Although my research on fairy tales formally began in September 2014, my immersion in the field happened many years earlier.
As a child I entered the uncanny world of fairy tales at school, listening to Sister Lenora read the somehow-already-familiar stories: Little Red Riding Hood in particular resonated. I was a loving and beloved granddaughter; I grew up playing in the ancient woodlands of the Sussex Weald; I was interested in wolves. I knew the story was ‘made up’, but it also felt relevant and gave off a strong whiff of the ‘real’. Once I could read independently I discovered a literary treasure chest in the Victorian folklorist Andrew Lang’s collections, as well as Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes, and the Joy Street anthologies. I was hungry for new stories, though it was the traditional myths and fairy tales—strange, violent, and inhabited by archetypal characters—that haunted me into adulthood.
In 2013, I started working with the storyteller Pat Robson and learned how to employ traditional material to compose and tell a tale of my own. With the Four Quarters collective I created and performed stories from the Decameron, and versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Baba Yaga’. Through this process my childhood fascination with fairy tales was reignited. There was something captivating about making a tale my own, shaping the words with my mouth, and getting the feel of the narrative and characters in my body as I rehearsed and then performed. I began to read some of the literature on fairy tales, and when I arrived to embark on a PhD at the University of Manchester, this reading became research. Fairy tales are my field: a collection called The Malachite Casket, by the Soviet writer Pavel Bazhov, is my own particular patch to work upon.
Two years into the project, and my bibliography is several pages long. However, there are certain key texts I return to, and writers with whom I feel particularly engaged. The first is Kate Bernheimer, who in her essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Tale’ introduced me to the Swiss folklorist Max Lüthi and his ideas on the structure of the traditional fairy tale. I was bowled over by Bernheimer’s vibrant and passionate writing-style as well as by the content of her essay. ‘Oh, how I love fairy tales!’ she begins in a gush of enthusiasm, before diving into a scholarly and rigorous celebration of this ‘lucid form’.
Fairy tales are known to us, as Lüthi argued, by virtue of their highly distinctive form, and by the relationship of that form or structure to the content of the tales. Using his scholarly background in German language and literature to interpret and analyse European folk narratives, Lüthi described the literary form in the terms summarised by Bernheimer as the qualities of ‘flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic’.
Although I was already familiar with the work of Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, and Angela Carter, I think it was Kate Bernheimer—a creative writer as well as an academic, a novelist and the founding editor of The Fairy Tale Review—who handed me the golden key.
Bernheimer, Kate. “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”. The Writer’s Notebook. Ed. Dorothy Allison. Portland: Tin House Books, 2009, 61-73.
Lüthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Lüthi, Max. The European Folktale: form and nature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.