A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?
The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.” This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars. Here the four elements as I recorded them.
1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.
2) Abstract – Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.
3) Intuitive logic – “nonsensical sense” This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.
4) Normalized magic: breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.
All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.
At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.
The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:
“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.” ( me too!!!)
“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”
“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”
Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!