Fairies have fallen on hard times this century. Even J M Barrie almost lost his nerve with them back in 1904. He’d built a climactic moment into Peter Pan when Peter – desperate to save the dying Tinker Bell – calls out to the audience `Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, wave your handkerchiefs and clap your hands!’ But suppose they didn’t? Just to play safe, Barrie instructed the orchestra in the pit to down its instruments and applaud loudly.
He needn’t have worried. The first night audience, and every audience since, did him (and fairies) proud. But that was a while ago – before the advent of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the like. Also before the very name of fairies had been hijacked by the sexually intolerant.
Luckily, language changes and intolerance can be worn down. Even luckier, fairies have always been a tough, resilient lot. Their real territory, as Bruno Bettelheim made clear, is not at the bottom of the garden, but at the bottom of our minds. Every piece in this issue of BfK attests to their vitality and their importance – the extra dimension they bring to our way of viewing the world. Rainer Maria Rilke expressed this perfectly in one of his most famous poems:
This is the creature that has never been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.
Not there, because they loved it, it behaved
as though it were. They always left some
And in that clear, unpeopled space they
it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace
of not being there …
Rilke was writing about a unicorn, of course, but his subject might just as easily have been a fairy – or Justice, or Equality or Freedom or a number of other unlikelihoods we can ill do without.
BfK 65, then, aims to celebrate both the continuing relevance of fairy stories and their current availability. See pages 4-5 for Nick Tucker’s account of the first and pages 24-26 for Fiona Waters’ summary of the second. Either article should bring back a bloom to the cheeks of Tinker Bell. But what of contemporary writers of fairy tales – isn’t their situation, within a tradition that’s essentially oral, rather anomalous? Between them, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Adele Geras, on pages 18-19 and 20-21, pick up the textual threads transformed from their origins in talk by such literary giants as Perrault and Andersen. Kevin writes from the viewpoint of an author steeped in the British folktale and Adele as a novelist for teenagers (amongst others) who knows a good source when she sees one. So does Naomi Lewis. There’s no more distinguished supporter, as author and critic, of the proposition that literature matters in childhood – and maybe fairy stories in early childhood most of all. That’s why she’s the subject of this issue’s Authorgraph (centre-spread).
Ah, but isn’t it ring-binders rather than fairy rings that circumscribe teaching these days? Well, yes – if you let them. Turn to pages 22-23 for a report on a school initiative that was fun, fairy-ish and scored a bulls-eye on an impressive number of National Curriculum attainment targets. Sometimes it’s wit rather than wishing that delivers the goods.
Fairy tales, then, are as potent as ever.
Alison Lurie recognises this in her latest, and much to be recommended, book Don’t Tell the Grown Ups (Bloomsbury, 0 7475 0603 5, £12.99). For one thing, she points out, `these stories are in a literal sense women’s literature … for hundreds of years, while written literature was almost exclusively in the hands of men, these tales were being invented and passed on orally by women.’ Nor does the subversion stop there since the folk-tale, she suggests, is `a middle and working-class genre. The world it portrays and the problems it deals with are those of farmers, artisans, shopkeepers and the working poor: survival, employment, family unity. The heroes and heroines of these tales are often very badly off, while the supernatural villains – the giants and ogres and witches – are rich.’
Endorsement enough, you may think. Consider, though, a tribute to the enduring power of fairy tales that’s more recent still: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Granta, 0140 14223 1, £12.99). The verve and humour of this epic adventure about a Shah of Blah struck story-less, and his son’s quest to regain the narrative gift that’s been lost, has been widely – and rightly – praised. Far behind its jokes and wordplay, its magical characters and fantastical events, lies a commitment to `stories that aren’t even true’ which Rilke would have understood at once. It’s a message more resonant even that Rushdie’s acrostic dedicating the book to his own son:
Z embla, Zenda, Xanadu:
A 11 our dream-worlds may come true.
F airy lands are fearsome too.
A s I wander far from view
R ead, and bring me home to you.
Few of us, surely, won’t wave our handkerchiefs and clap our hands at that.