My love affair with medieval literature is bound up in a fascination with fairy tales. Odd that a concept so seemingly common is in need of a definition, but it is. A working definition is that of a folk tale set in a non-specific past when magic still happened. A near-perfect example comes from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:
“Now in the olden days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
I speak of many hundred years ago;
But now no man can see the elves, you know.”
As Tolkien notes in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are a triumph of the sub-creative urge, a chance for the writer and reader alike to explore, and, in exploring, shape, a narrative at once at home in any age, and yet removed from every age; a story whose matter is pure story (however trope-laden) and not confined to the pragmatic limitations of any time and place. It gives us free reign to delve whole-heartedly into events that we would roll our eyes at if mired in timeliness, because they happen in a space where such things are, by definition, not only possible but absolutely normal. The Professor sums up this appeal beautifully (seriously, his wording actually makes my chest hurt; I’m that much of a nerd):
“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and beautiful at whatever cost of peril.”
As children in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we’ve all likely grown up with disneyfied versions of old stories in which happily-ever-after is the moral and the raison d’etre. The fairytale I grew into when I got old enough to unabashedly appreciate “genre” fiction is something darker, harsher, and older. It allows us to imagine the very worst (example in point: Griselda in all her permutations) in terms that are distant enough and yet concrete– matter-of-fact– enough to suspend our disbelief and revulsion, and lurk in the psychological and philosophical underbelly of such gross suffering, rather than in its sometimes gory and perverse expression. Honestly, real, gritty folk and fairy tales never fail to bring to my mind good old Johnny Nice Painter:
They can take us from the lushest landscapes to the most discomfiting occurrences without batting an eye.
All this pontification is an attempt to explain why, as a sudden and secret project, have been writing what I call “dysfunctional fairytales.” They are, at their heart, no more or less upsetting than much of the subject matter in, say, Grimm’s collections; but because of my modern authorship, they are necessarily informed by more modern language and ideation than their traditional counterparts: They reflect my ruminations on what it means to be on the outside or in the littoral space of society for a whole wealth of reasons. And because the fairytale usually centers around the seeking and proving of oneself, it is an ideal medium to crawl inside characters as they negotiate this littoral area, with all the beauty and pain that entails. And so, without rambling on any longer, here is my first effort. I’ll continue to post more of them on a regular basis until I feel the project is done. I hope you enjoy them.