Monday, June 11, 2007
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Bernheimer, Kate, ed. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. The last of Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge? No, I think I'll be continuing to look for books that fit into at least one of Carl's "quests." This book of essays by such writers as Ursula Le Guin, Julia Alvarez, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Midori Snyder, and Terry Windling offer memories and discoveries involving the dramatic effect of fairy tales on the lives of women writers. By the way, we are not talking of the Disney versions of fairy tales, but the older, gorier versions eventually collected and recorded by the likes of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. These darker versions have fueled many writers, both men and women, in a way that the sanitized, pastel Disney versions could never achieve.
Here is what I learned (and perhaps, what I already knew) -- fairy tales have some universal meanings, some psychological interpretations, and obviously, literary significance, and these aspects alone are fascinating, but they are far less important than the circumstances and personalities of the young girls who read them and the emotional impact of the fairy tales on their sensibilities. Each essay is dramatically colored by the events, family members, and circumstances of the essay's author. Timing also carries weight and adolescence and pre-adolescence seems to be a factor in the likelihood of the fairy tale burrowing into the author's heart and mind, creating an alternate reality and a kind of yeast that eventually helps initiate a new creativity.
Maybe I'm reaching here, but it seems that an unusually large number of these writers had childhoods that were far below any version of "the happy family." It makes me wonder what we have lost by cleaning up and prettifying fairy tales to the point that they can no longer perform a service for those children who are unhappy, neglected, abused, and misunderstood. The fairy tales seem to have provided a remarkable support system for many of these women and to have bestowed a method of coping, a fertile imagination, and a kind of inspiration as well.
Some approaches are largely analytical, some interpretative, some literary, some...almost entirely personal, but each one is an education and a treasure. I was going to try and list my favorites, but that proved too difficult. I will mention my enjoyment of Linda Gray Sexton's essay because her mother, the poet Ann Sexton, had such a brilliant and shadowed life suffering as she did with manic depression. The fairy tale influence cast its sway over both mother and daughter in interesting ways.
An excellent read and well worth reading again.
Non-fiction. Essays on fairy tales. 1998. 358 pages.