Some thoughts on why writers should read fairy stories

This week I’ve been reading The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, by A.S. Byatt.  It’s both the name of a collection of five fairy stories published in 1995, and the title of the last story in that collection.  I could discuss the whole book.  There’s a lot going on between these pages, but in the interests of brevity, I’ve decided to focus on the title story.

the-djinn-in-the-nightingales-eye-2To be picky, this one is probably closer to being a novella than a short story, though since the definitions for either of these modes of writing seem to be flexible who am I to quibble?  Besides, for writers who don’t have to confine themselves to competition or submission guidelines, I suppose the whole classification by word-count thing is irrelevant.

What matters is quality.  Well, in my humble and only slightly biased (slight being an entirely subjective unit of measurement of course) opinion, each story in this collection is a gem.

The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye begins with a traditional fairy-story phrase, and then goes on to list the usual trappings: the dreams that initiate quests, the magical attributes that enable the protagonist to overcome hurdles, and the amazing wonders that materialize along their way.

Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.

Think about it, that ‘Once upon a time.’  It’s ageless, isn’t it?  It is the start of a thousand and more tales that trace their lines back beyond the moment of writing to firesides and gatherings all around the world.  It’s the link between what got fixed onto pages and the shifting, adapting tales of the traditional bards and storytellers they came from.

Byatt’s narrator first removes our sense of time, and then re-places us, making our view of today slightly aslant.  That repeated ‘when’ keeps us aware we are in the past tense, but her choice of images belongs to the near past.  Airplanes and scuba diving, the study of marine-life, of the variety of our modern diet, these are things we often take for granted.

How does the fairy-story fit into the modern world?  Byatt gives us a protagonist whose ‘business was storytelling.’  She’s an academic, a narratologist:

…whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians.

If you’ve wondered who reads fairy-tales today, Byatt’s just told us.  We most of us do, either through the media or in the pages of our novels.  The stories get updated, twisted a little, and that’s good, isn’t it?  It makes me feel that writers are still connected to the oral tradition, moulding their material to suit the audience.

This is not just a story about reading, it’s a story about telling.  Who tells, how they tell, and what they tell are all included.  If you’re someone who believes that fairy-stories are for children, this story might make you investigate further.  It is an adult tale, both in form and content, and that’s as much as I’m willing to tell you.

If you’re someone who already enjoys a good tale, and you haven’t stumbled upon this one, then why not set yourself the task of reading it?

If you should be a writer in search of a story, this one might make you look back to some of your childhood favourites for inspiration.