Once Upon a Time, a Book of Contemporary Fairy Tales Enchanted Me

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 8 2014 11:57 AM

The Cabinet of Marvels

The deep truths and irreducible weirdness of fairy tales.

Red Riding Hood, today.
Fairy tales are provisional fixes for the problems of reality.

Photo by martinak15/Flickr/Creative Commons

Once upon a time, a book reviewer sat down to review a book about fairy tales and had an epiphany. “I have no earthly notion how to review this book about fairy tales,” she said to the goat next to her, who was chewing a slice of parsnip. “That may well be,” said the goat. “But when this parsnip is all gone, there will appear a beautiful child in silver pajamas. And he will ask you three questions. And if the review is not filed to your editor by the time he is done, you shall die.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

So the reviewer thought and thought about why the fairy tale book, a slim and fascinating little volume by Kate Bernheimer called How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, was so hard to write about. She thought to the right, and she thought to the left. And she thought up, and she thought down. And she told the goat:

Fairy tales make all the critical tools you learn for evaluating literature go limp in your hands. (Bernheimer, the author of three novels, a short-story collection, profuse scholarship, and many children’s books, has even written about this.) The characters have no depth or interiority; they do not develop. No misguided critic would decant 3,000 words on the relatability of Brother, one of Bernheimer’s protagonists, who builds himself a cardboard house in the witch-infested woods and proceeds to grow very old and lonely. Nor do things happen because it is logical that they should. They happen because they must, or because the story wishes it. Witness the result when the stepmother in “Babes in the Woods,” an elliptical “Hansel and Gretel”–like tale, begins to evolve a glimmer of free will. She is going to abandon her husband’s two girls in the forest when her heart floods, suddenly, with:

the feeling of love: dread and fear for the children. This surprised her, because previously, she had not liked the children at all. Sometimes this sort of change simply happens in life. And so it was here. I won’t do it, she thought. The conviction was total.

The rest of the page is blank. (These spare, poetic stories—there are eight of them—inch forward in squares surrounded by empty space, and the effect is elegant and disembodied, a visual counterpart to the prose.)

On the next page, however, the fairy tale wins, and the stepmother has been rebooted:

Yet, for some reason, when they were deep into the woods, she still went on with her plan. This is the way things happened for her—despite a decision to do one thing, she found herself doing another.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale. It is tautology as art form.


Bernheimer, having founded a literary journal devoted to fairy tales and compiled the hauntingly strange fairy tale collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, would know. She opens her newest cabinet of marvels with an epigram from Walter Benjamin: “The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.”

What Benjamin means by arrangements, I think, is that fairy tales are like rudimentary contracts. They are provisional fixes for the horrifying problem of reality: adulthood, time, and death (a set of truths so pure and terrible they can only live in myth). Fairy tales have terms: They will bring you to an uncanny, dreamlike place in which natural laws are waived. In return, you must accept wild nonsense logic, impenetrability, and—with no three-dimensionally human characters in fairy-tale land—a degree of solitude.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale.


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