Fairy Tales, Full Circle

Crane's Grim Title Page

The title page of an English translation, structured around a Victorian dollhouse

The association of children and fairy stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playroom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.

–JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 1938

By 1950, when I was a six-year-old Latvian war refugee living in Michigan, fairy tales had not only become unwanted furniture relegated to the playroom but also entities from which all the rusty nails had been removed and the rough edges filed down for the children’s safety.

Neither my parents nor Omama ever read me “Cinderella” as written by the Brothers Grimm. No girls sliced off their toes and heels to fit into gold–not glass–slippers. No pigeons cried out:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

My Cinderella came courtesy of Walt Disney, and she sweetly sang:

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re sound asleep.
In dreams you loose your heartaches.
Whatever you wish for, you keep…

My parents pushed this version of the story. In addition to taking me to see the movie, they bought me a magnificent pop-up picture book where, at the turn of a page, ragged rodents became gilded footmen. The devastation of World War II, no doubt, was fresh in their minds, and they were grateful for a little American make-believe.

It took me decades to finally face the horror of my history. When I did, I again turned to fairy tales, only not the Disney kind. The first draft of my novel, Anna Noon, begins with the narrator telling the adult Anna:

I am certain my fictions are as accurate as yours, which look to me like a fairy tale where an innocent child comes close to being chopped up, cooked and served to a large number of guests, many of whom have accepted the invitation to dine for no better reason than not being otherwise engaged.

In doing so, I joined other writers who have, since Tolkein’s 1938 statement, found ways to bring fairy tales back to the adults of “the modern lettered world.” In anticipation of the Little Patuxent Review’s upcoming Make Believe issue, here is a list of their better-known works, with links to Google Books text where available:

Note: Bernheimer is the editor of the Fairy Tale Review, which she founded in 2005.

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4 thoughts on “Fairy Tales, Full Circle

  1. Ilse,

    Thank you for your powerful reminder of why fairy tales remain a deep and enduring part of our culture. While the darker edges may have been removed by our film and entertainment industry, the original stories remain intact to help us make sense of the difficult experiences we all have as survivors of one kind or another. Thank you for sharing your own story.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer | Little Patuxent Review

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