Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.
Did you ever lose a book for fifteen years? Not lose in the sense of leaving it on the subway or knocking it behind a massive dresser that never gets moved, but lose in the sense of wanting to read it but putting it aside for something else and way leads on to way and you never get back to reading it? That’s what happened for me with this book.
Some time in the early years of this misbegotten millennium, I read something about Byatt’s use of metafictional elements in her fairy tale “The Story of the Eldest Princess” contained within this collection. I was very interested to find out how that worked, but I was also short on funds, so I found a copy at my local public library. Before I read a word, I fell in love with the physical object of the book: it’s hardbound but small, between the size of mass-market and trade paperback, each story’s opening page is illustrated with a woodcut, and the dust jacket, with its lush green background and deep-toned images, is stunning. Poverty be damned, I had to buy it, but first, I read the story that had started my quest. When the book arrived, I’d already read the part that interested me, so I put it in a line-of-sight location rather than on my to-be-read shelf. Where it sat. And sat. I looked at it most days, admiring anew the cover design, but never read the other four stories.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when Rabia Chaudry announced her new podcast about djinn lore. I wondered: Why had I never read further in this book? And courtesy of that tiny nudge, so it moved, so belatedly, on-deck, unlost.
The individual stories have diverse origins – two are from an earlier novel, two were separately commissioned, and the final novella was written as a standalone – yet maintain a certain thematic constancy: self-awareness while in a story, familiarity with the conventions of fairy tales, conflicts between the expectations of society and personal desires, and a kind of self-reliance and courage that is sometimes noticeable in its absence. And the cleverness of women, unwilling to commit the mistakes of women in the past.
“The Glass Coffin”
There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be journeying through a forest, in search of work perhaps, for in those days men travelled great distances to make a meagre living, and the services of a fine craftsman, like our hero, were less in demand than cheap and cobbling hasty work that fitted ill and lasted only briefly. He believed he should come across someone who would want his skills — he was an incurable optimist, and imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner, though how that should come about was hard to see, as he advanced farther and farther into the dark, dense trees, where even the moonlight was split into dull little needles of bluish light on the moss, not enough to see by. But he did come upon the little house that was waiting for him, in a clearing in the depths, and was cheered by the lines of yellow light he could see between and under the shutters.
I have little background in the structure of fairy tales, but this is what I think of as typical: someone is offered choices. What seems a little different to me here is that often there are different participants who are used to demonstrate the results of each choice, with only one being the “right” one. But there is no bad-actor for contrast, so that’s just a guess.
Our tailor also seems to use different criteria to decide each set of choices. The first choice is triggered by his honorable good work in making dinner for the man he finds in the house in the woods:
And he laid before the tailor three things. The first was a little purse of soft leather, which clinked a little as he put it down. The second was a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside, solid and commodious. And the third was a little glass key, wrought into a fantastic fragile shape, and glittering with all the colours of the rainbow. And the tailor looked at the watching animals for advice, and they all stared benignly back. And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men’s lives. So he said to the little man, ‘I will take the pretty glass key.’ And the little man answered, ‘You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring. The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.’
He uses a combination of an appreciation for craftsmanship, and natural curiosity, to select the key, choosing daring over prudence. Yet his response to that observation is telling: “Why not? Since there is no use for my craft in this wild place.” We learn a lot in a short time about this tailor: he loves his craft, he is willing to work, and he has an imagination.
He follows the little man’s intricate and somewhat daunting instructions and arrives at his second choice, between a collection of sealed bottles, a tiny village encased in something like a snow globe, and a glass coffin containing a beautiful woman with long golden hair. And again, he wonders about the contents of the little bottles, admires the craftsmanship of the miniature village, yet chooses the woman in the coffin because “the true adventure was the release of this sleeper.” When she wakes, she tells him her story – fulfilling the story-within-a-story quality that runs through this collection – and he continues his adventure to reverse the evil magic that has brought her here.
In the end his love of craftsmanship is reduced to a mere mention in the denouement, which leads me to think that love of adventure supersedes all other motivations. I also get the sense, given how all the objects and characters are tied together, that any decisions he made along the way would have given him opportunity to arrive at the same end, and so it is less his decisions, and more his character in reacting to changing circumstances, that provides the fairy-tale happy ending.
There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes – but those were very bright – and the strength the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
He was not a good match for any girl in the village, for he was thought to be rash as well as poor, but the young girls liked to see him go by, you can believe, and they liked most particularly to see him dance, with his long, long legs and his clever feet and his laughing mouth.
And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the Millers daughter , beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked to see him, but look sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching. And so did many another. It is always so.
The danger of pride seems to be the overarching message of this tale, as the sailor and the miller’s daughter both come to poor ends when they could have lived as happily ever after as the tailor and the woman from the glass coffin in the previous tale. Both of these stories were set in Byatt’s novel Possession, and several online commentaries mention how they are set in a context there that is lost here. That might be why this story passed me by somehow, though it doesn’t explain why the Glass Coffin was such a delight to read.
