Tales Retold: Something Old, Something New

Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue

On the persistence of fairy tales in what we read & what we write

In thinking about how to talk about drawing on sources from deep in our cultural history and memory in the making of new literary work, I started with a brilliant idea about talking about Nietzsche on Greek myths and Freud on Repetition Compulsion and Bruno Bettleheim on the “Uses of Enchantment” and John Barth on the “Literature of Exhaustion” and his rousing follow-up, “The Literature of Replenishment” (both originally printed in The Atlantic, in 1967, then in 1980, and republished endlessly elsewhere).

But then shortly, upon revisiting these sources, I realized that I had misremembered, misunderstood, or simply made up the messages I imagined could be taken from them–and in a couple cases, as with Bettleheim and Freud, ideas had been debunked or revised. So what we’re left with is what I made up based on what I thought I’d read, which in many ways is what we’re talking about here: making something new out of something old (and because we’ll ultimately be talking about “Bluebeard,” we’re oddly in line with what’s traditionally called for in equipping a bride for a wedding: Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue).

What I apparently thought about the Greek myths–in wondering: why are they so compelling and so enduring and such an endless resource–was (is): By portraying the gods as indifferent, mischievous, petty & cruel (in other words, having pursuits and principles no loftier than your friends’ and family’s), these stories freed the hapless human to find his own way & his own meaning; in short, to create his (or her) own stories.

The message: you’re on your own. (And, not coincidentally, that’s the message of one of the beautiful Sondheim songs in Into the Woods, “No One Is Alone“, the point being: We’re all together in this aloneness.)

And this, I also apparently thought (and think), contrary to so many message-y types, is the compelling and enduring idea behind fairy tales (and folk tales, frankly): the world is fraught with peril and unfairness, and adults are not necessarily your friends, so get out there and make it up as you go along. And meanwhile: remember this.

(Here I might after all like to slip in a little something about Repetition Compulsion, in its earlier form, too, because it seems to me that there’s an unavoidable coincidence in the mechanisms of fairy tales and folk tales, and the way in which people are compelled to repeat actions and patterns that do not bring them pleasure in the conventional sense, but do–or should–confer the pleasure of mastery over those things one can not control, whether it’s the wild longings of the id or the unpredictable and often punishing wildness of the world. Just so, we tell ourselves some stories over and over, taming the wolf–or at least our unbridled fear of it, coming to understand that being born one way or another, stupid or beautiful, poor or rich, princess or pauper, to a good family or a bad one, need not be the end of the story.)

Others will frame these possibilities as wishes. They might tell us that, as “repositories for primeval fears”– as Jean Thompson, one of our writers today, says in her introduction to the collection that includes “Your Secret’s Safe with Me“–fairy tales “encompass our wish that the usurper and the evildoer be found out and punished in satisfyingly gruesome ways. The downtrodden will triumph. The little-regarded younger son will find his fortune. The terrifying giant can be outwitted. . . . . Appearances deceive, but humility and virtue will guide us. . . .And goodness always manifests itself as beauty. . .”

And there’s something to that, but fairy tales are also full of mermaids who give up their tails and live in constant merciless pain only to lose everything in the end; tin soldiers who end up as leaden lumps in the name of love; ne’er-do-wells like Jack, who win through laziness, thievery, and murder; and maidens who, to have the king who says he’ll kill her if she can’t make straw into gold, sacrifices the man who saves her; a father who, rather than feed his children, sends them out into the woods to die.

It’s a mad world.

Bettleheim gets closer to what we’re after here when he suggests that “traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, witches, and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms.”

Because what’s useful to us–as people, but here, especially, as writers–cannot be separated from fairy tales’ formal components. Terri Windling, in a very moving essay about how fairy tales made life bearable for her, touches on this when she says, “They were trail maps through the deep, dark woods, pointing the way to the brighter lands beyond. Like poetry, they spoke to the soul in richly symbolic language.” And there’s something equally relevant in what she says about a series of what she calls “incest tales” (a story called “Donkeyskin” is her model): Each, she says, begins with the father, whose word is law, despite his mad intentions.”

His word is law, despite his mad intentions. This captures something about the unmistakable language of fairy tales, which figures in their power, both in their original form and in our ongoing use of them as writers. The most marvelous things might happen, but they don’t elicit wonder. They are merely reported, and little remarked on. Word is law. As Kate Bernheimer notes in her piece “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Beauty is startled by the Beast not because he’s a beast but because . . . he startles her. In fairy tales, this happens. Then that.

