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All this week, the Guardian’s been giving away little booklets of fairy tales, which makes, in my view, for a brilliant reason to pick up a paper every day. If you haven’t got today’s, ask your local newsagent if they have any left, because in today’s issue came the best of the best: Hans-My-Hedgehog. Of course, if you’re reading this, you can put your feet up and find all of the week’s fairy stories online. If you like those, I’d also recommend this exquisite site for all such things strange and wonderful.
Fairy stories are the folk music of literature. They go in and out of fashion, they can be caustic and crude and are filled with devils and discomforting sexual metaphors. They are appropriated readily and without much credit, they are easily dismissed as quirky, dirty and hairy. But they have in their service some serious melodies, some stuff that goes straight for the jugular. One of the great things about the series this week has been that it’s included stories from sources like The Arabian Nights, which helps contextualise the European fairy stories in a global tradition. It also helps show how versatile fairy stories are (or, conversely, how unready they are to let themselves be explained). Each booklet in the Guardian series contains an afterword, each of which is insightful and worth reading, but you only have to go through these in succession to get a sense not only of the breadth of theme and content present in fairy stories, but of the different methods of interpretation which are used to get to grips with the tales.
I think this is all well and good, unless an interpretation ends up ‘doing a Disney’ and skewing the story towards a specific agenda. I’m always loathe to read fairy stories as lifestyle advice, by which I mean to try to read them as allegories or morality tales. I blame Aesop for starting this, because people lump his fables in with fairy stories. Fables and parables are different things to fairy stories, because they are constructed around moral premises. In a fable, the ethical lesson comes first and foremost. The story is simply built around that as an illustration. Most fairy stories, however, lack satisfying plot lines that show us how we should behave. Endings are little more than rituals to announce that the tale is over. They often come quite suddenly, and two near identical stories can end in one instance with a wedding and coronation, and in another with murder and cannibalism. These things are older, remember, than our theories of how literature should be interpreted.
Instead of all this, I think it’s enjoyable to absorb the stories without trying to intellectualise them. To let the images they conjure have their way in the back of your brain. At the end of Hans-My-Hedgehog there’s a telling little rhyme (which, sadly, was omitted from the text in the Guardian edition today). It goes like this: My tale is done/and now, it’s on the run. That, for me, is the essence of the fairy tale. To read one is to let a little wild thing run amok in your mind.