Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Telling Tales

This was first published in Lionheart magazine, and can still be read in the current issue number 4 - pick up a copy for a whole array of wonderful and whimsical articles. Also, massive congratulations to the editor Helen Martin, who is now the mother of a beautiful baby. 

Fairytales are often one of our first forays into the world of fiction – a strange place of stories, make-believe and moral quandaries. The characters captured by the Brothers Grimm and other collectors trip off the tongue with more ease than lists of Prime Ministers or previous monarchs: Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel, Gretel, Rapunzel, Beauty. Each demonstrates the power of a name, and the associations that rise with each mention.
The name is usually known from a variety of versions. Any number of anthologies, stand-alone books and (of course) Disney films have either adopted or adapted Snow White and fellow cast. There are subtle differences between the published re-tellings, like different photos of the same subject. It is the framing, light, location and expression that change. Carol Ann Duffy or Philip Pullman’s recent interpretations may start from common ground but wander down different paths in their use of language and characterization.
This is, of course, only appropriate. Fairytales often, but not always, have their source in oral folklore. In the time preceding formal literature, it wasn’t that one story tumbled after another in natural progression, but that tales were assimilated into a continual cycle of birth and death. Protagonists and plots were handed down much like the audio equivalent of heirlooms. The Greek concept of Xenia suggested that a well-told-tale was an adequate gift in return for food and shelter. Stories were a currency that, unlike money, could be spread endlessly with positive consequences. This has a global implication. Every continent and country has its own literary heritage that once existed, according to Angela Carter, in “the memory and mouth” of the individuals that inherited, shaped and told these common tales. Similarities often occur. Cinderella also appears as Aschenputtel in Germany and Cap O’Rushes in Ireland, and that’s just before we move outside Europe to look at the multitude of African and Asian versions.
This diversity demonstrates that the vast majority of storytellers, be they parents or travellers, took pre-existing matter and shaped it according to their own means, so as to entertain or explain things beyond understanding. Language was a tool long before humans learnt to write and place imagination on paper. The spoken word is truly democratic, costing nothing and common to us all.
According to popular legend, all literature in existence can be traced back to just seven archetypal plots. These are simplistically laid out by Christopher Booker as: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. To attempt to slot each fairytale into one of these listed categories may reduce it merely to its skeleton, rather than taking account of the flesh padding the bones, but it does demonstrate that there are certain narrative shapes or arcs common to many.
But are these arcs still appropriate to our age? Feminist criticism has focused on the role of women in traditional fairytales – absent mothers, wicked stepmothers, fairy godmothers (noticing a maternal theme here?), gorgeous princesses and innocent girls awaiting a prince or other hero. Stereotypes have been unpicked, the expectations of male bravery and female passivity torn apart and analysed. As early as the 1950s Simone De Beavoir was observing that “In a song and story… [the girl] is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep; she waits.”
Some have responded to this imbalance by changing or subverting the traditional roles. In Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ Beauty becomes a tiger, Red Riding sleeps with the wolf and a vampiress dies after her first exposure to human compassion. Carter’s work is rife with rich imagery, exploration of relationships, bawdy humour, gruesome (often gothic) detail, startling twists and physicality.
It’s appropriate considering that fairytales can be claimed to allow us to safely explore the dark side of the human psyche. Every rose or drop of blood is a symbol of something else. Dark woods with a malevolent atmosphere are prevalent. Witches, wolves, giants, scheming family members and cruel suffering lurk in the shadows. These motifs surface again and again. They work through allusion, the safe world of the fairytale standing in for the sometimes unsafe world we live in.  Many of the narratives known today have been snipped down from far more violent or unsettling sources and re-tailored into something considered more palatable for widespread consumption. Threat is often implicit in these cut down fairytales – the significance usually recognized when they are read again with older eyes. When young, the joy is in a well-woven story. 
It’s interesting that the language used to describe fairytales shares similarities with the warp and weft of fabric – the stitching of narrative, spinning of a good yarn, patch-working of plots, embroidery of details. These descriptions I use are not new. Many have noted the fact that the seamed story or underpinning theme has become a mainstay of the metaphorical discourse surrounding fairytales and oral storytelling. 
That idea of weaving extends beyond the tale too, aptly encapsulating the way in which fairytales have entwined and influenced contemporary culture. New interpretations are spun onscreen; magazines continue to plunder the vault of narratives for photographic inspiration (particularly in the work of Annie Leibovitz and Tim Walker); we regularly use fairy tale characters as shorthand for various experiences or types of people; thesis’ are written on their significance. We may acknowledge that the fairytale world is sometimes outdated – for indeed it originates from a past of different values and expectations – but it’s surprising how often the content still resonates in our fast-paced, fantasy hungry modern lives. 

I wanted to dress up in a suitably fairy tale style costume. This vintage red lace dress cost the grand total of 99p on eBay, bought by my mum a few years ago. The chiffon sleeves are slowly decaying into shreds, but still lend themselves to the most magnificent gestures and swishing of the arms.

