Angela Carter was a prolific writer and dabbled in many literary arenas. To say dabbled isn't really correct, though, as I think she was a true proficient in everything she touched on. If there is someone I could wish for as a teacher, it would be Angela Carter (just reading her, though, is educational). Over the weekend I set aside my regular short story reading routine in favor of Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales which she edited for Virago. This luscious book (isn't the cover art beautiful?) is actually a reworking of two earlier editions that she was completing shortly before her death in 1992.
"The manuscript of the second collection lay on her bed. 'I'm just finishing this off for the girls' she said. Her loyalty to us was boundless. When we first heard she was ill, we told her not to worry, we had published The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, that was enough. But no, Angela claimed it was just the project for an ailing writer to pursue. And so she worked on the book until a few weeks before her death." (Lennie Goodings, Virago).
After her death Virago grouped the fairy tales she had collected under the headings she had chosen and used the introduction used in the first collection. Reading that alone was so interesting and informative I thought I would share a bit of what I learned here today, although there was so much to take in I'm not even sure where to begin.
Maybe it's best to start with a definition? Carter writes that while this is a collection of fairy tales you won't find any fairies within the pages of this collection. ". . . the term 'fairy tale' is a figure of speech and we use it loosely, to describe the great mass of infinitely various narrative that was, once upon a time and still is, sometimes, passed on and disseminated by word of mouth--stories without known originators that can be remade again and again by every person who tells them, the perennially refreshed entertainment of the poor." Since fairy tales have for most of human history been spoken and not read the act of writing them down changes them at the same time it preserves them. They are anonymous and genderless (we might know the name of the person who ultimately wrote it down but never the person who made it up in the first place). The stories we have today are bits and pieces of stories that came before.
Carter refers to these storytellers as female since in the European tradition it is usually a woman telling the stories--
". . . 'Mother Goose' in English, 'Ma Mère l'Oie' in French, an old woman sitting by the fireside, spinning--literally 'spinning a yarn' . . . "
I love plays on words and had not thought of a woman literally spinning yarn, and 'the spinning of a yarn' (or telling of a tale). Another play on words, or the meaning behind the phrase for which I had not given much thought--the word 'tale' being synonymous for 'lie' or 'falsehood' and not just also meaning a story.
"'The tale is over; I can't lie any more'--thus do Russian narrators conclude their stories."
No worries, though, the story may be made up of lies, but the storyteller isn't setting out to deceive rather to entertain. Carter notes that while the fairy tales are "dedicated to the pleasure principle", there is always more than meets the eye (and isn't that almost always the truth in literature--more there swimming beneath the surface). The collection Angela Carter has put together is meant for pleasure and each has only one thing in common--they all center on a female protagonist. She might be clever, brave, silly, good, cruel, sinister or unfortunate but she is always center stage and larger than life. She didn't put the collection together to show we women are all the same underneath it all (she didn't believe that anyway). Carter never has a problem with offering a critical eye on any topic, does she?
(I knew I was going to like this collection, and what Carter writes below elicited a 'knowing' chuckle out of me).
"Considering that numerically, women have always existed in this world in at least as great numbers as men and bear at least in equal part in the transmission of oral culture, they occupy center stage less often than you might think."
Actually I know that to be true . . . at least in other aspects of literature.
The fairy tales (and there are more than a hundred in thirteen different categories) come from all over the world and exist in many different versions (and I like the idea that the person telling the tale can change the meaning so subtly--or maybe not so subtly--just because they are telling it--just as the listener brings her own experience to the storytelling, too), but Carter has not tinkered with any of them and tried to choose tales that had not been 'improved upon' by their collectors or which have been 'rendered literary'. The only shortcoming she notes is that she confined the material to that which was available in English (knowing her shortcomings as a linguist--though I think she would have done a most impressive job nonetheless).
I've barely skimmed the surface of what she says when it comes to fairy tales, their history and meaning. If you like fairy tales, or short stories, I think this will be a good collection to read from as well as a good one to own. If you were here now and were interested I think I would just press the book into you hands and tell you to sit and read the intro, too. But now comes the fun part, the main attraction. Which section to read first? Should I read randomly or an entire section or start at the first story and go from there? I think whatever path I choose to follow I am in for a treat.
"The fairy tale is user-friendly; it always comes with an answer to that question ['What happened then?']. The fairy tale has needed to be user-friendly in order to survive. It survives today because it has transformed itself into a medium of gossip, anecdote, rumor; it remains hand-crafted, even in a period when television disseminates the mythologies of advanced industrialized countries throughout the world, wherever there are TV sets and the just to make them flicker."
Oh, I do love a good story, and it doesn't matter who first told it. I'll be back later in the week to share a few of the stories I'll be reading in the coming days. I have had this collection on my pile for a while now, always looking at it longingly, so thanks to Caroline for giving me a good reason to pick it up now and start reading.