Recently, we received an e-mail from a reader who wrote the following:
I received a note from an agent today saying: ‘…Nor do I think harking back to one of the oldest fairytales of all time . . . is right for contemporary fantasy readers.’ To give this comment context, one of my characters escaped with the help of a genie. Just like Aladdin. The genie had a direct context within the novel and returns in a further novel. I am surprised at this agent’s belief, because I can think of some of my favourite fantasy writers who use fairytale, sometimes directly, sometimes with a slant. It is perhaps as logical as it can be. Was not literature in the first instance legend, then fairytale and then by extension fantasy? I was wondering if you were interested in opening this up for a discussion in the future with some of your excellent published writers.
It was a great question, and deserved a great answer. Or two. So we asked our resident fantasy authors Sophie Masson and Juliet Marillier to share their perspectives — and they had a lot to say about it! Below is Sophie’s response. We’ll have Juliet weigh in at a later post. Enjoy!
Fairytales, from European, Asian and Arabic traditions, have always been a rich source of inspiration for me, and those of my books for young people that are based on fairytale elements seem to have struck the strongest chord with readers. And that includes books which have been set in contemporary times! My four-volume Chronicles of El Jisal series (Snow, Fire, Sword—published in Australia and the USA and Thailand– The Curse of Zohreh; The Tyrant’s Nephew; The Maharajah’s Ghost) are set in a parallel-world version of the modern Muslim world, the (imaginary)countries in them based on Indonesia, the Gulf States, Iraq and India in turn. Each of them features the Jinn, or genies, in their myriad forms, from the small and weak to the big and mighty, from the kind to the whimsical to the dangerous and evil. And these Jinn survive very well in the modern world—they may take different forms but they happily domesticate technology and find extra spaces in the ether we’ve created in cyberspace. The Curse of Zohreh particularly focusses on the different and inventive ways in which Jinn have adapted to the go-getting modern glitz of contemporary Arabia.
Readers seem to have loved them and not to have any problems at all with the underlying fairytale elements, in fact that’s probably what they love above all! As well, I’ve had lots of books published with traditional European fairytale elements set in pre-modern settings, such as Carabas (also published as Serafin in the US), Cold Iron (also published as Malkin in the US), and Clementine (also published in UK as well as Australia) In Hollow Lands (Australia and UK). And then there’s my entire Thomas Trew series, set in modern times (published in Australia and the UK.). And in my adult fantasy novel, Forest of Dreams, I used a mixture of fairytale, legend and history to recreate the world of Marie de France, a 12th century poet who was one of the first to create her own ‘fantasy’ stories based on a mixture of Arthurian legend, French and Celtic fairytale, and classical fables.
What makes fairytales particularly suitable in fact as a basis for modern fantasy is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it’s all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way. They reveal our similarities and our differences—the Jinn of Muslim folklore are very similar to the troops of fairies in European folklore but they are also different—and isn’t that wonderful! And it’s not just the anonymous folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s collections and Perrault’s that are so inspirational: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont (who wrote Beauty and the Beast, one of my own personal favourites!)
I loved fairytales as a child. They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. I love fairytales now, both as a writer, and as a reader—and I have a particular attraction, as a reader, to fantasy novels based on fairytale, like Juliet Marillier’s beautiful Daughter of the Forest. There’s something about good fairytale-based novels—a lightness of touch, a freshness of spirit—that I think comes directly out of that sparkling spring, that bubbling source of fairytale. Fairytale is less grand than myth, and less ‘serious’ than legend, but it is more romantic than both. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, fairytale is humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure. And in my opinion it is evergreen and inexhaustible in its potential to enrich the work of writers at all times in the history of literature. If you actually looked at the writers through the ages who have been influenced by fairytale, you might be surprised! They range from giants of literature like Shakespeare and Dickens to popular geniuses like JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie, from the Arthurian writers of the Middle Ages to the modern magicians like JK Rowling.
Mind you, it is very important when using fairytale as a basis for your own work to understand what those great writers understood: go to the core of the story you’re using as a base. Don’t do violence to the story’s spirit; but don’t be afraid of taking risks. The originality of what you do won’t lie in turning the story upside down—anyone can do that—but in refreshing it, in making your readers see it and understand it with new eyes, in uncovering yet another magical flash of colour in the opal beauty of fairytale.
More about Sophie Masson’s Chronicles of El Jisal at:
More about Thomas Trew series at:
Image by *louvre89.