by Helen Pilinovsky
Once upon a time. . .these words are an incantation, signaling the beginning of a spell of enchantment — a magical spell, or a spell in the sense of a timeless period, or often some combination of the two. They describe a then that could have occurred at any time,in any place, a then which hovers in a delicious void of possibility. However, the thing that we — the modern readers, lovers, enchanted connoisseurs of fairy tales — can sometimes forget is that the prospects of the then can be equally relevant in the now. Fairy tales, folk tales,legends, and myths — fantastic stories of all kinds — are as relevant to the modern world as they ever were. The inspirations for the magical aspects of these stories are as present in our surroundings as they were in any others, requiring only the impetus of the human imagination to be brought to life, and appliedto the lives of the denizens of our modern cities. Perhaps more importantly, the underlying reasons that had prompted people to create these tales — explorations of human motivation — are still present within us. However, as the world has changed and grown, so too have the needs of its people. Now, rather than simply telling fairy tales,it makes sense to study them as we do any other field, to understand the motivations which prompt the creation of these stories, and in doing so, to better understand ourselves.
It is important to remember that those stories describing the magical aspects of reality were current when they were written. Homer’s Odyssey, with its sorceresses and Cyclops, its Gods and Goddesses, was set in the writer’s own reality. The chivalric principles espoused within the precincts of Camelot weren’t fiction for the people wholived their lives fulfilling those selfsame occupations of knights and ladies, squires and pages. The castles and courtyards and steep tower stairs of stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella owe more to the chronologically correct architecture of the periods in which they were told than they do to the fanciful embellishments of their tellers — althoughwhether the same can be said of the experiences which their heroines undergo is up for discussion. The incongruous quality of many modern fantasy stories — the elves living in modern environments who insist on peppering their speech with thees and thous and forsooths — these are the anachronisms, and they are due to modern misconceptions,rather than to any inherent flaw in the fairy tale form.
By denying — or even by simply neglecting to remember — that the magic of these tales is as applicable to us as it was to the dwellers of the ancient groves and the medieval hamlets and the Renaissance estates who peopled these tales, we deny the continuing relevance of that magic. It’s a shame, because the need for that magic — the beauty, the lushness,the improbability, the wonder — is a part of the human character, is alive and well, and living among us. Likewise, the magic itself is there, waiting to be accessed, not necessarily through some charm or conjuration, but simply through the knowledge of its presence.
I tell this tale with as much authority as any of those older storytellers told theirs, for as their tales were woven with threads from their own lives, so my life winds and twines throughout the warp and weft of this one. Fairy tales, fantasy, legend and myth. . .these stories, and their topics, and the symbolism and interpretation of those topics. . .these thingshave always held an inexplicable fascination for me. That fascination is at least in part an integral part of my character — I was always the kind of child who was convinced that elves lived in the parks, that trees were animate, and that holes in floorboards housed fairies rather than rodents.
You need to know that my parents, unlike those typically found in fairy tales — the wicked stepmothers, the fathers who sold off their own flesh and blood if the need arose — had only the best intentions for their only child. They wanted me to be well educated, well cared for, safe — so rather than entrusting me to the public school system, which has engendered so many ugly urban legends,they sent me to a private school, where, automatically, I was outcast for being a latecomer, for being poor, for being unusual. However, as every cloud does have a silver lining — and every miserable private institution an excellent library — there was some solace to be found, between the carved oak cases, surrounded by the well–lined shelves, among the pages of the heavy antique tomes,within the realms of fantasy.
Libraries and bookshops, and indulgent parents, and myriad books housed in a plethora of nooks to hide in when I should have been attending math classes. . .or cleaning my room. . .or doing homework. . .provided me with an alternative to a reality I didn’t much like. Ten years ago, you could have seen a number of things in the literary field that just don’t seem to existanymore: valuable antique volumes routinely available on library shelves; privately run bookshops, rather than faceless chains; and one particular little girl who haunted both the latter two institutions. In either, you could have seen some variation upon a scene played out so often that it almost became an archetype.