Friday, May 1, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan: Once Upon A Time...

In 2003, I was in Taiwan, teaching kindergarten (one among many of my random teaching gigs there). I remember being squeezed onto a tiny chair, the children gathered cross-legged on the floor around me, watching and listening intently as I read "The Princess and the Pea." I was enjoying myself too--there was a castle, mystery, a clear protagonist and antagonist, the "reveal" (to use a reality show term--when the "duck" emerges as the "swan")--essentially all the elements of great story.

And I realized that the desire to be enraptured by story--to be awed and entertained--doesn't end at adulthood. 

So I've found myself returning to the tropes of fairy tales in much of my work. To be honest, I don't know if it's because I hope to engage the reader in a similar child-like-wonder way, or if I just love fairy tales.

What's not to love? After my epiphany at the kindergarten storytime, I read the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen--not the watered-down interpretations--for the first time.

Now, it's said that true fairy tales are dark, but I was not prepared for how dark! Beheaded children baked into pies, girls kidnaped to be married to animals, changelings, husbands faking death to test their wives' affection. The real stuff might not get a PG-13 rating!

The concept of animism pervades fairy tales. Everything--rocks, weather, animals--has a spirit--and through this idea, the writers can cannily depict  human behavior. Take, for instance, Andersen's Darning-needle:

There once was a Darning-needle which thought itself so fine, that it imagined it was a Sewing-needle.

"Mind how you hold me!" the Darning-needle said to the Fingers as they took it up, "or you may lose me, and, if I fall, it is a great question whether I shall be found again, for I am so fine!"

As you might guess, the Darning-needle does get lost--in the road in fact--where a wagon runs over it, to its great chagrin.

Fairy tales, despite their talking wolves and proud needles, offer us real truths.  Apollonius of Tyana phrased it well when he said of Aesop:

...he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.

Thanks Kepler fans! I look forward to guest blogging for the next few days!

Best Wishes,

1 comment:

  1. Well of course you want that child-like wonder response. When the reader has a physical reaction to the words on the page. Words on a page cannot do us physical harm yet we sometimes react as though they can. The emotional pull of something that a part of us knows is not true. Of course, children may not be fully aware of that, but they know what they are hearing is a story.

    People ought to like poetry the way a child likes snow and they would if poets wrote it.
    --Wallace Stevens