Fairytales may be beautiful, but they are not nice. Never wish someone’s romance a fairytale ending, unless you expect it to feature lots of blood and dismemberment. On Monday night, Marina Warner, an expert on folklore (and much else) was joined by rising star Kirsty Logan to talk about Logan’s new collection of modern fairytales, A Portable Shelter*.
Logan kicked off the event with a reading of one of the stories, Bluebeard’s Caravan. Explaining why she’d written it, she said: “A lot of my story ideas seem to come about when I’m half asleep, sometimes drunk, sometimes both, and when I sat down to write on a story for this book, I went back to all these notes that I had written and I found this note that I had written to myself that just said ‘Bluebeard in a caravan’ and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give that a go.’
“It’s usually set in a rambling castle and I liked the idea of setting it in a very small space that still had lots of hidden parts to it.”
It’s a curious, dreamlike, nightmarish story where dimensions twist and fold, drawers lock themselves according to impossible rules of narrative and there is, almost, a happy ever after.
After the reading, the chair, Charlotte Higgins, started a discussion about the Bluebeard story, with each of the three realising they knew different versions. Warner dominated the discussion, but not aggressively, she just seemed to have much to say and the others seemed happy to let her talk. Apparently, she said, tone of the earliest versions of the story has a pregnant woman going to the tombs of her new husband’s former wives who rise up and warn the bride away.
“You can intuit that the story is a warning across generations of women about a certain situation, possibly not about serial murder, possibly about childbirth. The danger of marriage is not so much that the man might kill you, as much as having a child might kill you. It was very common, there was a lot of serial marriage in the middle ages because many women died.”
She complimented Logan’s story as it captured the female voice. We mainly know fairytales through the collections of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and “the male transmission tends to slightly make it more difficult to pick up female voices but a lot of writers like you have been doing that. It’s a very rich source of the female experience that somehow escapes the record.”
Logan picked up the idea that fairytales are somehow primal. “I think quite often we don’t know how stories are affecting us when we first hear them. Sometimes it can be years after. With my own work, I think of these stories I heard as a child, which went under my skin, so deep inside me that then when I sat down to write that was what came welling up, whether I wanted them to or not.”
Could such subliminal power be a “false friend” wondered Higgins. The idea that the attitudes in them become internalised?
Warner said: “It’s a continual dialogue across time, you’re engaging with writing. When I was Kirsty’s age, there was a huge debate about this, we were all told to marry millionaires like Cinderella, so feminists were really angry about this. But then someone like Angela Carter came along and interrogated this. It doesn’t mean there’s any one fixed meaning at any time, it’s mobile.”
She continued by talking about how we have a wealth of shared stories as an “intangible heritage“, and that we have a duty to preserve them and work with them: “We have a responsibility to them. They do have an effect on us, which is why the interrogation must go on, the challenging and the rewriting. God knows what’s happened to our narratives, they’re very dangerous. One of them you mentioned is liberal economics. It is definitely a mythic narrative which is engulfing us and destroying us.”
Moving on, Higgins wondered if there was anything in the phrase “once upon a time”, whether we feel distanced from fairytales by it as they are set in another, undefined period.
Logan described how as a child, although she wasn’t brought up in a religion, she had Bible stories, was told Buddhist stories, was fascinated by ancient Egyptian myths and Scottish folktales, and at no point did anyone make the distinction between them as being true or not. She grew up visiting castles and stately homes, so even though she didn’t live in them, she could see how people in the stories might. So fairytales, she said, “feel very real to me”.
It was around here that I felt the event lost its way a little, as they strayed into Herodotus, initially about the way in which he mingles what we regard as history with what we’d see as folk tale and mythology as if they were the same thing, but then moving into his story about the experiment on the acquisition of language. I think this was meant to show that, as Warner said, “The word history is related to the Greek word for enquiry, historein“, and that stories are all about understanding the world, but headed off in a direction about cognitive psychology and truth that got a little confused.
Higgins pulled us back on track, though, by asking about the importance of landscape to Logan’s book. She replied by saying that even though she grew up in England’s Midlands, when she moved back to her parents’ native Scotland, she felt she was finally home.
“For this book I travelled around the Highlands and Islands and it’s so inspiring. The beauty of it, but also the unfriendliness of it at times reminds me that nature is not our friend, nature doesn’t love us back. Nature just is.” She described how during the trip she visited Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, and the way that in that landscape she could see how the legend came about.
“The folk tale was that a giant had thrown these rocks into the sea. It’s made up of perfect columns of rock, but the there’s this other explanation that it’s to do with volcanic rock: it’s less believable, somehow. Someone has made these, look how perfect they are.”
Warner carried this thought on by explaining how the Romantics had been big proponents of the “storied landscape” in work such as La Belle Dame sans Merci, but that during the rise of science, rationalists who were worried that people would be unable to take theories such as Darwin’s seriously if they also took such other explanations on board, so as a line of inquiry, stories were pushed back somewhat. However, they can still teach us, she said: “They’re not going to tell you facts about the periodic table, about nitrogen, from a story. But you are going to learn what it means to be alive, you’re going to have the experiential sense of your existence in the world and your relationship with things.”
To Logan, she said: “One of the functions of fairytales like yours is to pass on an intuition without necessarily telling it baldly. Your story’s going to be much more effective for a young girl reading it about the dangers of giving into something seductive than just saying, ‘don’t go off with strangers'”
Logan then went on to describe how one of her stories, The Mother of Giants, is about the way people are told stories to shield them from the truth, and the fact that once they know those stories are false, how they can still gain comfort from them. She went on to tell quite a personal story, which I’ll not go into here, about how two different narratives she had of the world could be held at the same time, and I suspect it’s one many of us have a version of. “Just because a story isn’t 100% true, you don’t have to throw it away.”
Despite what I think were a couple of missteps into Herodotus and Ovid, this was an excellent event, and an interestingly personal, intimate contrast to the large-scale production of The Wake a couple of days earlier, and I’d urge you to go to guest selector Higgins’ other events in the Gods and Monsters thread, one tonight (Thursday) — Where Tragedy and Satire Meet — and one on Friday, History Wiped Out.
*If you’ve not already got a copy and want one, act fast, as the limited print run of 2,000 of A Portable Shelter has apparently sold out. I’m not sure if this includes sales to shops, though, so you might still find one.