A “new fairy tale”

 

A review of Margaret and the Moth Tree by Suite 101’s Michael Jung called our book a “new fairy tale”!

For many kids, reading fairy tales conjures up images of diving into a fantastic world full of mind-bending spells, mythical creatures, and flying broomsticks. Sometimes though, the most memorable fairy tales come from quiet stories that manage to find something truly remarkable in an apparently ordinary world – or tales that allow readers to empathize with the most ridiculous of characters and circumstances, creating an experience that lingers long after the story is over. Funny, ironic, and often bittersweet, Margaret and the Moth Tree will strike a chord with anyone who’s felt lonely and dreamed of finding a hidden world only for them. Fairy tale lovers will be glad to find the story follows in the tradition of authors like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett with its larger-than-life villain, foolish grownups, heroic-but-crafty children, and humorously pedantic narrator. Yet the story is more than just a stock fantasy… [T]he story’s theme of looking (or listening) below the surface to find the real truth… will likely be the most memorable aspects of this new fairy tale. ~ “Offbeat modern fairy tales for young readers

I was so thrilled to hear Margaret called a fairy tale, because I happen to be a lifelong devourer of fairy tales in all forms and am hungrily eating up all the new adaptations that have burst onto the big screen lately. I’ve given a lot of thought recently to why this is—why it is that I and so many other people continue to be enthralled by fairy tales, and why writers still want to explore the genre with new interpretations…

 

~ A Few Thoughts on Fairy Tales from Me and my Friends, Some Long-Dead ~

 

A hundred years ago, the Scottish fairy tale collector Andrew Lang talked about how the same kinds of stories show up across cultures, and how they’ve always done so for as long as people can remember. The trappings are different, but the tropes are the same:

The stories in the Fairy Books have generally been such as old women in country places tell to their grandchildren. Nobody knows how old they are, or who told them first. The children of Ham, Shem and Japhet may have listened to them in the Ark, on wet days. Hector’s little boy may have heard them in Troy Town, for it is certain that Homer knew them, and that some of them were written down in Egypt about the time of Moses. People in different countries tell them differently, but they are always the same stories, really, whether among little Zulus, at the Cape, or little Eskimo, near the North Pole. The changes are only in matters of manners and customs; such as wearing clothes or not, meeting lions who talk in the warm countries, or talking bears in the cold countries. There are plenty of kings and queens in the fairy tales, just because long ago there were plenty of kings in the country. A gentleman who would be a squire now was a kind of king in Scotland in very old times, and the same in other places. These old stories, never forgotten, were taken down in writing in different ages, but mostly in this century, in all sorts of languages. These ancient stories are the contents of the Fairy books. 

Nobody can write a new fairy tale; you can only mix up and dress up the old, old stories, and put the characters into new dresses… 

So fairy tales are old and ever-changing, they’re rooted in oral tradition, and they transcend countries and time periods. But what qualifies as one?

I’ve been mulling over the difference between fairy tale and fantasy lately, and why people often conflate the two. Gypsy Thornton at Once Upon a Blog hits one key difference on the head:

Fairy tales aren’t magical stories full of unicorns and pixie dust. That’s fantasy. Fairy tales are everyday stories with an element of wonder. The focus is different and it’s that wonder factor amid the mundane that makes all the difference.

I think that’s just it: the idea that an everyday situation could take a turn for the fantastical. That in a mundane world, there could be a bit of wonder that comes along and changes your circumstances. Which leads to that element of wishing and wish fulfillment that fairy tales often have…

When writing about who fairy tales were originally for, Charles Dickens spoke of the “vast hosts of men and 
women who have done their long day’s work,
 and laid their grey heads down to rest.” It’s a storytelling genre that came from rural, working people and from working women in particular, hence the presence of so many spinning wheels, thimbles and the like. Telling and retelling fairy tales over chores and around firesides offered reassurance and escapism—and a chance to relish the thought of bad people meeting nasty ends, of course. But Dickens wasn’t as interested in the bloodthirsty nastiness of the old fairy tales as he was in their saving power. To him, fairy literature was a “precious old escape” and a “powerful aid”:

In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy
tales should be respected… a nation without fancy,
 without some romance, never did, never
 can, never will, hold a great place under the 
sun. [Fairy tales] helped to keep us, in some sense, ever young, by preserving
 through our worldly ways one slender 
track not overgrown with weeds, where we may walk with children, sharing their delights.

So in Dickens’ view, fairy tales deal with something that children have access to: a faith in goodness and happy endings. And as adults rereading them, we have access to that hope again.

“I never really liked stories about children doing what children do—quarreling and cooking and camping. I like magic, the unreal, the more than real.”

~A. S. Byatt’s introduction to The Grimm Reader