. And this help, invariably, always, helps her. When Baba Yaga tells her to clean her house, the doll has it done by the time Vassilissa wakes from a short nap. When Vassilissa runs from the witch, the doll tells her not to speak to the three riders on the white, red and black horses (morning, noon and night respectively.). And when Vassilissa at the first is sent out of her home to get a flower in the middle of winter, the doll is the one that tells her about the clearing in which she finds the 12 men (the months in order.).

Flatness is easy to find, since all we know about Vassilissa is that she is ‘fair’, meaning most likely blonde and pale.  We know she loved her mother very much. But we don’t hear Vassilissa’s thoughts. We don’t find out if she feels responsible for her mother’s death, or if she hates her stepmother and sister for sending her out into the forest each day. We never find out her feelings on Baba Yaga at all. And she’s wholly unaffected by the world around her. Vassilissa is little but a vessel for us to pour our own thoughts and feelings into.

The Happy Ending changes, based on who’s telling the story, of course, but my favorite is the one where the wicked sister goes out to get a blessing from Baba Yaga the way Vassilissa did, and never comes back, and the mother goes out to demand the men in the clearing give her flowers too, and never comes back. Vassilissa is left alone in her family home, to live her life. It’s not as surreal, perhaps as Miss Bernheimer would ask for, but it suited the story.

You can use this technique on any story really, and every story can benefit from these three instances of fairy tale progression. Remove attempts to describe the logic of your world. Let the readers just accept the premise of your story, and if they have questions? Well, that’s what Tumblr is for. Simplify or eliminate Character depth. It can always be added back in later. But for now, see how you can make room for the reader too. Don’t erase the tragedy, but afterwards, give the reader some odd bit of hope, like a pearl found lodged between an old man’s gums, which can then be used to buy passage onto a boat headed for a better life.

First Light

  • Posted on October 17, 2014 at 12:29 am

Memory is a fickle thing, inherently wrong, yet personal in the greatest of ways. All of our memories are biased, based upon information our mind stores and corrupts. Stories we tell ourselves become memories, despite never happening. Things that happened turn out a different way when we think back on them.

Most personal to us all, and most telling of whom we will become, is our very first memory. The first bit of light our mind stores away for us in the world. These memories hide from us, little snippets of time. And then, like magic, a scent, or a sound, the touch of a familiar fabric, or the hum of a certain frequency reminds us, and it comes crashing back like nothing was ever missing at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The prickly poking of hay. The scent of his mother, soft and creamy like milk just warmed up, and the sound of his father’s quiet voice. Later, Dirk would learn that the conversation was their first discussion about whether they should go back home to Thosfig, back to their tribe. His nose itched, and he rubbed his little fingers against it to make it go away.Noticing how sharp his little fingernails were, he curled them into his palms. Crickets chirped somewhere, and he could hear crackling, like fire. His eyes felt heavy, and he didn’t want to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Pain. Yumil remembered pain first. A too-tight grip of an adult hand around a small wrist. The red of lines cut into child-soft skin by fingernails dyed with pigment from berries.  Yumil remembers looking up at her, her tawny hair shining in the sunlight. She is beautiful, and frightful. She calls him a bad boy,voice hissing. Yumil feels his stomach twist and clench, fear climbing inside. She is angry, and to Yumil it’s as if she has always been angry and will always be angry. He finds anger burning inside himself to match, hot and terrifyingly close to tears.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She can’t remember the words anymore, but Eamon remembers the soft feeling of her mother’s chest. Her cheek fits against it perfectly. She remembers the hard push of her sister’s knee against her own leg, and the laugh in her mother’s voice. She recalls the lines of her sister’s hand and how it felt to rub her thumb along them until Lette shrieked with laughter, like it had tickled her. Eamon remembers how warm she felt, wrapped up in the two of them. A mix of flowers and cool water always brings this memory to her mind, and she smiles.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Grass tickling her nose, and a small round bug crawling along between the blades. Red like string scattering across her vision, as she was lifted from the earth. Her hand still reaching out for the little black bug, bigger hands tight against her ribs They squeezed a little painfully, but only enough to make her whine in the back of her throat. A murmur of her name, and Lette looks up. Her father’s green eyes smile down at her like the water of a murky lake. She smiles back, and giggles. His hand, scratchy with callouses, brushes back her hair.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Blurs moving past him, dark things swimming around the edges of his vision. Espin remembers crying, crying so loud and so long that he was sure no one heard him. He remembers unpleasant smells, something he later knows is the smell of sickness and waste. He remembers the crying making it worse, stopping his nose and how panicked he felt. A cool hand on his forehead was all that kept him awake, and he cried, and cried. Sleep would be kinder. His stomach lurched, and he felt hotness sear his throat and splash out his lips. Nothing eases his pain.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Her big brother’s back, warm and strong. Anelace was tied to it, she could feel the soft cloth against the back of her neck, feel the bounce of his step as he walked. He talked to her, telling her stories, and she burbled back to him. Her fingers found his coarse woven dreads, tugging for attention. She remembers how he smelt like sunshine and camels. He was so big, and strong, he carried her like she was smaller than an ant, and it made her feel small and she thought he must be the most powerful thing in the world.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

She was always angry. So angry. His mother was angry at him, yelling and screaming, and Jorgan hated yelling. He wanted to hide and forget. It made him cry, which made her so much angrier. She called him hurtful things he can’t remember later, things that might be true. Her palm struck his cheek, and his world went spinning. Pain blossomed in his jaw, his teeth rattling, as he toppled over. His cries came louder. The snap of a belt made his chest squeeze, and fear silenced him. His father’s footsteps, shaky and unstable, curled him into a tight ball.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

What glimpse does this first light give?

photo courtesy of flickr.com

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