Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Into the Woods: A Writer's Journey through Fairy Tales and Fantasy

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Into the Woods: A Writer's Journey through Fairy Tales and Fantasy

Article excerpt

What is the very first fairy tale that you remember? Or the first to truly grab your heart? Which fairy tale particularly entranced you as a child, or bewildered you, or frightened you? Each of us, I believe, is shaped by such stories, formed by them just as we are formed by our genes, our family upbringing, and the culture and times we live in.

Jane Yolen, one of our great modern fairy tale writers, says this in her essay collection, Touch Magic:

Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart. (25)

Like Jane, I believe we're influenced--often more than we know--by the stories we heard in our earliest years. Go back to the story that you loved the most--or that affected you the most--in your childhood, and you're likely to find its themes echoing throughout your whole life's journey.

For many years this curious phenomena has puzzled and intrigued me. What is it about these early stories--the fairy tales and hero tales so beloved by children around the world--that causes them to reverberate so deeply in our psyches long after? What is it that keeps certain stories alive to be passed from generation to generation? Why, in our modern and rational world, do some of us still hunger for magic and marvels long beyond our childhood years--while others reject the fantastic with an absolutism bordering on fear? What do fairy tales told to our great-great-grandparents still speak to us, and our children, today? Unlike my distinguished co-speakers, I'm not a fairy-tale scholar--rather I'm a writer, a fiction editor, and an artist who works with folkloric and fairy tale themes--and so I have no scholarly answer to these questions. I can only do what women have done in fields, forests, and firesides all throughout human history. I will tell you a story--a story about stories--and it begins: Once Upon a Time....

   Once upon a time there was a girl who was forced to flee her
   childhood home. Why? Let's never mind that now. Perhaps her parents
   were too poor to keep her. Perhaps her mother was an ogre or a
   witch. Perhaps her father had promised her to a troll, a tyrant, or
   a beast. She left home with the clothes on her back, and soon she
   was tired, hungry, and cold. As night fell, she took shelter in a
   desolate graveyard thick with nettles and briars. Beyond the graves
   was a humpbacked hill and in the side of the hill was a door. The
   girl walked towards the door and saw a golden key standing in its
   lock. She turned the key, opened the door, and crossed over the
   threshold.

I can still remember that moonlit night, but I don't remember how old I was--only that I was past the age when a girl should still believe in magic. Cold and quietly miserable in a childhood that seemed never-ending, I sat hunkered down in the grass among the gravestones of the neighborhood church, trying to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. Like many children, I longed to discover a door to Faerie, a road to Oz, a wardrobe leading to Narnia, and I wanted to believe that if I wished with all my strength and all my will then surely a door would open for me. Surely they would let me in.

I wanted to flee unhappiness, yes, but there was more to my desire than this--more than just escape from the intolerability of Here and Now. My desire was also a spiritual one--for we often forget that spiritual quest is a common and natural part of childhood, as young people struggle to understand how they fit into the world around them. That night, my solemn conviction was that I did not fit into the world I knew, and so I sought to cross into some other world, through the power of imagination. …

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