Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Art of Fantasy

The short story is one of the oldest forms of literature, dating back to the Hebrew Bible’s short narratives; only poetry precedes it. Though the idea of the contemporary short story only dates back to the nineteenth century (with Hawthorne, Irving and Poe), the fairy tale, now considered a subcategory of the short story, actually predates the modern short story as one of the earliest forms in oral literary history. The fairy tale originated in the form of the “frame-story,” a written version of the oral tales told by an autodiagetic narrator, a conscious teller of the community’s history via narratives. Both the short story and the fairy tale differ from the novel in several similar and significant ways. “[The short story] can afford no digression that does not directly affect the action” (Burroway, 41). The novel, with its extended characterization and included subplots, is the most fully developed form of literature. The story differs from the novel “in the dimension that Aristotle called ‘magnitude,’ and this limitation of length imposes differences both in the effects that can be achieved and in the choice, elaboration, and management of the elements to achieve those effects” (Abrams, 194). The short story and the fairy tale both concentrate mainly on a limited number of relatively undeveloped characters and a single plot. The tale differs from the story in that the tale is a “‘story of incident,’ [where] the focus of interest is on the course and outcome of the events” (Abrams, 194). In the fairy tale this plot is usually that of a quest, taking form in a forbidden romance, or an initiation, or rite of passage. In the short story, but more closely in the fairy tale, the structure of the narrative is formative in the theme of the work. The structure of the fairy tale is unique in its almost formulaic manner; and shapes the theme through its structure; this is exemplified in Grimm’s fairy tale “The Glass Coffin,” in a traditional manner, and in A. S. Byatt’s tale “The Glass Coffin,” in a contemporary rendition.

In the creation of art man most closely comes into his purposed function as a creature made in the image of the Creator. Man does not merely make imitations of nature; he creates sub-realities in which the imagination pulls the artist towards a higher realm. The audience must grapple with developing what Tolkien calls a “Secondary Belief” (Tolkien, 49). This belief enables the reader to appreciate the narrative intent, similar to a combination of the ideal narrative audience, the narrative audience, and the narratee, and in a greater manner develop those ideals and justices for which the human mind craves fulfillment from its earliest days. The structure of the fairy tale is conducive to exploring and fulfilling those universal sighs.

This amounts to saying that initiatory scenarios—even camouflaged, as they are in fairy tales—are the expression of a psychodrama that answers a deep need in the human being. Every man wants to experience certain perilous situations, to confront exceptional ordeals, to make his way into the Other World—and he experiences all this, on the level of his imaginative life, by hearing or reading fairy tales (Bettelheim, 35).

Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were interested in fairy tales for their psychological import (though devoid of the creature/Creator purposefulness). Freud used these narratives more for the subjective individual projections into the fairy tale, and Jung, in an extension of Freud, to find the underlying archetypes in our collective unconscious.

The voice of the fairy tale is unique in its universality. Unlike the novel and short story (which when done well, achieve a sense of universality in theme), the fairy tale employs a standard voice in the structure, and is therefore able to span centuries and continents accessibly, in both the themes dealt with, and the manner in which they are expressed. Because of the relatively simple, predominantly oral quality in which fairy tales are written, they maintain the qualities that account for their longevity today. “…[T]he events which occur in fairy tales are often unusual and most improbable, they are always presented as ordinary, something that could happen to you or me or the person next door when out on a walk in the woods. Even the most remarkable encounters are related in casual, everyday ways in fairy tales” (Bettelheim, 37). The stories are accessible to each reader, capturing the child’s need for cohesion in troubling circumstances, as well as the adult’s yearning for adventure, a trip away from the commonplace, an elevation of oneself from the confusion and ugliness of the fallen world.

The voice that employs this structure uses a very strict logic within the Secondary Creation. This is not a realm of confusion and misery; although those elements may be present, they are not what classically dominates as the main theme of the tales. “The logic of a fairy tale is as strict as that of a realistic novel, though different” (Lewis, 13). This sub-creation runs in conformity to constant virtuous laws, not the constant physical or scientific laws which rule Primary Reality. “Creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it…. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (Tolkien, 55). Within the sub-creation there are laws which function in a similar manner to our scientific laws, they are, however, unique to that particular Secondary or sub-creation. For example, in fantasy it is a law that only a Virgin may touch, or capture, a unicorn. This “law” has no basis in our scientific laws of nature, but it is just as unchangeable as is the laws of gravity in our Primary Creation. The virtuous law (what is called “natural law” in the Primary Reality) forms the motivating factor behind the logic of fairy tales, and this virtuous law informs the other more customary laws of fairyland. So, in the creation of a vow in a fairy tale, the audience can know certainly that the promise will be fulfilled in the end, however the circumstances convolute to bring the audience to that point.

Tolkien, in his book Tree and Leaf, describes what he believes to be the four main elements essential to the fairy tale. Fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation: these four parts dictate, generally, the structure of the tale. In Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, threat is added to these four elements. To create an opportunity for the recovery, escape and consolation there must be a threat “…to the hero’s physical existence or to his moral existence…”(Bettelheim, 144). The first of the elements within fairy tales is Fantasy, an altogether unreality. The narrative must employ, primarily, images of the fantastic to produce a fairy tale. This may seem rather obvious in discussing fairy stories; one assumes that they would include things other than what are found in this world. But this must be a conscious effort of the narrator, to use “things that are not only ‘not actually present,’ but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there” (Tolkien, 47). This otherness helps the narrative audience to disengage themselves with the strict expectations and presumptions that they carry about with them. The audience is then able to participate in the narrative and eventually fulfill their narrative desires.

