Academic journal article Folklore

The Generic Decorum of the Burlesque Kunstmarchen: E. Nesbit's "The Magician's Heart"

Academic journal article Folklore

The Generic Decorum of the Burlesque Kunstmarchen: E. Nesbit's "The Magician's Heart"

Article excerpt


The formal features of folktale may sometimes be found elaborated in that part of the "literature of art" which works with folk literature, while other features may generically differentiate the two. This article suggests a preliminary series of questions to aid generic description of a Kunstmarchen, an art-fairytale. E. Nesbit's "The Magician's Heart" exemplifies the typical features, the "generic decorum," of the burlesque variety of the Kunstmarchen, which has a long literary tradition of mocking Marchen material and diffusing Marchen economy.

Source scholarship of folktales, tracing some of them to their ultimate origins in written material, and comparing transcribed versions and variants, are both established folkloristic practices. However, the purely literary appropriation of folk materials (types or motifs) in art-tales sometimes tends to be thought of as someone else's business. Historically, the folk Marchen and the Kunstmarchen, the art-fairytale which derives from it, are, as Linda Degh has observed, "impossible to separate, as oral and written co-existed always and kept influencing each other" (Degh, pers. comm. 1998). However, a folklorist may not see the Marchen as comparable to Kunstmarchen because the former is "an eternal genre, the ideology it expresses [fulfilling] a basic need," whereas the latter is a "literary genre created by authors in the Victorian age, for children or for their own fancy, a projection of a symbolic world of abstractions" and "the two present different worlds and artistic expressions" (ibid.).

The Marchen may have temporal primacy, possibly universality, and acknowledged value, but a sense of the Kunstmarchen as both different and secondary (also in the sense of less good or interesting and more limited), may deprive the folkloristic field of the interests and the pleasures of self-conscious redactions of folktales, which are valuable in their own right. In answer to Alan Dundes's questions: "To what extent are the formal features of folklore found in sophisticated literature? Can such features be used effectively to differentiate folk and written literature?" (headnote to Olrik 1965), we may hazard the partial answer that these formal features may sometimes be found elaborated in that part of the "literature of art" which parodies and imitates folk literature. We could also add that a good many other features may generically differentiate parody from prototype.

The Kunstmarchen, which is instantly recognisable as having its roots in folklore but being generically distinguishable and distract from the folktale, comes in three broad varieties (which of course often overlap with each other): the allegorical (e.g. Catherine Sinclair's "Nonsensical Story"; Mrs Molesworth's "The Story of Sunny"); the romantic (e.g. George MacDonald's Curdie books; the fairy tales of Mary de Morgan and Laurence Housman); and the burlesque. The burlesque Kunstmarchen primarily mocks Marchen material and diffuses Marchen economy, though the comic literary forms may have their own seriousness and so a particular work need not necessarily be a mere jeu d'esprit. This article explores the generic decorum of the burlesque Kunstmarchen which has a long, beloved, honourable and instantly recognisable literary tradition: for example F.E. Paget's The Hope of the Katzekopfs (1844); W.M. Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring (1855); Andrew Lang's Prince Prigio (1888/9), and much other shorter work. E. Nesbit's "The Magician's Heart" (play version, 1907; narrative version, The Magic World, 1912) economically presents the burlesque Kunstmarchen's typical generic features, its "decorum." It has the characteristic farcical fairy court, the mish-mash of folktale motifs, the simultaneous reverence for the folktale and a nose thumbed at it. It is thus a convenient text to analyse for these features.

The Magician's Heart elaborates most of the features of folk narration, and has some of the sophisticated features of the Kunstmarchen genre as a whole too. …

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