A few examples (lifting the language from tales):

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.” Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban

“He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think of it that way. He didn’t take the whole thing; that would not have been possible.” Mary Gaitskill, “Mirrorball”

“Commuters began to fill the path. He’d forgotten what his own people looked like, how they flowed like milk on the footpaths. Their flesh was firm, their teeth correct and bright.

“And such wealth! A dowry on every wrist. Some of them talked into their jewelry; others merely addressed the air in front of their faces.” Matthew Olshan, Marshlands

 “There is a family nearly everybody knows. The children of this family are named Bobo, Bibi, Doody, Dodo, Neddy, Yoyo, Butch, Put Put, and Beep. Some are girls and some are boys. The girls are mean babysitters for mothers. The boys plan to join the army.”  Grace Paley, “Gloomy Tune”

“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows.” Hemingway, “In Another Country”

“But this year a curtain has fallen all along the frontier. From our ramparts we stare out over the wastes. For all we know, keener eyes than ours stare back. Commerce is at an end. Since the news arrived from the capital that whatever might be necessary to safeguard the Empire would be done, regardless of cost, we have returned to an age of raids and armed vigilance. There is nothing to do but keep our swords bright, watch and wait.” J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting.” E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

“In the desert it is easy to lose a sense of demarcation. When I came out of the air and crashed into the desert, into those troughs of yellow, all I kept thinking was, I must build a raft. . . . I must build a raft.” Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

“Once, finding himself with a free evening, he called up a girl whom he had not seen for two months. As soon as she recognized his voice she exclaimed: ‘Darling, it’s you! I was praying for you to call me!’ She said it so breathlessly, with so much urgency, that the familiar pang of anxiety squeezed his chest, and he felt in his very soul that he was doomed.” Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party

Before we go on with the formal aspects of fairy tales, I’d like to backtrack a bit to the more general question of reuse and reinvention. People are always claiming that everything’s been done, in literary terms. Thus you have books and articles devoted to the “7 basic plots,” and even such smart writers as Philip Pullman asserting that there are “only 10 plots in fiction.” John Gardner narrowed that down to 2 (someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town). The British critic Colin Jackson says 3, which he calls ‘Hubris’, ‘Discardation’ and ‘New Order.’

Then you have others (like John Barth) who say that what’s been written well is of its time and over–then turning around and agreeing with others like Borges, who says that “literature can never be exhausted—its meaning residing as it does in transactions with individual readers over time, space, and language.”

And both Barth and Borges exemplify this truth in action, Barth in particular revamping an origins story like Tristram Shandy in The Sotweed Factor, but more than anything playing with the basic storytelling conceit most clearly framed in the 1001 Nights in numerous stories, most obviously The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.

Now the storyteller in the 1001 Nights, Scheherazade, comes in to our discussion of fairy tales and folklore as she is telling stories to save herself, but also as she represents a variation on the story we’re concentrating on: Bluebeard. Scheherazade, after all, is telling stories to forestall execution. And as Jack Zipes says in The Irresistible Fairy Tale, one could “include the frame tale of Thousand and One Nights as a forerunner of the hybrid fairy tale “Bluebeard.” After all, King Shahryar, who marries virgins daily and kills them after sleeping with them, is the most notorious serial killer of all humankind.”

So, back to fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm, beginning in 1812 (and we must say “beginning in” because their fairy tales were many times watered down to make them acceptable to the family values of the German people), assembled one of the most famous collections of fairy tales ever, believing they were uncovering the “natural poetry” (Naturpoesie) of the German people, which resided in the epics, sagas, and tales containing essential truths about the German cultural heritage. Which is mildly amusing, because one of the other most famous collections of fairy tales, ever, was put together by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman, in 1697, and these, as you might imagine, coming from a Frenchman, did not reflect the natural poetry of the German people. And yet, of course, many of these tales occur in only slightly different version in both collections, including, of course, our Bluebeard, which, by the way, Angela Carter makes a very pointed point of keeping quite French, for any number of reasons we might explore if we have the time, which I fear we don’t.

As Carter says: “Ours is a highly individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.’”

One of the most celebrated writers to make potato soup out of fairy tales is Italo Calvino, who, in explaining the attraction of folktales and fairy tales, said “this was not the result of loyalty to an ethnic tradition . . . nor the result of nostalgia for things I read as a child. . . It was rather because of my interest in style and structure, in the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.”

