BOOK REVIEW / A casual king of elves: Jan Morris goes on a foray into modern fairyland, and sorts the princes from the frogs: The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales - Ed. Alison Lurie: Oxford, pounds 17.95
Saturday 26 June 1993
To us credulists (as we like to call ourselves) fairy tales are, of course, perfectly timeless. When God made the rocks, so the wise Keble taught us, He made the fossils in them, and when He created magic, and wonder, and the ethereal world of The Others, he commissioned accompanying stories. It is hardly surprising that Alison Lurie, together with the various 'experts' and researchers whose help she acknowledges, has not been very successful in finding 40 modern tales (between 1839, that is, and 1989) of the requisite kind and quality.
She seems a bit vague about what a modern fairy story should be. Her introduction is hardly more than a catalogue of what comes after - 'another interesting example of the genre', 'a striking tale by Angela Carter', 'John Collier's The Chaser . . . takes place in modern London' (which it doesn't, in fact, being explicitly set in Pell Street, Manhattan). And her choice of material seems a little desperate, despite all those consultants on both sides of the Atlantic.
My own feeling is that the most bewitching fairy tales contain within themselves a blend of the ordinary, even the bland, and the inexplicable. The world of The Others should overlap our own, and we feel that the story itself is part fantasy, part reportage - certainly not just fiction. Above all, we should be persuaded that the tale has had no original teller, but has come out of nowhere like a corpse-light or a will-o'-the-wisp: retold a million times, endlessly adapted, but attributable in the first place only to the author of all things.
Not many of the stories in this collection live up to these demanding criteria. Some of them would be better classified as science fiction. Some are straight horror stories. Some are moral fables of the Aesop kind. Some are satirical. Some are more or less parodies of the genre, while others play about with reversing the conventions - Tarith Lee's Prince Amilek, for instance, in which the witch ends up marrying the prince. One at least, Catherine Sinclair's deadly Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies (1839) strikes me as so insufferably boring that only 'experts' could possibly read it with the faintest interest or amusement.
As this collection demonstrates, when even the most distinguished writers try to pirate the authentic style of the fairy tale, they are liable to sound fey, self-conscious or condescending. Oscar Wilde, in The Selfish Giant, is sickeningly sentimental, if not actually priggish. E Nesbit is odiously whimsical. Robert Louis Stevenson is fearfully mannered. Charles Dickens is impossibly laboured. Walter de la Mare goes on too long. Writing a proper fairy tale, as any sprite will tell you, is not just a matter of Talking to the Kiddies, or improvising surprises over nursery tea, but is a process essentially organic and mysterious.
There are many fine things in this book, but most of them do not even pretend to be fairy stories. H G Wells' The Magic Shop is a chiller of quite another kind (though Professor Lurie is wrong in supposing, as she evidently does, that electric trains had not been invented in 1903). T H White's macabre The Troll reminds me as much of M R James as of Hans Andersen. Richard Hughes' Gertrude's Child and Lucy Lane Clifford's The New Mother are both marvellously haunting inventions, but have little of the gossamer or the goat-hoof to them. Can one seriously accept as a fairy tale James Thurber's ultra-sophisticated fable The Unicorn in the Garden, which breathes the very spirit of the old New Yorker?
Five or six pieces do get as near to the mushrooms as mere mortal writing can. Ruskin manages it in his lovely parable The King of the Golden River. Lord Dunsany touchingly describes the ingredients of a fairy soul - marsh mist, and the sound of a plover's wings, and lovers' voices, and dew. Angela Carter literally brought tears to my eyes with her version of Beauty and the Beast. And two American writers are closest of all to the real thing in their fusion of the everyday and the magical: Philip K Dick, with a petrol station attendant who turns almost casually into the King of the Elves, and Richard Kennedy, whose Porcelain Man, shattered into a thousand fragments, is reconstituted as a dinner set from which he and his love eat happily ever after.
They are not enough, and Professor Lurie's book irrevocably abandons the Faery Path when it moves in the direction of political correctness. There is a tiresome parable of feminism in Jeanne Desy's The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet, and the collection drearily ends with that prerequisite of contemporary folk literature, the Native American (ie, Red Indian) recitation, which sinks into all-too-corporeal anecdotage about penis, fart, copulation and shit.
I tried reading this last story (by Louise Erdrich) to our own Fair Tribe in Wales, sitting on a rock beside the river as the moon came up: they soon flitted away, bored but iridescent upstream, not knowing what the words meant.
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