A.S. Byatt on Fairy Tales

What are fairy stories for? Freud gave an answer – they were related to daydreams and wish-fulfilment fantasies, in which the questing self meets helpers and enemies, and in which the ending is always happy. He wondered if myths were the “secular dreams of youthful humanity” but distinguished myths from fairy tales by claiming that myth is “related to disaster”. It can also be argued that myth is related to the human need to know what was before, and what will be after the individual life, the living society. Myths are concerned with origins, the fear of death, and the hope for the overcoming of death in another world. The universe of Asgard and Valhalla, of Olympus and Hades, is not the fairy-tale unreal world with its visiting suns and moons, castles and undifferentiated forests. We don’t put it together in our imaginations in the same way. There is neither explanation nor teaching in the true wonder tale.

Other things which are not essentially part of true fairy tales are character, psychological causation, and real morality. Princesses are virtually interchangeable – they are either kind and modest and housewifely, or vain and stupid and inconsiderate. They are called “princesses” but peasants and merchants’ daughters have the same limited and recognisable natures. Simpletons and gallant princes have the same chance of solving riddles, obtaining magic feathers, or keys, the same insect or fishy helpers. Lazy girls are caught out by boasts that they can spin flax into gold, and are helped by strange brownies, or dwarves, or other creatures. The best single description I know of the world of the fairy tale is that of Max Lüthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web or network of two-dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.

Read the rest of A.S. Byatt’s 2004 piece on fairy tales in The Guardian.

Self Portrait as Thing in the Forest — Julie Heffernan