In any case, it seems a counterweight to the first story, perhaps an externally situated example of following the wrong path or making the wrong decisions that was missing in that tale.
“The Story of the Eldest Princess”
When the eldest Princess was born, the sky was a speedwell blue, covered with very large, lazy, sheep-curly white clouds. When the second Princess was born, there were grey and creamy mares’ tails streaming at great speed across the blue. And when the third Princess was born, the sky was a perfectly clear pane of sky-blue, with not a cloud to be seen, so that you might think the blue was spangled with sun-gold, though this was an illusion.
By the time they were young women, things had changed greatly….
The great change is that the sky has now turned green. You might think that a story about the sky turning green instead of blue would be some kind of eco-fable, but other than the initiating event, that aspect isn’t significant. Byatt’s writing, both in terms of story and style, are strong enough to make the reader forget all about climate change and pollution, in fact, a pretty remarkable feat.
This was the story I originally wanted to read fifteen years ago, in my investigation of metafiction, and I’m just as charmed now on re-reading it as I was then, except more so. If you think fairy tales are boring, this one might change your mind, since it’s shot through with wit more aimed at an adult reader than a child:
The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might be usefully set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favored a quest.
Again I see what I imagine as a general fairy tale, but in this case, the Eldest Princess is also aware of fairy tale motifs and so watches her decisions, makes sure she isn’t rash or avoidant, and that she covers her bases as she searches for a way to make the sky blue again.
She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.
Along the way she encounters a scorpion and a frog – no, not that substory, she’s on the alert for it, even mentions it, and thus turns their journey in a more successful direction – and an old woman who appeared at times to be ahead of her on the road, and behind her, and ends up with her.
The story-within-a-story motif plays out as the Eldest Princess, knowing that when she doesn’t return her sisters will be sent, imagines their journeys. The ending is surprising: not at all what you would have expected given the whole of the story, but quite positive. Downright happy-ending, in fact, and in favor of adapting to change. A lot better than what the ministers, the priests, and the generals came up with.
The short story ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was commissioned by the Scheherazade 2001 Foundation, a project which took place during the bombardment of Sarajevo in 1994. As Byatt explains, this project consisted in reading aloud commissioned tales from different European writers simultaneously in theatres in Sarajevo itself and all over Europe every Friday until the fighting ended. This tale features two dragons which destroy everything in their wake, thus representing war anywhere as the story is not set in Sarajevo. According to old tales, as one of the character puts it, dragon’s breath paralyses the will – an apt metaphor for war’s effects.
Alexandra Cheira: Evil Monsters as War Metaphors in A. S. Byatt’s Fiction
, chapter abstract
With this kind of background, I’m intimidated by this story; some things seem too sacred to dissect. I’m also hesitant because I’m not sure I follow the story as written. But maybe by approaching it, with the background in mind, I’ll begin to understand it better.
We start out with a family including the children are Harry, Jack, and Eva. Their valley is surrounded by mountains, and their lives by ancient lore:
In England the circular impressions around certain hills are ascribed to the coiling grip of ancient dragons, and in that country there was a tale that in some primeval time the channels had been cut by the descent of giant worms from the peaks. In the night, by the fire, parents frightened children pleasurably with tales of the flaming, cavorting descent of the dragons.
Harry, Jack and Eva were not afraid of dragons, but they were, in their different ways, afraid of boredom. Life in that village repeated itself, generation after generation.
And again the inciting event might be seen as ecological: changes in water coming from the mountains, in colors of the sky. While they are afraid, they’re also excited, since this is something new. Until the hills seemed to generate fire and sent trails of burning rock towards the village: “almost as though it was not landslides but creatures, great worms with fat heads creeping down on us.” This Dragon’s Breath, slowly oozing lava from a volcanic source, is headed to the village, but the residents talk about it rather than planning to evacuate so are forced to leave hurriedly and too late, to take refuge in the forest.
They were watching the destruction of their world, and yet they felt a kind of ennui which was part of all the other distress they felt. You might ask – where were the knights, where were the warriors…. The old women said that old tales told that dragons’ breath paralyzed the will, but when they were asked for practical advice, now, they had none to offer.
The lava eventually burrows under a lake and the villagers can return. Jack and Eva find their house, amazingly enough, intact, even the rug Eva was weaving. Harry’s pig returns, and they wait for Harry to return – “But he did not.”
In spite of all the action of this story, of villagers watching their homes destroyed, living in primitive conditions in the forest, what stands out is the final paragraph. For they made the event into stories, naturally enough. Some things they left out.
And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became in time, charms against boredom for their children and grandchildren, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.
