On Fable and Folklore


I adore a good fairy tale, as long as it’s well done. For instance: George MacDonald. So when I read Harvard English professor, Stephen Burt’s take on Catherynne Valente’s five new Fairyland novels, I couldn’t help but be a bit intrigued and then fully charmed by her wildly inventive plot lines.

After slogging my way through a variety of mindless book-club-genre concoctions that I could only muster shrugs and mean mugs for, I started to think myself the paperback snob. Or at worst, I wondered if I was losing touch with the starry marvel that is breathtaking prose. Is the quintessential it only to be found in giant John Steinbeck novels and Donna Tartt’s never-ending Goldfinch? (Which was a masterpiece, by the way.) Do I have the cerebral bandwidth to hitch my wagon to those kind of stars, book after book? I’d be stuck in Tolstoy’s Russia for months, maybe years at that rate. And that’s kind of a commitment for a zippy, flit-from-thing-to-thing person like me.

But after reading Lauren Groff’s essay, “The Midnight Zone,” over at The New Yorker this week and reading snippets of text from Valente’s pieces, I feel encouraged that my connection with the beauty of literature isn’t growing dim—I just need to know where to find it.

Burt describes Valente’s stories as chock full of “writerly words and furious invention.” I like his favorite digression from a section of her story that touches on why sophisticated adults distrust happy endings:

Humans feel uneasy in tales without punishment. No good thing can last forever, because people are terrible and we have this feeling, we all have this feeling, that if not for that essential terribleness we could have gotten further by now. Done better. Done more. We have failed collectively since Plato first choked on an olive. So it’s no surprise when we fail individually—when we shirk duty, when we hate our parents, when we run away, when we get drunk every night, when we lose love . . . when we lose love. Because by all rights we should be living in the crystal palaces of Atlantis or in the Tower of Babel’s penthouse apartments, right?

Burt-TheWildInventivenessoftheFairylandNovels2-690A mirror of the ardent ache, yes? The longing for how it once was in Edena resonant and fully satisfying bliss. I connect with this passage in the deepest parts of my being: I think it’s the reverberations of wholeness that the first humans experienced there in the garden that are ricocheting around the insides of my metaphysical person. Of winsome moorlands by the sea, the lyrical composition of red wine, thick, crusty bread with butter, dinner next to a roaring fire. The fullness and confidence of communion with another soul. The range of human emotion in its truest, most beautiful form. Most especially, it was the fellowship of spirit and soul with the Creator who made dark forests and the silken surface of water, the drumbeat of courage, the concept of memories and mischief, the sound of rain and the smell of skin.

Literature and fairy tales and all the folklore resting on dusty shelves in hidden corners of the world hearken us to the unnamed, the stuff of legend that sits in the soul but has no epithet. Same with a well-told story about real life. It’s all there, waiting to be absorbed, waiting to widen our scope and deepen the essence of humankind.

I get afraid when I start to feel bored with a tale or when the people I love stop reading—like the trueness of living is fading, the color slowly siphoned out. But the gravity and vastness of glory to be unearthed can never truly be halted. There are so many deep, satisfying, resplendent stories out there. We just need to help each other find them.




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