A Very Short Reading Group discussion

Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction
This topic is about Fairy Tale
Fairy Tale > Once Upon a Time...

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Stockton (new)

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments ...there was a very short introduction to Fairy Tales. Add your thoughts here!

Nigel Bamber | 31 comments Fairy Tales

This was an unexpectedly thought provoking book. For example, I was fascinated with the suggestion that the Grimm Brother's project to crystallize a German national folklore heritage, has led to the realisation that national boundaries do not exist for fairy tales. Perhaps nations are themselves fairy tales? Sometimes, lack of familiarity with the particular tale being discussed made following arguments difficult, but I guess the author's mitigation would be that an extensive reading list was provided. This will always be a fine balancing act with the VSI format, how much to include and how much to Reference. I found the VSI on Folk Music unreadable without making the effort to track down, and listen to, the songs being described.

I've said that this was a thought provoking book. I'm not sure how much these discussions are intended to be a review of the book, or an examination of the thoughts provoked by the book.
With respect to the latter, here goes....

Do I believe in Fairies?

Pull over and park your car by a wood, next to any busy road. Follow a path into the woods. After a few short minutes, as the sounds of the traffic recedes, the moving shadow caught out or the corner of your eye, or the swirl of dead leaves on the path in front of you, makes it easy to believe that there are things living in a world parallel to ours, only a rabbit hop away.

A few weeks ago, I was walking on a wooded hillside, when I heard a series of loud roars and barks. Straight-away I was transported to Red Riding Hood's world. The modern world had disappeared and I was back in the ancient world of survival. I searched for a stout branch to take with me as I hurried on my way. It turned out to be one of the Wild Boar which have recently been re-introduced into the area.

We often assign agency to in-animate objects. When we lose our car keys, it must have been someone else moving them. We all know there is a demon that lives in our computer, that knows when we are in a hurry and removes all the paper from the tray, or ink from a cartridge. Mistaking an unknown sensory input for a potential predator or other harm doer is an evolutionary safe strategy, although it does result in an overwhelming number of false positives these days.

What use are Fairy Tales?

Here I turn to Terry Pratchett.
“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.”

Fairy Tales make great use of metaphor, which is a very strong way of passing information between people. Our brains have a very strong pattern recognition function. Give us a single piece of information and we store it away, perhaps to be forgotten. Give us another piece of information related to the first by an isomorphism, not only do we have the original fact, but we now have another route to recovering it, perhaps reconstructing it from the second. It's place in our memory is strengthened. Most people will recognise the mental tingle you feel when you spot a pattern in initially unrelated things.

Because of their teaching potential, Fairy Tales are often told to children. Frequently, for extra effect, the child is the hero of the story, and has some wisdom not held, or forgotten by adults.

I vividly remember my first day at school. At the end of the day, we all sat around the teacher, who read us a story. The Emperor's New Clothes. I was astounded by this. It was probably the most amazing thing I'd ever heard. I didn't have to believe what my parents said, I didn't have to believe what my classmates told me and I didn't even have to believe what the teacher or other adults said (The paradox in not believing the teacher who read the story was not apparent to me at that age!) This school business had certainly turned out to be useful if you listened to everyone but thought about things and made up your own mind.

I've found that same message repeated elsewhere since, not the least in the motto of the Royal Society, “Nullius in verba” (Take nobody's word for it). It was behind Socrates questions.
It set me off over the next decades in trying to get to the bottom of the truth of all the things that seemed to accepted as axioms by the people around me (God, Money, Nations, Law, Government). As I got older, this extended to common sense views of the universe itself (Time, Space, Free Will, An External Reality, Myself). My current endeavour of trying to read of all of the VSIs is part of this processing of determining what I believe and my justification for believing it.

Of course, I'm not only reading VSI's and by a wonderful coincidence, I've also been reading a Fairy Tale whilst reading this VSI. Lud-in-the-Mist was written in 1926, by Hope Mirrlees. It's about the tension between the faerie and the rational, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the Romantic and the Classical. Well worth a look.

You can hear Neil Gaiman talking about it here.


If you believe in Fairies, clap your hands.

lisa_emily | 14 comments Hi Nigel,

Your points were interesting and on point. I started reading this VSI and am looking forward to getting more into it. I'm glad to hear that you had gleaned some insights from this book.

Ok- Looking forward to adding to the discussion.

message 4: by Stockton (new)

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments Thank you for the comments – all very interesting points! At the group meeting on Tuesday there was general consensus that the book felt a little cluttered towards the beginning, with the author dotting around different cultures and times which made it a little difficult to follow. Once it got into the more analytical chapters things picked up. How fairy tales compare to biblical or other religious stories was a point raised, with the importance of interpretation of both stressed, which linked with the later chapters discussing feminist and psychoanalytic readings.

We discussed whether we believed as children in these tales, or were captivated by them. Perhaps we are too much a group of grumpy realists but no one thought fairy tales had affected them to any great extent. This raised the question will fairy tales endure as it is only relatively recently that such story telling has been superseded by new forms – books, cinema, internet. The fact that the phrase “fairy tale” instantly creates a powerful mental image (castles, woods, trolls, witches, princesses etc) suggests that its legacy still has a long way to run.

back to top