The Cabinet of Marvels

The deep truths and irreducible weirdness of fairy tales.

Red Riding Hood, today.
Fairy tales are provisional fixes for the problems of reality.

Photo by martinak15/Flickr/Creative Commons

Once upon a time, a book reviewer sat down to review a book about fairy tales and had an epiphany. “I have no earthly notion how to review this book about fairy tales,” she said to the goat next to her, who was chewing a slice of parsnip. “That may well be,” said the goat. “But when this parsnip is all gone, there will appear a beautiful child in silver pajamas. And he will ask you three questions. And if the review is not filed to your editor by the time he is done, you shall die.”

So the reviewer thought and thought about why the fairy tale book, a slim and fascinating little volume by Kate Bernheimer called How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, was so hard to write about. She thought to the right, and she thought to the left. And she thought up, and she thought down. And she told the goat:

Fairy tales make all the critical tools you learn for evaluating literature go limp in your hands. (Bernheimer, the author of three novels, a short-story collection, profuse scholarship, and many children’s books, has even written about this.) The characters have no depth or interiority; they do not develop. No misguided critic would decant 3,000 words on the relatability of Brother, one of Bernheimer’s protagonists, who builds himself a cardboard house in the witch-infested woods and proceeds to grow very old and lonely. Nor do things happen because it is logical that they should. They happen because they must, or because the story wishes it. Witness the result when the stepmother in “Babes in the Woods,” an elliptical “Hansel and Gretel”–like tale, begins to evolve a glimmer of free will. She is going to abandon her husband’s two girls in the forest when her heart floods, suddenly, with:

the feeling of love: dread and fear for the children. This surprised her, because previously, she had not liked the children at all. Sometimes this sort of change simply happens in life. And so it was here. I won’t do it, she thought. The conviction was total.

The rest of the page is blank. (These spare, poetic stories—there are eight of them—inch forward in squares surrounded by empty space, and the effect is elegant and disembodied, a visual counterpart to the prose.)

On the next page, however, the fairy tale wins, and the stepmother has been rebooted:

Yet, for some reason, when they were deep into the woods, she still went on with her plan. This is the way things happened for her—despite a decision to do one thing, she found herself doing another.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale. It is tautology as art form.

Bernheimer, having founded a literary journal devoted to fairy tales and compiled the hauntingly strange fairy tale collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, would know. She opens her newest cabinet of marvels with an epigram from Walter Benjamin: “The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.”

What Benjamin means by arrangements, I think, is that fairy tales are like rudimentary contracts. They are provisional fixes for the horrifying problem of reality: adulthood, time, and death (a set of truths so pure and terrible they can only live in myth). Fairy tales have terms: They will bring you to an uncanny, dreamlike place in which natural laws are waived. In return, you must accept wild nonsense logic, impenetrability, and—with no three-dimensionally human characters in fairy-tale land—a degree of solitude.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale.

The title piece in Bernheimer’s book embodies these terms and dramatizes their violation. A young girl “loved fairy tales above all else and accepted as dolls only those that told stories.” One night a bedraggled, life-size doll arrives at her doorstep, seeking shelter from the rain. The girl’s mother lets her in on the condition that she weave fantasies all night, and the doll agrees after establishing her own rules: Her audience must not quibble or interrupt. She then begins to recite the same sentence over and over—“An owl flew by a garden, sat on a tree trunk, and drank some water.” (A typical Bernheimeran tale: bizarre, inscrutable, lonely.) Of course the girl’s other dolls object, at which point:

The big doll gazed coldly into the fire. “Doll One, you’ve interrupted me. There were to be no interruptions. And Doll Two, you have interrupted and you have argued.”… The big doll stood, and she sighed, and picked up the two littler dolls from their beds. “I will take these with me and teach them how to behave.” Then she flew out of a window.

You see? Instead of trying to decipher me on Walter Benjamin, you could have just read about Doll One, Doll Two, and the big doll. Such is the power of fairy tales—with their emotional logic and intuitive flow, they can express the deep fears and dreams of humans far more lucidly than some grunt with an English degree ever could. But the pleasure of those lines comes, too, from their irreducible weirdness. People talk endlessly about the dark ferocity of fairy tales; remarking on the genre’s ironic association with childhood is now a cliché. We pay less attention to the alien-ness, the weightless stylizations and eerie, economical rhythms. This is too bad. Adulthood does not lack for capricious brutality and loss. What it does lack, for the most part, is animate toys jumping out of windows.

Bernheimer’s tales are self-conscious creatures, constantly reminding you of what they are. They begin “a long time ago” or “when I was still young.” And they are full of text—almost every story contains either a book or a library. Even nonbooks become books: Two girls share a friendship “etched in the Book of Childhood Dreams,” and a teenager reads her own experience in a recursive tome about “a quiet girl who buried her nose in books.” You always know a fairy tale villain by his or her desire to kick you out of the narrative. Occasionally a witch will just vanish you, but she is at least as likely to use time as a weapon, forcing you into adulthood and toward death.

Kate Bernheimer
Kate Bernheimer

Photo by Cybele Knowles

In “The Girl With the Talking Shadow,” a “bad fairy” torments the heroine by magically making her body grow, until “she was so big her clothes had stretched right over her stomach (revealing it to look like a moon).” Bernheimer’s treatment of pregnancy and bodies reminded me that the fairy tale is an anorexic genre. The witch in the forest wants to fatten up her prey; in “Professor Helen C. Andersen,” an older academic advises a new rival that “people in town may start to think you have a problem … if you do not gain weight.” (That is how we know the older academic is a witch.) The ineluctable pull of time is personified in Bernheimer’s evil women, who are committed to growing children’s bodies until the fairy tale can no longer protect them.

They are the keepers of the contract with its terrible catch: The story always has to end.

My favorite of Bernheimer’s tales is the first, called “The Old Dinosaur.” An old dinosaur lives alone in a big city, having lost his two daughters and all his friends and relatives. He flies to church in his panda-and-rainbow pajamas to find a throng of humans (ghosts?) holding vigil for the numberless dead:

The scene wasn’t striking, but it had a strong feeling. The people were dressed in beautiful vintage clothing—the fabrics elegant, dusty, and dark. Their faces were pale. No one spoke and no one sang, yet the church was filled with a murmur—like bees, who also were gone from the planet. He thought of them then.

The dinosaur sees that an old woman walking toward him is actually his dear great aunt, dressed as a human. She shows him a vision, on the altar, of the terrible fate his daughters escaped by dying young. His mind filled with thoughts of mercy, he flies home and dies.

That’s it. That it should happen this way is impossible, crystalline, and correct. There is a cost to prolonging magic past its sell-by date, and there are also suspended, timeless spaces humming with ghosts. Dinosaurs are not unequivocally enchanted beasts, like dragons—to a child, they may well be the things that went extinct long ago. And just as a dinosaur is a creature that dies, a story is a thing that ends, though, miraculously, the dinosaur is alive in Bernheimer’s book, and the story always about to begin.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer. Coffee House Press.

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