So, I have a slightly unhealthy obsession with fairytales. Not that think I’m sort of princess destined for a happy ever after, or anything like that – but I find their longevity, and malleability, and generally the way they tend to hang around in society fascinating. You may have noticed, I have written my fair share of posts about fairytales. The writing I’m currently working focuses on fairytales in a way. I have read a fair few in the past year.
How do you create a new fairytale? (This is not, by the way, what I am aiming to do with my writing). Fairytales seem like these ageless things, invented at the dawn of time, and they have rolled through the ages, collecting new details as they pass through different centuries and decades. So can you write a new one? Obviously, people do. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is less than two hundred years old. Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince was written just over 150 years ago. Italo Calvino collated 200 Italian folktales in 1956. And James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks was published in 1950.
The 13 Clocks is undoubtedly a fairy tale. It has a nasty king, a prince who does not know he is a prince, a quest, a helpful mentor, a happy ending. But reading it, it strikes me that it reads like a fairy tale that could have been written by Norton Juster (author of The Phantom Tollbooth). It has some inherent silliness in it – which makes it so endearing. Listen to this:
Something very much like nothing anything anyone had ever seen before came trotting down the stairs and crossed the room.
“What is that?” the Duke asked, palely.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Hark, “but it’s the only one there ever was.”
Does that read like a fairy tale? In some ways, yes, but in other ways, it doesn’t sound like a fairytale at all. It has too much… personality in it. People write of fairy tales remaining popular for so long because they use stock characters, that we can paint ourselves into, but I don’t know if you can do that in this sort of writing. (This is a good thing – in case you haven’t noticed, I highly endorse reading The 13 Clocks. Comparison to Norton Juster is a very high compliment in my books (no pun intended)).
But it is a fairy tale – at least, I think it is. But I suppose its a modern fairytale. I usually use the work ‘modern’ with a bit of distain – I don’t really like using the term. But in this case, I mean it is a fairytale with all the flavouring of having been writing in the 20th Century. It is a bit different than a lot of ‘traditional’ fairy tales, because it comes from a different time. And this is a good thing. It has the best of both worlds – quirky, modern humour, while still having the best parts of a fairy tale (including the happy ending).
On a slightly different note, how lovely are Marc Simont’s illustrations?
My siblings and I grew up exchanging quotes from The 13 Clocks. (“I am the Golux, the only Gulux in the world, and not a mere device.”) A mere mention of the Todal would send a younger brother or sister into hiding. Thurber’s The White Deer is equally good. And I agree that Marc Simont’s illustrations are perfection. Simont died this past July, ending a long career illustrating children’s books (he won the Caldecott in 1957). Thanks for reminding me of this excellent book.
I too am uncomfortable with the term ‘modern fairytale’, and tend to refer to the ‘literary fairytale’ — something written in the style of a traditional fairytale but often more self-conscious.
It’s difficult, though, as even what we regard as ‘traditional’ fairytales have been through the literary mill as people like Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Joseph Jacobs re-cast what were originally oral tales into a form that could exist independently on the page. And all without the context of a nursery bedtime, a tribal gathering, the fireside in an inn or a village pump where time of day, comfortable seating, smoky room or spooky shadows add immeasurably to the experience.
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