The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale. Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.
Yet writers have not forgotten. Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them. Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.
Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly. Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft. Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.
So, in this story A.S. Byatt tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.
In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.
After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame. The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen. They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest. Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for. The second princess volunteers, but:
The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.
So she set out. They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.
At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.
She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.
We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern. This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.
Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?