As the Swiss scholar Max Luthi says: “The pleasure of fairy tales resides in their form.”

As Roland Barthes says in Writing Degree Zero (1953): “. . .the whole of literature, from Flaubert to the present day, became the problematics of language.”

And as that Nouveau Roman-ist Alain Robbe-Grillet proclaimed in 1957: “The genuine writer has nothing to say . . . He has only a way of speaking.”

Kate Bernheimer, whom I’ve mentioned, is especially good on fairy tales’ “lucid form,” their adaptability to a diverse range of narrative styles and shapes, their artistic dexterity (beyond fantasy & fabulism), and their debt to “the pleasure of language as it shapes story: fairy tales,” she says, “are the skeletons of story, perhaps.”

Bernheimer breaks this formal appeal into 4 elements: 1) flatness: characters are flat, silhouettes, emotionally one-dimensional (lack of psychological depth so much demanded in fiction “allows depth of response in the reader”); 2) abstraction: few illustrative details, open language (lovely, dead, beautiful), all tell, no show, few colors (red & white), precise & simple; 3) intuitive logic: “nonsensical sense”, this then that, w/o explanation of why, “this” related to “that” through language—syntax and narrative proximity; 4) normalized magic: “the day to day is collapsed with the wondrous . . . Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is normal.”

(With or against this, we again have Angela Carter, quoted by Allthebirds: “Perrault’s style is characterized by ‘concision of narrative . . . precision of language; irony; and realism.’” By “realism,” I’m guessing, she means the “normalized magic” Bernheimer refers to.)

“With their flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic,” Bernheimer says, “fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction.”

(Which, coincidentally, is the claim John Barth, in “The Literature of Replenishment“, makes for the ideal postmodernist novel, which “will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and ‘contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction.”)

And here we might also observe that the qualities mentioned by Bernheimer and others, in particular the flatness of observation, go exactly against the “interiority” we prize so much in contemporary fiction. Fairy telling might be said to be inside-out, with the reader or listener assumed to be inside the story.

In this “other” tradition, we have such vastly different practitioners as Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Kurt Vonnegut, A. S. Byatt, Haruki Murakami, Stacey Levine, Rikki Ducornet, Alice Hoffman, Ben Marcus, Donna Tartt, Gregory Maguire, Joy Williams, Kathryn Davis in The Walking Tour and Hell (which at times seems to take place in a dollhouse), The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (the tale that also opens Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica; and Gaitskill also exploits fairy tale logic and technique in her story “Mirrorball”).

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics: beautifully written, enormously appealing space-age fables—“perfect dreams,” John Updike has called them—whose materials are as modern as the new cosmology and as ancient as folktales, but whose themes are love and loss, change and permanence, illusion and reality, including a good deal of specifically Italian reality.” (Barth)


“5 Grimm Fairy Tales You Should Only Read to Kids You Hate” (James Freetly)

“Variants of the ‘Bluebeard’ tale were in widespread circulation in Western cultures long before their appearance in print. . . . It is generally held that Charles Perrault’s ‘La Barbe Bleue’ in his Histoires et contes du temp passes (1697) provides the first written version of the tale, followed by the variants included in the Kinder- und Hausmarchen (1812) by the Brothers Grimm. ‘Blaubart’ was, however, dropped from the 1819 and later editions of K-und H because it was deemed too violent and too markedly a French tale.”

(And indeed this Frenchness is played up by Carter in The Bloody Chamber.)

Origin sometimes thought to be (also mentioned in Gaiman story) 15th-century French nobleman Gilles de Laval Rais, a lieutenant of Jean d’Arc.

It shows up as “Mister Fox” and “Mister Fox’s Courtship” (also in collections edited by Carter; and exploited in Neil Gaiman’s story); “The Robber Bridegroom”, “Fitcher Bird”; the conceit of curiosity & its reproof (invariably female) show up in the myth of Cupid and Psyche; the story of Pandora’s box (no sexual connotations there); the story of Adam & Eve; later in Jane Eyre; Middlemarch (Dorothea & Casaubon)

Perrault’s version ends with a “moral”: “Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets; one sees around one a thousand examples of this sad truth every day. Curiosity is the most fleeting of pleasures; the moment it is satisfied, it ceases to exist and it always proves very, very expensive.”

(as the Allthebirds posting observes: “Curiosity is only another form of greed.”)

“It is easy to see that the events described in this story took place many years ago. No modern husband would dare to be half so terrible, not to demand of his wife such an impossible thing as to stifle her curiosity. Be he never so quarrelsome or jealous, he’ll toe the line as soon as she tells him to. And whatever colour his beard might be, it’s easy to see which of the two is the master.”

As Shuli Barzilai observes, the plot of the tales that contributed to the development of the Bluebeard discourse involves the stages of prohibition, transgression, and punishment. . . what is distinctive about the Bluebeard discourse is that it stemmed from a misogynistic strain of storytelling within patriarchal cultures. “Bluebeard” is a tale about power, among other things.

Marina Warner, reviewing Shuli Barzilai, Tales of Bluebeard and His Wives from Late Antiquity to Postmodern Times and Casie E. Hermansson, Bluebeard A Reader’s Guide to the English Tradition: Angela Carter, in the title of her famous l979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, crystallised a new fascination gathering around the figure of Bluebeard. In an age when the serial killer has become a folk anti-hero of literature, film, and journalism, the story Barbe-bleue, first published in Contes du temps passé (l697) by Charles Perrault , touches upon areas of acute anxiety – about male sexuality in general and in extremis, about the rights of husbands – and the rights of wives; about money (Bluebeard is always wealthy); about foreigners (his sabre becomes a scimitar early on); about the delinquency of curiosity and women’s special propensity. The voyeuristic violence has a moral dimension, too; what is the pleasure for the reader (and the writer) of the bloody chamber?

Barzilai: In the story with which Tales of Bluebeard begins, a woman visits a neighbour to borrow some yeast and asks her how her husband, the snake-charmer, treats her. She replies that he lets her do anything – except touch a jar filled with snakes and scorpions. Her visitor goads her, saying the husband must be keeping his treasure there in order to attract a rival woman. When the wife then puts her hand into the jar, she’s immediately bitten. This most interesting and little-known parable, ‘The Snake-Charmer’s Wife’, was offered as a rabbinical gloss on the forbidden fruit, to which Victorian interpreters of ‘Bluebeard’ also drew attention, casting Fatima as another disobedient Eve and refraining from censuring the husband, the Adam in this story. By contrast, Barzilai distinguishes two forms of curiosity in operation here, both of them justifiable if not humanly vital: ‘curiosity as self-preservation’ (she fears she will be usurped) and ‘curiosity as epistemophilia’ (admirably, Eve desires knowledge). Barzilai then changes her angle of view and observes that the tale also expresses another motive force, which is also a kind of curiosity: the husband’s desire to prove his wife by placing temptation in her way – the closed door, the enchanted key.

 “The Bloody Chamber”

The publication of “The Bloody Chamber” in 1979 coincided with that of Carter’s The Sadeian Woman, and in Sade she found a model for Bluebeard—and the story resonates with his interest (and hers) in demythologizing women and femininity and her interest in the construction of sexuality. “Fairy tales are pre-eminently tales about the politics of experience, but their significance for Carter lies in they way they reflect ‘male phantasies about women and sexuality’” (Rosemary Moore, “The Reproof of Curiosity”)

  • Material wealth: In both the Perrault & Grimm versions, it is Bluebeard’s wealth and status that overcomes the bride’s revulsion at his blue beard—and that allows Bluebeard to marry, dominate, and murder his wives. Carter’s “Bluebeard” is downright baroque in its depiction of wealth, associated here in every way with the Marquis’s power as well as the narrator’s sexual awakening and her probable fate, in that everything from the jewels to the food to the furnishings and pornographic outfittings bespeaks the Marquis’s social and sexual dominance tinged with cruelty and death. Ends in benevolent poverty, not riches.

  • Excessive simplicity: the overwhelming use of oppositions of sounds, smells, colors (esp. red and white); the rational and the bestial, the pure and the corrupt, especially combined in the lilies, which are both funeral and pure, putrid and fresh. The piano tuner—true lover—is blind.

  • The women’s roles: Narrated by the female protagonist; who is rescued by not her brothers (or, as in Jean Thompson’s version, the stepson) but her mother, who comes with her own fairy tale story (shooting the tiger, living off the proceeds from her wedding ring).

