Archive for the 'Overthinking' Category

Once upon my time

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

One of the real pleasures of my life now is to be able to read without having to defend my book choices.

I tend to read in jags — I know this, and accept it, and even quietly embrace it. One way in the past to avoid the direct or implied criticism was by concealing what I was reading, but having a pile of one type of books on the bedside stand blew that tactic. The best way, of course, would be to shrug off the comments as unfounded but sometimes that was difficult. It got tiresome when on a jag to hear that my reading choices were juvenile1, psycho2, boring3, perverse4 or just plain stupid5 but attempting to explain and rationalize the value of the time and attention spent reading whatever genre was ultimately fruitless because those books were, after all, ________ (insert derogatory adjective here.)

But aha! That situation is no more and I am really happy about that. Now I can freely immerse myself in a genre or author or theme and read read read until I am sated. It’s fabulous, especially in light of the marvelous local library system and I am having a great time recently drowning in one particular type of fiction: fairy tales.

That leads me to the quote that inspired this musing, from an essay by Terri Windling, in which she talks about how the audience for fairy tales was radically changed:

     Fairy tales were originally created for an adult audience. The tales collected in the German countryside and set to paper by the Brothers Grimm (wherein a Queen orders her daughter, Snow White, killed and her heart served “boiled and salted for my dinner”) were published for an adult readership, popular, in the age of Goethe and Schiller, among the German Romantic poets. Charles Perrault’s spare and moralistic tales (such as Little Red Riding Hood who, in the original Perrault telling, gets eaten by the wolf in the end for having the ill sense to talk to strangers in the wood) were written for the court of Louis XIV; Madame d’Aulnoy (author of The White Cat) and Madame Leprince de Beaumont (author of Beauty and the Beast) also wrote for the French aristocracy. In England, fairy stories and heroic legends were popularized through Malory’s Arthur, Shakespeare’s Puck and Ariel, Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

     With the Age of Enlightenment and the growing emphasis on rational and scientific modes of thought, along with the rise in fashion of novels of social realism in the nineteenth century, literary fantasy went out of vogue and those stories of magic, enchantment, heroic quests, and courtly romance that form a cultural heritage thousands of years old, dating back to the oldest written epics and further still to those told around the hearth-fire, came to be seen as only fit for children, relegated to the nursery like, Professor Tolkein points out, “shabby or old fashioned furniture … primarily because the adults to not want it, and do not mind if it has been misused.”

But I maintain that there is real value in reading fairy stories and say without shame that I am a fan. There are truths in those old tales of loyalty and betrayal, steadfast love, caution and trust, searches for the truth, that transcend time and place. I’ve read fairy stories that used a classic tale as a frame in an updated setting (Sleeping Beauty in Chelmno), a literary genre (heroic quest by a gritty noir detective), a modernized coming-of-age epic (hello, Harry Potter) and other environments that allow the basic old tales to be bent and shaped to continue to illustrate the ageless human values. There are lessons to be learned and often poignant happiness at the end of the story to remind me of the basic human values of all of us — so reading fairy stories should not need a defense.

1 graphics novels
2 true crime anthologies
3 war histories
4 romances
5 mainly some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors