For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Telling Tales – Exploring Elements of the Fairy Story

'If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life.'   Siberian Elder
Once upon a time. . .
These familiar words have such power. They evoke a stillness, a bating of breath, an eager air of expectation as we gather around them, waiting for their magic to transport our imaginations to far off worlds, and their wisdom to help us understand the world in which we live. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim wrote, 'for those who immerse themselves in what the fairytale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul – its depths, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward for our struggles.' Fairy tales are timeless stories, traditionally passed down orally from one generation to the next. It is only relatively recently that they have been written down, reinterpreted  through the moral filters of those who recorded them, and consequently changed, sometimes almost beyond recognition.

Myth and fairytale are a rich source of material for authors and their form and content resonate with readers; both adults and children. Some writers, such as Angela Carter, have rewritten existing fairy tales applying their own personal interpretations. Recently in Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth rewrote the Rapunzel story, enriching it with a historical setting and vivid characters. Other writers take elements from fairy tales and/or write their own tales that mirror the structure of older stories. This is what I have done in Flight in which there are a number of references to both myth and fairy tale, most of which were not consciously intended on my part, only recognised by me when they appeared, revealing that like most of us, my personal history is steeped in the stories and religion of my childhood. In the first draft of Flight, I signaled the use of these references as they arose but during a later edit, decided it would be better to cut out these signals, allowing the reader to identify the references themselves. As I write Falling Between Worlds, I can seen that fairy tale and myth will also play a role in this novel, though I seem to be incapable of planning the inclusion of these elements or planning the structure of my stories. Instead I ask questions and leave myself open to whatever answers arise, letting them find their place on the page and within the story.  For me and for many writers, asking questions is an important part of the process of writing. In so doing we discover what our story is and why we are writing it. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, 'asking the proper question is the central action of transformation – in fairy tales, in analysis and in individuation. Questions are the keys that cause the secret doors of the psyche to swing open.'

Initiation is a common element in both myths and fairy tales and a major part of novels which we call 'coming of age'. Jones writes that in the myth, the initiation is a spiritual one, whilst in the fairytale, the initiation is 'into a greater awareness of ones own desires and fears'. I'm not sure it's necessary to distinguish between them in this way, as the fairytale initiation is a necessary part of the spiritual initiation. In Flight, Fern must face her fears in order to be initiated into the spiritual world. And indeed, Bettleheim writes that myths and fairy tales 'derive from or give symbolic expression to initiation rites or other rites de passage such as a metaphoric death of an old, inadequate self, in order to be born on a higher plane of existence'. In Flight, Fern is undergoing an initiation as she is forced to let go of her old way of being, in a sense dying to her old self, in order to find a new way of living. This is an initiation of the soul but it can also be read as simply a rite of passage from one stage of life to the next, a coming of age or perhaps a 'coming to self'.

In The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Marina Warner writes that 'shape shifting is one of fairy tale's dominant and characteristic wonders'. There is much slippage between fairy tale and myth where shape shifting is a common element, the gods and goddesses frequently shifting form in order to confuse and dazzle humanity. Shape shifting is also an integral part of shamanism, with shamans sometimes transforming themselves into creatures in order to traverse the underworld. Shape shifting plays a role in Flight, with Fern at one stage slipping inside the skin of a bear, then later, growing wings and perceiving herself flying. The novel also contains shape shifting in the form of slippage between lifetimes, with both Fern and Eric maintaining their essence and their enmity whilst regularly shifting costumes.

Aside from these general themes of initiation and shape shifting, there are also references to some well known fairy tales. There are some parallels between Fern and Rapunzel. Fern is a reluctant soul, not wishing to inhabit her body or this world, so in a sense, the tower, or attic in her case, is Fern's attempt to escape. Paradoxically, Fern is also a prisoner. She might have chosen to stay in the attic but she is still trapped, held prisoner by herself. Rapunzel must literally let her hair down in order to find a new life. Fern is chased from her attic but she too must embrace life, and it is Adam, her true prince, who helps ground Fern and teaches her to live. In a sense, Adam too is blinded in the novel. He can't see what Fern can see, he can't look into minds or enter her dreams. Instead he must trust her and his own role in the story.

In Fern's penchant for sleep, there is a reference to Perrault's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Bettelheim writes that Sleeping Beauty is the classic coming of age story, reminding us 'that a long period of quiescence, of contemplation, of concentration on the self, can and often does lead to the highest achievement'. In our modern world this has largely been forgotten and withdrawal from life is viewed with suspicion. After spending months in solitude, Fern prematurely re-enters the world only to be forced into solitude again, this time in the psychiatric ward where she has been placed because her mother and society in general, misguidedly interpret her symptoms as an illness that must be treated, rather than as the welcome first steps in an initiatory process. Sleeping Beauty is a tale of sexual awakening, while Flight is a tale of awakening. Fern has been asleep all her life and her awakening doesn't come at puberty but when she is called to an adventure. Fern must reawaken sexually, as she does with Adam, but it is her whole libido that must awaken, not just its sexual aspect. It isn't a man that Fern needs to bring her back to life, but it is the masculine. Fern is out of balance, overtaken by the shadow side of her feminine aspect and terrified of the masculine. Her journey is to seek balance. In a sense the prince is simply a part of herself, the active masculine side that she must embrace.

There are other, more minor references to fairy tales in the novel. Early in the story, Fern falls down some steps and descends into the underworld, just as the shamans do in order to retrieve souls, and as Lewis Carroll's Alice did when she fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in Wonderland. Like Alice, Fern finds that this world is very different from her own, with a new set of rules that are not entirely rational and which she must learn in order to find her way. Later there's a  reference to Cinderella when Fern is dressing for dinner in her father's house and slips on the stiletto shoes her father has selected for her. I have used the shoe as a symbol of power, the power of a man over a woman. Fern tries the shoes on and to her surprise they fit almost perfectly. This suggests that Fern's father, Eric is her prince, something that almost becomes the case, when he later attempts to seduce her. Fern obediently wears the shoes but can hardly walk in them. The stiletto heels are crippling for her, sending her off balance, which is exactly what Eric hopes to achieve. Later, after rejecting her father, Fern kicks the shoes off and frees herself from his influence.

In our writing we can make specific references to known fairy tales and myths, we can mirror their structure (something I will explore in a later post), and we can also draw on their themes which are often powerful explorations of life and its necessary transitions. According to Steven Swann Jones in The Fairytale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination, 'the objective of the myth is oneness with the divine . . .The objective of the legendary quest is social harmony. . . and the objective of the fairytale quest is personal happiness'. So if, on one level, myths are the mega stories that societies tell about themselves, then fairy tales are the micro stories. Fairy tales address everyday problems in a fantastical way, giving a nudge to a child unwilling to move on to the next stage of life, providing guidelines for understanding the dangers one faces in life (Red Riding Hood) and exploring notions of good and evil. With their emphasis on moral behaviour and rewards, fairy tales both define the world and hint at the possibilities of breaking free of those definitions. Characters, such as Bluebeard's wife are both punished and rewarded for breaking the rules. Warner writes that fairy tales 'offer a way of putting questions, of testing the structure as well as guaranteeing its safety, of thinking up alternatives as well as living daily reality in an examined way'. Perhaps then, fairy tales are a way for us to understand and accept the paradoxes of life; pointers to the lessons which are able to be learned through myth. As Hans Christian Anderson once said, 'life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of them all'.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:


  1. I find the idea of incorporating myth into my writing very appealing. I had not thought of it in terms of fairy tales, though I use a rather broad definition of myth, so that I might include fairy tales within the term, at least sometimes. I think of myth as a way of seeing the world, so as to help us make some sense of it and find our place in it, and in that regard, I think myth is an inherent necessity to the human psyche, regardless of the time we live in. So in some ways (though perhaps deeper and more hidden than you're discussing here) all writing must use these psychological necessities.

    I enjoyed your discussion.

    David Hutto (

  2. Hi David
    I'm pleased you enjoyed this post. I generally include fairytales with myth but for this post wanted to explore some of their distinctive traits. My previous post is about writing myth, as will be the next couple of posts as there's so much to discuss about mythic elements in story and mythic structure, as well as the purpose and value of myth. I agree that myth is vital to the psyche.

    all the best, Rosie

  3. Thats great to read over your blog... damn glad....

  4. Thanks for sharing this interesting and educative information. I think many writers will find your contribution very helpful, I have equally learnt something from it.
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