Darkness and Hope: the History of Fairy Tales

Very interesting article about fairy tales by Joan Acocella over at the New Yorker. One part I found especially interesting:

“The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic.

I wonder if fairy tales have to be hopeful or realistic. Many tales end with the villain defeated (even if it’s a violent manner, ala The Goose Girl), which suggests hope. Maybe it’s not as bright as Zipes would like, but I think it balances with the realism and darkness Acocella mentions. Cruelty and violence are real. We need to confront the world and its violence. But I think folktales also reference how goodness can prevail, even if death is inevitable.

Make sure to check out the whole article through the link. Lots of engaging history and literary criticism.

(image: Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mrs. Edgar Lucas, translator. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909, via SurLaLune Fairy Tales)

The Rules and Reasons of Magic

Usually when people talk about magic in novels, they also talk about rules. What limitations are there on magic? Who can perform it and when? Under what circumstances? What can’t magic control? Do you have to be born with magical abilities or can anyone learn?

Most people agree that your system of magic needs some rules; otherwise your main character would never be in any real danger. But N.K. Jemisin’s post at io9 takes the opposite view. It’s magic–why do we need to explain it?

“Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death – things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.”

My first reaction was, admittedly, a bit of pearl-clutching. “Of course magic needs to make sense! How else will we understand your world? How else will there be tension?”

But I don’t think Jemisin’s saying that creating a magical world is akin to playing wizards as a kid. (“Zap! I got you!” “No you didn’t, I’m wearing an invisible shield that protects me from spells!” “Well my spell destroys invisible shields!”) I think the point is more about over-explaining magical systems. At some level, the audience just has to buy the fact that magic exists and that it works a certain way. In Harry Potter, every wizard has a wand that’s specially tied to him. Although JK Rowling goes into a little background on what makes a wand, we don’t get pages of the history of wand-making and what exactly ties a wizard to his particular wand. Harry goes to Ollivanders, tries a few wands, and eventually get to his. Rowling doesn’t need to stop the action to explain why wizards have wands outside of “they help perform magic.” At some level, the reader just has to buy that wizards need wands.

That said, I don’t think you can just throw magic on the page and assume it’s all okay. You still need some limitations and a level of consistency. In Doctor Who, the Doctor carries a sonic screwdriver that can pretty much fix/adjust/open/etc. anything. Except a natural substance like wood. Having a limitation like that means that the Doctor can’t just go around screwdriver-ing everything; it would make for a fairly boring episode. There’s always the threat that his magical device won’t be able to help him out of a jam.

Also, I think it’s good for a writer to have worked out their magical system in detail. It doesn’t have to go on the page, but it’s good for you to know in advance so you can heighten tension and get your characters out of binds in a way that’s still exciting for the reader.

(via bookshelves of doom)(image: Kaptain Kobold)

Hear the Monster’s Call

When I did study abroad in England, I discovered Poems on the Underground, a project created to share poetry with Londoners on the Tube. One poem I came across was The Loch Ness Monster’s Song by Edwin Morgan. You can read and hear it here. Most poetry is meant to be heard, but The Loch Ness Monster’s Song practically demands it.

I think it would be a great poem to use in the classroom, since it shows how poetry doesn’t need to be stuffy and use impressive language. In fact, it doesn’t even need to use real language at all.

Also, it’s just the kind of poem I need on this gray, damp day.

(H/T bookshelves of doom)(image: Wikipedia)

Royal Role Models in YA/MG Literature

In response to Disney Princess week, Bailey Shoemaker Richards at SPARK counters with her own list of awesome princesses from MG/YA literature. As Bailey says: “The main characters in these books are, become or interact with princesses, and all of them have to deal with the implications of femininity in their own worlds.”

I have to admit: I was crazy about Ariel, Belle, and the other Disney princesses when I was little, and I think these characters still have a lot to offer girls. But when the princess line is marketed as just focusing on the fact that these ladies are princesses and wear pretty dresses, that’s a problem.

Bailey’s list includes three of my favorite MG fantasy heroines: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Alanna from The Song of the Lioness. All such awesome choices and complex characters outside of being royalty or near royalty. Bailey talks about each character and what makes her compelling, so click through to read more.

A couple of other suggestions I’d add:

Ani (aka Isi) from The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
This is one of my favorite fairy tale adaptations. Ani has a hard time being a princess and manages to find her own strength when her position is challenged. I love seeing Ani’s progression from awkward and uncertain to a confident, sensitive leader. (Shannon Hale has a bunch of other strong female characters in fairy tale adaptations, so Ani stands in for them as well.)

Beauty from Beauty by Robin McKinley
I especially like Beauty’s relationship with her family in McKinley’s retelling. In the original tale, Beauty’s sisters are selfish and spoiled, but here the family gets along well. Leaving them behind means a lot for Beauty, and I like how McKinley reinforces Beauty’s quiet bravery.

Who are your favorite women from MG/YA fantasty?