This theme of boredom interests me (how paradoxical). Some people are bored under any circumstances, others are never bored, though they may be frustrated by an inability to access resources. I think we sometimes claim to be bored as a way of expressing that lack of access; it’s not that we’re bored, but we’re disappointed that the game was cancelled or we can’t hang out with our friends and nothing else fills that particular gap. I can understand how containment, even in the midst of horrible conditions like dragon’s breath or war, can generate a kind of boredom that becomes blended with the horror. And I very much understand how stories might be used to alleviate that boredom, and to motivate actions that, however limited, are possible in restricted circumstances.
I can’t begin to understand how the people of Sarajevo might have felt listening to this story as their own city was being destroyed. But let’s look at it more broadly. Stories survive disaster. Stories grow out of disaster, using destruction as a kind of fertile soil. How many war stories are in the contemporary canon, from Anne Frank to The Things They Carried? My generation’s equivalent of “What’s your major” was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” 9/11 is still generating stories. In the first days of the stay-at-home phase of pandemic control in Maine, the library started its “Isolating Together” archive, a collection of comments, poems, diary entries, etc. from patrons. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares with the stories we tell ten years from now.
“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”
In this case, it’s a present-day story-teller meditating on Scheherazade, rather than Scheherazade seen directly. (The other two stories, “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragons’ Breath,” are also meditations on the nature of story-telling.) It’s less optimistic than Barth on the possibility of any stable union possible within marriage, but Gillian the story-teller wins through to a reasonably happyafterever ending. She confronts the misogyny built into classics both Western (Chaucer’s “Patient Griselda”) and Eastern (Scheherazade), and when she winds up with a djinn of very own, she defeats the traditional dangerousness of wishes by a mixture of cleverness (one of her wishes is that the djinn should love her) and generosity (another is to give the djinn his own wish, which is for freedom). The balance between freedom for the djinn and his continued love for her leaves them with choices and possibilities.
~ Ruth Berman review in Mythprint
35:2, published and excerpted online
by the Mythopoeic Society
The title story is more of a novella, comprising half the book. It’s an absolute delight to read, with its hat trick of 1) stories that teach me something, 2) stories that resonate with something I’ve seen before, and 3) stories that aren’t afraid to have fun.
Unlike the other stories, it takes place in the present day and, for at least the first half, in total realism, or at least as close to realism as academia gets. Dr. Gillian Perholt is a British narratologist who spends the story attending academic conferences on mythic storytelling. Yet it is told in fairy tale style:
Once upon a time, when men and women hurled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium…. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholarship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.
Having just read Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s short story collection The Trojan War Museum, I wondered if that opening was a salute to the traditional Turkish fairy tale openings; later in the story, Dr. Perholt travels to Turkey and confirms it. For this opening, we are informed via a rather present narrator that Dr. Perholt is in her 50s and happily divorced with a couple of children now independent of her, and that she is professionally in great demand at narratology conferences.
In Ankara she presents an analysis of The Clerk’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, analyzing the woes of Patient Griselda, and her outrage that, though the moral of the tale is that women should bear all things and will be rewarded, as a woman she has a different reaction: “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies… and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.” The story as a whole shows how she has refused, and continues to refuse, to let this happen to her.
We are also treated to an analysis of Scheherazade by Perholt’s good friend and in-country host, Orhan Rifat, as well as tours of Ankara and Istanbul, antiquity museums and soirees and Hagia Sophia, places that serve as settings for more story analysis (an old soldier who may or may not be a guide relates Gilgamesh, partygoers discuss Persian tales). With these in mind, with echoes of Paul in Ephesus, with remembrances of prior trips when she was younger and more comfortable in her body, we arrive at a small shop selling, among other things, glass bottles.
‘I’m not an expert in glass,’ he said. ‘It could be çeşm-i bülbül, nightingale’s eye. Or it could be fairly recent Venetian glass. “Çeşm-i Bülbül” means nightingale’s eye. There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at İncirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it’s called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales.’
‘Before pollution,’ said Orhan, ‘before television, everyone came out and walked along the Bosphorus and in all the gardens, to hear the first nightingales of the year. It was very beautiful. Like the Japanese and the cherry blossom. A whole people, walking quietly in the spring weather, listening.’
I wasn’t able to find anything by searching for “nightingale’s eye,” but had much better luck with “Çeşm-i Bülbül.” The most interesting site I found is, alas, in Turkish, but Google Translate does the job. NYT also has a travel story that gives a clearer history.
And then the title begins to make sense, as Dr. Perholt brings the bottle back to her hotel room and discovers there’s a djinn – what we in the West would call a genie – inside. This rests on the previously encountered information about wishing and fairy tales, so we have some context in which to understand how Perholt applies her knowledge, and her personal history, to get the most out of her genie, and at the same time learns his history (more storytelling within the story) and introduces him to the contemporary world.
It’s a story held together by style, linking the academic world with the mythic imagination and cultural artifact. I wish I’d read it, and the other stories here, fifteen years ago. Then again, I hadn’t started blogging at that point, and was a much less experienced reader, so maybe the book wasn’t so much lost as waiting for me to be ready to read it.