The Quality of Fairy Tales, Part III

Part The Third: Ethereal-Timeless-Everyman Wonder

The one thing most retellings lack is this ethereal quality of fairy tales that I can’t quite put my finger on. My best guess is that it’s the Everyman/Timelessness quality brought on by a lack of time-specific or place-specific description, and the fact that most characters are nameless. Or named descriptively: Snow White, Rose Red, Sleeping Beauty. Or just named weirdly: Rumpelstiltskin. And Rapunzel was named after lettuce? Tough break.

These similarities are no doubt due to their oral tradition; only the barest of plot details would be passed on the same from one person to the next. Rumpelstiltskin is a memorable name: Tom The Creepy Old Baby-Stealer isn’t so much. (Well, my version might be. Just plain Tom, though, isn’t.)

While I like modern stories that explain the illogical plot twists and add realistic character names and rich backgrounds to the story, there’s something about that sparse fairy tale quality that I really like. I’d like to convey that feeling in my own writing–but then I like character names and details and background and explaining plot twists. Tolkien understood this hard-to-nail-down quality:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manners of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” from Tree and Leaf

Tolkien’s right: prod too much at the magic, and we’ll break it.

Here’s the opener of one of my favorite fairy tales. I love how this opening sounds–albeit the requisite creepy thought of a father locking his twelve daughters into a single room each night (and we come back to potentially-creepy plot points!).

The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces
(other versions are titled, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but this is more poetic)

There was once upon a time a King who had twelve daughters, each one more beautiful than the other. They all slept together in one chamber, in which their beds stood side by side, and every night when they were in them the King locked the door, and bolted it. But in the morning when he unlocked the door, he saw that their shoes were worn out with dancing, and no one could find out how that had come to pass.

And with that, I leave you to your happily-ever-afters and your once-upon-a-times.

Other parts in this series:

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4 thoughts on “The Quality of Fairy Tales, Part III

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