And so it goes. Finally, after months spent in Cambridge, I made it inside Heffers. It is only seconds away from my college, but as is usually the case, what is right on your doorstep is constantly pushed off into the indefinite future. Time waits until it runs out.
The bookshop has apparently been around for more than a century, and in 1999, was acquired by Blackwell. It is luminous and spacious, has all sorts of books, including a second-hand section on the underground level, where you’re in for a wonderfully random treat of titles.
My favourite nook at the moment comprises three cases worth of literary criticism. A research degree in Literature can do this to you – all sorts of disparate topics draw you in, titles and titles get added to an endless mental list, which if tangible would unravel like a parchment, trailing onto the floor. In my case, it has also caused a serious addiction to the London Review of Books website and in particular to Marina Warner’s articles. Which is why when I spotted Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tales, the combination of her enticing writing and the topic itself triggered that indescribable certainty: ‘this is it’.
The book may look small, but it contains a multitude of stories, both history and tale. It is the perfect chest of treasured promises for those who want to wander further into the land of wonder and amazement and ensnaring narratives. It bursts with characters of the imagination, be it Cinderella in her many guises, Keats’ unmerciful lady (‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) or Goethe’s death king in the forest (‘Der Erlkönig’). But the book does more than just list stories – it puts them in the historical contexts in which they were created or recast, and also examines the why of it all. It finds in them the tragedies of human life, the ones that never truly go away, even if the improved standard of living has eliminated food shortage and death in childbirth (in places only, that is). It is time that’s on my mind as I read the epigraph to one of the chapters (‘Now I always knew/Fairy tales could come true/ Today’s hard fact was once a fairy tale’, Velimir Khlebnikov), and also how some of the vagaries of life as we know it today may hopefully fall victim to the future. In the now, though, it is in imagination that wounds can close and meaning can be gained, and it is through make-believe that narrative can overcome this trickster of a world.
Ambiguity is a major presence in fairy tales. Simple interpretations are too easy, not very interesting. They will not survive even the test of a single life, drowning in its shifting world-time. Warner talks about the power these stories have to challenge us to understand ourselves, the ones who amend and repeat them. And throughout the book, you’ll find many meanings injected in the receptacle of fairy tale – Wilhelm Grimm’s revisions; Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical extractions of the subconscious hidden in the woods; Angela Carter’s reimagining of sexual desire in The Bloody Chamber. And more could be added – I have spent hours reading the comments on the IMDB board for the film adaptation of Into the Woods. Stories are at their best when they travel. Not in sparkling coaches and full regalia, but at their most tattered, skin and bones. When they arrive, we feast them with our food and dress them up in our own clothes, but if we touch that old bone underneath, all greedy anticipation like that witch of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, we may just feel how real those who came before us were.
On that very recent afternoon when I learned about Terry Pratchett’s death, I sank for the millionth time into his Witches Abroad. I relived that first day when I pictured in my mind Granny Weatherwax’s encounter with the werewolf, and her saying ‘Not capable of acting human, and not able to be a wolf. You can’t imagine how that feels’. That day, years ago, there were the smells of the car around me, that wonderful whiff of ink and pages, but there was the forest, too, and underneath the humour and puns, the incredible sadness of looking in the eye that which we cannot control. Pratchett knew how heavy things can be, how angry powerful witches who cannot undo the irreversible can get.
Unlike a lot of modern versions, the ‘original’ fairy tales present things as they happen – they do not psychologise. Warner quotes Philip Pullman here: ‘The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt, or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely.’ And yet, I hope that this impossibility to see through the façade of events, coupled with the randomness of chance, can also push towards empathy. As focussed as you may be on your own aching transformations, on your personalised wear and tear as you shift between man and wolf, there is always another messiness beyond the known – not just that of life with its implacable nonchalance, but the scrambled tales of others.
As closed up as you are, there is a longing that is not just within you, this singular consciousness roaming the pages of a world. There are stories to be found everywhere – behind the big eyes of wolves and the blue beard of a villain. And the beauty of fairy tales is that they leave the canvas partly blank, for each age to splatter with its hues and dreams.