Yesterday was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. This holiday is new to me, but it’s already dear to my heart. Fairy tales are something I have an abiding love for. Like many, (I hope), I have treasured memories of being read fairy tales, in my case by my mom. I never grew out of my love for them.
For most of their previous history, fairy tales were not intended primarily for children, nor should they be now, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” The essay appears in the collection of his work Tales from the Perilous Realm and is brilliantly discussed by Maria Popova in Brainpickings
Tolkien says “ … only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them [fairy stories]; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”*
My taste for fairy tales has certainly only increased with age.
What is a fairy tale? This is how Tolkien defines it: “A “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.”*
While volunteering in my local library, I recently discovered a marvelous book. In the most literal meaning – it is a book of marvels: PROUD KNIGHT, FAIRY LADY The Twelve Lays of Marie de France.
Marie de France was a mysterious woman of whom very little is known. (I learned of her first from this book.) She was the first known woman poet of France, was versed in several languages, and wrote in Anglo-Norman. She artfully crafted the lays (or ballads) sung by Breton minstrels into written poetry (translated by Naomi Lewis into English prose). Marie wrote in the late 1100s, but often said that the tales came from long ago. That in itself is to me a marvel – how ancient these stories must be! What’s more, she frequently writes that the stories were not merely legends, but true. “This tale comes from a very old Breton lay,” Marie says; “these are the true facts, I understand, and you must believe them, for strange things happened long ago.”**
Though I stumbled upon this book in the children’s section, none of these are child-oriented stories; they deal with adult or ageless themes and occurrences.
These are tales of courtly love and chivalry, and magic often imbues them. A white doe curses the hunter who wounded her to suffer a wound that nothing can cure, until a woman suffers for love of him, and he for her. A mysterious and richly furnished ship sails itself, carrying its occupant to an unknown land, and then, when he is in need, back home. A werewolf, noble as both man and wolf, takes rightful vengeance on the wife who betrayed him. A hawk turns into a noble knight to bring love to a captive woman. Lovers appear from unknown realms at the wish of their beloveds. A lady of magic and power saves a knight from disgrace and banishment merely by her presence.
Some of the most marvelous reversals in these lays are worked not by magic but by love, compassion, and forgiveness. A husband finds that his wife has deceived him and spirited away a child he never knew he had; he responds not with anger, but with joy to find he has a second daughter. A wife discovers that her husband is grief-stricken over the death of his lover; through compassion and quick wit she revives the girl with a magic flower.
Marie’s voice carries through these tales with warmth and humor. It is as if she speaks across the centuries to any reader fortunate enough, as I was, to stumble upon this book of marvels.
Readers, do you have a taste for fairy tales? Do you have favorites?
* (Tolkien quotes extracted from Brainpickings as I do not yet have my own copy of this book. An error I must soon correct!)
** (from Naomi Lewis’ translation in PROUD KNIGHT, FAIR LADY)