  • Time, or timelessness: The story features phones and cars and trains, but also rescues on horseback and a castle in the sea, marble, with dungeons; torture devices dating to the Inquisition; ancestry stretching back to the French aristocracy of the Ancien Regime (giving the story its origins & its flavor of French decadence & Sade). The salon referred to, La Coupole, opened in 1928. Wall St., Yale locks, shirt from “Turnbull & Asser”

  • Beard, in this case a mask (“beard-masked kiss”) as well as a bestial touch, like his scent of Russian leather (“flayed hide and excrement of which it was composed”)

 “Your Secret’s Safe with Me”

Jean Thompson, in intro:

“I have tried here to write a cycle of stories that are not recountings or versions of the old tales but something looser. I wanted to recapture their magic, but in a way that used them only as a kind of scaffolding for new stories. The old ones tantalized with questions. Why might a young woman be persuaded to marry Bluebeard? How, exactly, might an animal come to have the power of human speech? And in what circumstances might Cinderella really have lost that glass slipper?”

Laura Miller, in her review in the NYTBR:

“Carter and her literary descendants (a daughter-heavy lineage) were mostly refugees from naturalism, the kitchen-sink school of narrative that predominated in mid- and late-20th-century fiction, and to which Thompson belongs. Writers with a yen for the Gothic or fabulist gravitated toward the fairy tale as an alternative literary heritage, far older than psychological realism and with its own set of aesthetics and rules.

“By contrast ‘The Witch’ looks like an experiment in the opposite strategy. The subject matter of all but the two final stories in this collection is utterly—you might even say rigorously—mundane. . . . they convert the tales’ figurative fancies into literal fact. . . . Her prose mimics the cadences of everyday speech with a pleasing, deceptive ease.

“At their best, Thompson’s stories invoke the dark homeliness of Shirley Jackson’s short fiction, with its ruefully sardonic characters whose meek exteriors conceal a start assessment of the world’s shortcomings and hypocrasies. . . .

“What would fairy tales be like if we drained them of every last drop of their mystery? The answer is: rather pat. . . .

“By some alchemy, it’s the very flatness of fairy tales—their eerie, cryptic simplicity—that gives them their power . . . . Their survival is not a repudiation of the 400-year history of the modern novel (and short story) so much as a counter-history, a ceaselessly whispered assertion of truths that cannot be reached by the straight and narrow road of realism. You can travel that road as long as you like, and certainly the sights to be seen along it are splendid. But it cannot take you where it does not go.


  • Wealth, but power more as a function of intellect, performance, fame “Why shouldn’t she take this other, unexpected path? Give herself over to forces greater than herself, to mystery, to magic, to love! Milo’s shiny head in her lap might have been a crystal ball.”

  • Suspicious marital history: the fate of wives misrepresented; like Carter’s, superior in fame & beauty (at least one)

  • Need to dominate, initiate: “your pitiful need for validation. Your lack of any real rigor or discipline.” (219) “I should have left you where I found you, out in the cornfields with the illiterate undergraduates.” (222) “What if he was right about her? What if she was ordinary?” “You’re a modern girl, aren’t you? . . . You dress yourselves up like tramps and then you expect people to take you seriously” (222—her fallen “innocence”)

  • His poor parenting: is his downfall & her salvation, in the form of Jake.

  • Beard: the wart that winks at her; his “majestic, furry stomach” (197) the eyes that get red & swollen; but mostly his “mask” is his assumed identity (Milo for Myron, etc.), and his identity, both assumed and otherwise, is what alarms her provincial family: “older man who wrote the kind of books they got along very well without reading. . .     Baranoff. That sounds Jewish. Is he Jewish?” (199)

  • References: “Her head bobbed around on the screen in a disconcerting way, as if it were severed.” (225) the “ceremonial Japanese katana sword” (224) Anne: “princess merchandise” (224) “I guess you’re like, a man of action.” (227)

 “The White Road,” Neil Gaiman

  • Time: country inn, songs & poems, the dream-house, foxes

  • Magic: the masked fox

  • Inversion: He tells the story; the “woman” engineers his downfall, a trick

  • References: “Mr Fox”, the sumptuous rooms, wealth; carrying the head by the red hair; “You Gilles de Rais. You monster.” The colors: white road, scarlet carpet, blood; the “reproof of curiosity”: “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, Or else your life’s blood shall run cold.”

  • Impossible defense: “It is not so . . . It was not so, and God forbid it should be so. It was an evil dream. I wish such dreams on no one.” (Like: have you stopped beating your wife?)















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