This otherness in the fantastic nature of the fairy tale leads to the Recovery—“which includes return and renewal of health;”—a “regaining of a clear view” (Tolkien, 57). For the narrative audience, this is the first in the steps of achieving a Secondary Belief. The ability to see things in a different manner sends the audience back to the Primary Reality with a renewed vigor in seeing the Primary and not growing weary of it because it is primary. Tolkien uses an illustration of an artist who, growing bored of the three primary colors and in his eagerness to create an original, resorted to exploitation of the primary and a “willfully awkward” rearrangement of what was before him; creating what turned out to be drab and calloused (Tolkien, 57). In the same manner, the writer need not turn to manipulating the reality or technical aspects before him in order to successfully join ranks with the sub-creators. There is no merit in recreating the sinful chaos in which the world has been thrown (if purpose is to create a narrative, not just a slice of life, because all narratives have these overarching principles) in order to be more “realistic.” For the greater reality, which created the seemingly chaotic Secondary Reality, is still underlying and upholding this one, and guides and rules through natural laws, evident to all.

The third tenet of the structure of a fairy tales is Escape. “Escapist” literature has been condemned as an unworthy, or at least, an un-artistic endeavor. However, in looking at man’s estate on this earth, it is in a sense only (truly) natural to want to escape from this Primary Reality. “Why should a man be scorned if, a man finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it” (Tolkien, 60). Once the implied reader embraces the recovery, or the regaining of clarity, it is possible to then escape. This is a true escape, an escape to what is higher and more virtuous, not merely a temporary removal or avoidance of the problem. In comparison to escapist literature “[t]he fairy tale does the opposite: it projects the relief of all pressures and not only offers ways to solve problems but promises that a ‘happy’ solution will be found” (Bettelheim, 36). This escape leads directly to the final element of the fairy tale’s structure: the happy ending.

The happy ending is essential to the fairy tale. This happy ending, far from being merely a placibic ending for the audience, actually helps them gain self-realization through the possibility, and viewing, of the positive outcome of trying circumstances.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale – or other world – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies…universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief (Tolkien, 68).

There is a joy in seeing justice meted out to those who deserve it and a good that is for ever after. Conversely, “…the hero’s suffering in many modern fairy tales, while deeply moving, seems much less purposeful because it does not lead to the ultimate form of human existence. (Naïve as it may seem the prince and princess getting married and inheriting the kingdom, ruling it in peace and happiness, symbolizes to the child the highest possible form of existence because this is all he desires for himself: to rule his kingdom—his own life—successfully, peacefully, and to be happily united with the most desirable partner who will never leave him)” (Bettelheim, 147). Through this union in the ending, the fairy tale shows the nature of the structure of fairy tale to be one of pointing to, or of showing the higher realm. This speaks to the fundamental tenet that the fairy laws addresses the universal virtuous code. These elements of “recovery from deep despair, escape from some great danger, most of all, consolation,” along with the threat to the hero’s moral or physical well being, must be present as a guiding force to create a successful fairy tale (Bettelheim, 143). “A Myth is not a cautionary tale like a fable which by arousing anxiety, prevents us from acting in ways which are described as damaging to us” (Bettelheim, 38). The myth represents the inevitable state of existence, whereas the fairy tale presents to the audience not a fatalistic commentary on the Primary Reality, but rather realized potentials.

One of the outcomes of this manner of otherness in the fairy tale is that “[one’s] mind has not been concentrated on [one]self, as it often is in the more realistic story” (Lewis, 38). This then makes possible the introduction and evaluation of themes which otherwise would be, perhaps, unwelcome to the audience, or would be approached with predispositions unfavorable to an open reading of the subject matter presented. Lewis comments on this inhibition that sometimes accompanies more realistic fiction, showing that fairy stories, precisely because of its otherness, could achieve what sometimes different sorts of literature could not do. “I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition that had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood…. [Why was it so hard to feel as one should?] I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings” (Lewis, 47). He concludes that, just as in The Chronicles of Narnia (though not purely allegorical), fairy stories can lead the reader to a greater understanding of something otherwise misunderstood or even taboo. Unlike the myth or fable, which instruct the reader on how to understand or respond to the narrative, the fairy tale never does so.

The fairy tale never confronts us so directly, or tells us outright how we must choose. Instead the fairy tale helps…to develop the desire for a higher consciousness through what is implied in the story. The fairy tale convinces through the appeal it makes to our imagination and the attractive outcome of event, which entices us (Bettelheim, 34).

Psychologically this helps the audience to experience, by engaging the Secondary Belief, the narrative catharsis, or full resolution of the narrative, through all of the aspects of the structure of the fairy tale.


andersonrc1 said...

Works Cited:

Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.

Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. New York: Longman Publishers, 2000.

Byatt, A. S., The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.

Lewis, C. S., On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1982.

Grimm, The Grimms’ German Folk Tales. Francis P. Magoun, Jr., and Alexander H. Krappe, trans., Binghamton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1960. ,

Matthews, Richard, Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Thiselton-Dyer, T. F., Folk-Lore of Women: As Illustrated by Legendary and Traditionary Tales, Folk-Rhymes, Proverbial Sayings, Superstitions, Etc. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965.

Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Alex said...

I love fairytales. Thank you for this interesting an educational piece.
In the spring of senior year I used to sit on South porch every Sunday evening reading out of a fairytale book from the library and drinking tea just to maintain my sanity.