New Stories for Old

Fairy-tale, myth and re-visioning the classics at the RSL at Somerset House, chaired by Marina Warner on the hottest day of the year so far with Natalie Haynes, Helen Oyeyemi & Dubravka Ugrešić  discussing their respective works. You can find a Guardian write-up here:


Marina Warner began by introducing fairy tales myths and legends with her usual erudition and wonderful phrasing. To quote from her  ‘short history of fairy-tale’ published recently to great acclaim, and reviewed here

stories slipped across frontiers of culture and language as freely as birds in the air…for borders are invisible to them no matter how ferociously they are policed by cultural purists

The three writers then read: two from their own work and Helen Oyeyemi from a terrifying little Czech tale, The Noonday Witch from Kytice a collection of translated Czech tales. More about the Noonday Witch here


A general discussion followed on re-visioning and re-purposing old stories including Nathalie Haynes fascinating anecdote on BBC soap writers being told to ‘Greek it up’ if their work is insufficiently gripping! The eerie, fantastical resonance of Oyeyemi’s work in particular seem to speak of a childhood reading fairy-tales (and Stephen King) so it was a surprise to find that Little Women was her favourite childhood read. She also mentions The Snow Queen and Gerda’s ‘straight and true’ nature, her steadfastness in rescuing Kay appealed to Oyeyemi as a child who would rather have stayed with the Robber Girl. Wouldn’t we all?


I highly recommend this beautiful BBC adaptation–we watch it every Christmas.

Dubravka Ugrešić spoke about the appeal of fairy tales and children’s literature as an area where women writers feel a freedom unconstrained by the ‘canon’ largely Anglo-American, male, white and although she didn’t say this, heavily biased towards realism. In Russian folk tales the heroine, often poor, must use her wits, unlike the young male hero–Ivan the Fool. Marina Warner alluded to the oft-held notion that fairy-tales are ‘bad’ for children, whether anti-feminist (mainly levelled against the Disney-fied versions) or merely phantasmagorical nonsense distracting children from more worthy childhood endeavours (such as?). For my money, of  the many writers who have refuted this nonsense from Tolkein to C.S. Lewis, Alison Lurie’s seminal essay ‘Fairy-Tale Liberation’ (link here) reprinted in her wonderful collection Don’t Tell the Grown-ups says it best

The fairy tales had been right all along—the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable—you never knew who might be useful to you later on.


The re-imagining and reworking of these tales by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, Anne Sexton in Transformations and a host of other children’s/YA writers including Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee and Francesca Lia Block all the way to Helen Oyeyemi and the marvellous (and very disturbing) Boy Snow Bird and Mr Fox is part of the fairy-tale tradition–essential to it I would say. The original documenters of the so-called classic tales (Perrault, the Grimms) were doing no more and no less themselves.

The difference between myth and fairytale was touched upon including the epic qualities of myth and the involvement of the gods. Joseph Campbell’s (rather snotty IMO) distinction was of myth as ‘sacred text’ versus fairy-tale as ‘pastime’ .

Oyeyemi mentioned differences in magical objects in the two forms– a magical object being very much as it says on the tin in myth whereas in fairy-tale its meaning proves elusive–fascinating and a topic which could have provided hours of discussion in itself.

The points raised in the discussion did make me think.

Time, surely for  ‘the canon’ to be broadened to include a dissection of fairy-tale, root, tree and branch? We might see more interesting novels as a result. 


About g.r.del

reading, writing and the rest. @storyvilled on twitter.
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