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Living in a Fairy Tale World

At first, the Hansel and Gretel of my childhood stay firmly on the beaten track: The Evil Stepmother convinces the Father that, unless the children are led into the forest and left to their own devices, the whole family will starve. The adults aren’t aware that the children have overheard their conversation—and even though Hansel is provident enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs along the way, the breadcrumbs get eaten by birds and the children are left alone, helpless, as soon as their Father leaves them. It is only when the children have spent hours treading through the depths of abandonment that my own father employs some creative license, and the events depart from the usual storyline. Hansel and Gretel climb up a tree to get a better view of the forest, and rather than seeing a single distant, warm light luring them towards the gingerbread cottage, they see a green light, a blue light, and a red light. To my great delight, I get to choose which path they take.

In the original German fairy tale, collected by the brothers Grimm and published in 1812, Hansel and Gretel have no choice; after several days of wandering, they are led to the gingerbread cottage by a white bird. Ravenous, they start picking at the gingerbread roof tiles, at which point an old woman emerges from the cottage and lures them in. They accept her invitation, oblivious to the fact that she is a witch who plans to subject Gretel to forced labour and Hansel to systematic fattening-up so that she might eventually eat him—but they find out soon enough. Despite following other lights and experiencing a range of other adventures on the way, the Hansel and Gretel of my childhood bedtime stories, just like in the original, end up outsmarting the witch and shoving her into her oven. And, just like any other retelling of the original, the Hansel and Gretel of my childhood enjoyed extra events, details, conversations, explanations—and the more answers I got to my why-questions, the better.

It could be the very absence of such answers, though, that gives fairy tales their distinctive allure. Fairy tales, as short folklore stories, differ from legends or fables by including magic and supernatural creatures; but their uniqueness extends beyond content to how they are told. Kate Bernheimer, in an essay entitled, ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’, points out four features of the fairy tale form itself—flatness of characters, abstraction, normalised magic, and intuitive logic—and how they achieve their entrancing effect by subverting the traditional rules of ‘good storytelling’.

By flatness of characters, Bernheimer means that the characters in fairy tales are ‘silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there’, lacking in any sort of psychological depth, which rings true of Hansel, Gretel, and all their affiliated adults. In violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, fairy tales rely on abstraction and simple, unassuming language, tailored for a child’s understanding. Magical events do not raise any eyebrows in fairy tales; neither Hansel nor Gretel are particularly surprised by the existence of a gingerbread cottage, nor by the witch living inside of it. And, most fascinatingly to me, the story of Hansel and Gretel is governed by a particular kind of intuitive logic. The sequence of events that Hansel and Gretel follow is ‘extremely associative’, whereby details are isolated from plot, to the effect that everything in the fairy tale feels disarmingly inevitable. And, as Bernheimer points out, there is something magnificently postmodern about this.

The connection between fairy tales and postmodernity may seem tenuous at first, but it is quite remarkable. Postmodernity, in its historical sense of shifting beyond the modern, is characterised by self-awareness, the mixing of different styles and media, and a distrust for theories. The fairy tale worldview dismisses cause-effect continuity and blurs the line between details and plot points, expressing an extraordinariness that feels self-aware precisely because it is accepted as completely ordinary. In fairy tales, not making sense just makes sense.

To appreciate the sort of postmodernity that fairy tales offer, it is helpful to consider how contemporary retellings threaten to undermine them. In providing fairy tales with further elaboration and detail, retellings slowly unravel the abstraction, the intuitive logic, and shape it to fit our traditional notions of continuity and depth in storytelling. A retelling of Hansel and Gretel might explain what made the Stepmother despise the children so much; we rationalise the children’s suffering, and we provide the witch with a compelling, tragic backstory. This goes not only for parents reciting bedtime stories for their children and answering their questions, but also attempts to adapt fairy tales into full-length novels or movies—for instance, Maleficent (2014) retells ‘Sleeping beauty’ with a focus on the antagonist evil fairy, detailing her descent from innocent love, to betrayal, and eventually turning to reign over a dark kingdom.

Of course, why-questions come to children naturally, as does a fairy-tale-understanding of the world, in which extraordinary events are perceived as mundane, and not everything is governed by a strict system of cause and effect. Even putting aside the multi-coloured lights of my father’s imagination, the very idea that Hansel and Gretel followed a warm light rather than a white bird to the cottage is retelling enough—by having the children employ a conscious strategy, the version of my childhood already relinquished some of its fairy tale quality. By shaping fairy tales to fit our ideas of continuity and depth, no matter how inadvertently, we give rise to a clash reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—a clash between the dull, lacking reality of adults, and the open-minded and imaginative worldview of children.

Just as we transform fairy tales into elaborate retellings, we attempt to interpret our contemporary world in terms of logic and continuity. Our age is one of novels and feature films, and we aim to capture the world through complexity and continuity. As Milan Kundera emphasises in The Art of the Novel (1986), novels are, in their essence, made to connect the past and the future. Fairy tales, on the other hand, aren’t designed to make this sort of sense at all—and neither does our current world seem willing to conform to our expectations of continuity and logic. If not since the beginning of history, then at least since March 2020, the narrative of the news reads much less like a well-plotted novel and more like an audaciously abstract fairy tale. The clash at hand is not just one between children and adults, but between our experiences of uncertainty and change on one side (the world transforming, numbers fluctuating, rules and restrictions appearing without warning), and our desire for a predictable and causal world on the other.

Of course, fairy-tale-inspired works needn’t disown the novel form completely; they can retain some fairy tale features while employing the length and complexity typical of novels. In two of her works, White is for Witching (2009) and Gingerbread (2019), Helen Oyeyemi explores features, if perhaps loose and debatable, of the story of Hansel and Gretel. In the former work, set in Dover and Cambridge, there is a pair of siblings, hunger, a mysterious house, and the theme of abandonment; the latter is inspired more generally by gingerbread itself, exploring it from various angles. In neither of these works does Oyeyemi conform to the transparent, linear storytelling expected of a novel—cultivating that peculiar tingling feeling, familiar from fairy tales, of not making sense just making sense. These novels are not retellings in the most obvious sense of the word; they do not simply update a story by placing it in a new setting, adding new perspectives, or detailing psychological depth. Nonetheless, and perhaps in virtue of it, they demonstrate that the magic of fairy tales is compatible with a contemporary, novelistic rendering.

Maybe, then, if we can still make space for fairy tales in our present-day world, our cause is not completely lost. Perhaps the lesson is not to take things too seriously; we are, after all, performing something strangely self-defeating in trying to discern a fairy tale world through the lens of sense and continuity— a lens which held us in good stead until very recently, but now seems woefully obsolete, disorientating. Now, more than ever, we might be able to relate to Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by reality, stuck indoors with little hope for escape; we are spreading a futile trail of breadcrumbs through the depths of a seemingly endless, dark forest. While we may wish to continue treating our reality as a novel, linear and logical, perhaps recognising more of the fairy tale in the everyday could help us to find our way through the forest for a bit longer—and in return, the fairy tale could give us hope that, somewhere ahead of us, in between the trees, we will catch a glimpse of daylight.

Artwork by Nik Yazikov


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