As a quick side note, votes for me in The hClub100 still very much appreciated! All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, for whom I sometimes write, have also been shortlisted. They don't have the resources of some of the others on the list, but deserve every marker of success - they are doing genuinely good, constructive, pragmatic stuff in encouraging fashion diversity. Votes for them will be gratefully received. Thank you also the the ever-inspiring Izzy for this piece on online friendships, the power of communication and connections that stretch across the globe. 


Melanie said...

Thanks for this satisfying read. Fairy tales have been on my mind lately, the things that scared me as a child in an uncomfortable way or a good way. Probably the discussion about what is considered appropriate Halloween wear for girls is emphasizing this theme. Your ruby dress with the fall-apart sleeves is incredibly beautiful, only 99p?! What's your own tale with this photo spread I wonder.

Vanessa, Take only Memories said...

Absolutely gorgeous photos. You do look like a fairy tale princess :)

Sandy Joe said...

Delightfully mysterious and witchy! Love this.

x The Pretty Secrets

Sandy Joe said...

Delightfully mysterious and witchy! Love this.

x The Pretty Secrets

Vix said...

Straight out of a fairy tale! That dress is the best 99p buy ever. x

Helen Le Caplain said...

Holy moly, 99p?! Great find! Looks fab with your hair all enormous and lovely :)

The Foolish Aesthete said...

How timely! Fairy tales have been a recent topic of conversation among friends and family. Someone sent me this quote from Einstein (not certain if it is verifiable):

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” -- Albert Einstein

And I believe Neil Gaiman pretty much said the same thing. And so on and so forth.

Just this weekend in conversation, I was lamenting the loss of the oral tradition of story telling or remembering verse. We are so used to looking everything up online whenever we wonder about something that we have forgotten to remember anything, it seems. Perhaps I just have memories of my grandfather (or what my mother says of her father) reciting complete dialogues of Shakespeare or other poetry while getting dressed in the morning. Of course, I would not go back to the days before writing or even the internet. Just that we as a civilization shouldn't forget beautiful traditions and uses of our mental faculties and senses.

Beautiful photos. It immediately brought thoughts of Snow White and Rose Red from the first image! I've been thinking about Halloween coming up and am considering a thrift shop gown as the basis for a malevolently gothic lady! -- J xxx

Izzy DM said...

Thanks for publishing that on here. I'm so glad I had a chance to read it. I haven't read Christopher Booker, but I have read Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces." I feel like you'd love some of his work. I spent a summer reading everything he wrote, and at the very end of the summer read that his favorite philosopher was Schopenhauer (massive misogynist) and that he thought the woman hero's journey was in the home, washing the dishes. I mean... as a stay-at-home mother I have to say that it is very difficult and nurturing is important work, but I don't think it's the best I can accomplish as a human being, just as a mother.

You also make me want to reread Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and also Philip Pullman's new book of fairy tales (if that's what you were referring to). My sister bought them, a beautiful book. There's also Mircea Eliade who writes interesting stuff on this theme, more mythology though, but I need to reread that as well. (Blog post about mind as sieve :)).

Loved the line about stories as currency. What a wonderful thought! Keeping my fingers and toes crossed for you! And I love that you and your mom share clothes. I hope me and my daughter have that kind of relationship.

Cloud of Secrets said...

I love the simple, modern gothic novel heroine look here. Is the red dress from the late 60s, early 70s I wonder, when they liked those medievo-gothic-romance shapes?

I enjoy fairy-tale magical paintings, photography, animation art, and costumery, but I've rarely been a fan of the tales themselves. There was an early awareness that the original sources can be grim and brutal -- cannibalism, rape, etc.; as well as a longtime gut distaste for the active-passive gender roles. You and Simone De Beavoir sum up the problem well.


I love the imagery in this post, and the similarities about the warp and weft of fabric. I always enjoyed the collection of fairy tales my family would read to us as children. That colour on you is absolutley radiant, even better at such a steal of a price. :)/Madison

Anonymous said...

Stories as currency is a wonderful concept, and that dress is very much suited to a fairytale setting. I like to think modern fairytales are beginning to change in favour of women - Disney's Brave is one such story - it was in the making for nearly a decade, proof that the typical girl in need of saving story is out of date.

P.S. Have voted for you - good luck!

Emalina said...

You are spellbindingly beautiful in that stunning red dress, a true pre-Raphaelite sorceress with those blood red lips and witchy sleeves. I am agog that your Mum found the dress for 99p, clever clever Mum!

I love your piece on fairytales, such a fascinating and enjoyable read. The Bloody Chamber is a book I'm always returning too, it offers much of the darkness and ambiguity of the older fairy tales while turning everything on its head.

Fashionable People said...

Amazing photo shoot! Stunning shade of red.

Sacramento Amate said...

Beautiful, inspiring and a true fairy, my dear Rosalind. Off to vote for you.
Have a fabulous Sunday, my GORGEOUS.

Sacramento Amate said...

I cannot find you in all the categories, Rosalind, ahhhhhhhhhhhh

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