Diary: Kathryn Davis on Who Wrote the Fairy Tales (Part Two)
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” illustrated by Elizabeth MacKinstry (1933) and an unidentified illustrator, and “The Elder-Tree Mother,” illustrated by Anne Anderson (1934) and Polish illustrator Jan Marcin Szancer (1951)
[Begin at the beginning here]
“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” ends when a young man (“without rhyme or reason … no doubt the goblin in the snuffbox was to blame”) throws the tin soldier into the stove, and a breeze blows the paper dancer in after it. “When the maid took away the ashes the next morning, she found the soldier in the shape of a little tin heart. But of the pretty dancer nothing was left except her spangle, and that was burned as black as coal.”
A dancer inside a castle inside a book inside a bookcase inside a cupboard inside a castle-studded landscape: how deftly the Nordic Paper Industry managed to convey the terror I knew lurked at the heart of the Christian message. Your tenure on this earth, where you might prefer to stay (despite its perils, the perverse machinery of cause and effect embodied in snuffbox goblins and gumdrop poodles), would be finite, yet once you died you’d have no choice but to go on forever and ever. You had only to imagine a door, the door through which you couldn’t step, and the next thing you knew that door would be opening and behind it would be … another door! And another!
The Marsh King’s daughter returns from “a moment” in heaven to find that the stork she was talking to moments earlier hasn’t any idea who she is. “‘Yes,’” the stork says, “‘there certainly was a princess in Egypt who came from the Danish land, but she disappeared on her wedding night many hundreds of years ago. You may read all about it on the monument in the garden. There are both storks and swans carved there, and you are at the top yourself, all in white marble.’”
“‘On your very first evening!’” the mother of the winds scolds the prince. “‘I thought as much. If you were my boy, you should go into the bag!’” To which Death replies, “‘Ah, he shall, soon enough! When he least expects me, I shall come back, lay him in a black coffin, put it on my head, and fly to the skies. The Garden of Paradise blooms there, too, and if he is good and holy he shall enter into it. But if his thoughts are wicked and his heart still full of sin, he will sink deeper in his coffin than Paradise sank. And I shall go only once every thousand years to see if he is to sink deeper or rise to the stars—the bright stars up there.’”
I believed these were my stories. Mine. I didn’t think they’d been written for me, Andersen having “had me in mind,” or that they conveyed my view of things with unusual precision—no, when I heard these stories I was infused with that shiver of ecstasy that is an unmistakable symptom of the creative act. I felt as if I’d created the stories, as if they had their origin in my imagination, as if they were by definition my original work, having “belonged at the beginning to the person in question,” that person being me.
I’m not referring to plot. In fact plot was the least of it. I’m referring to individual words, phrases. Black as coal. Goblin. Spangle. Snuffbox.
When I was seven years old I didn’t have a clue what a snuffbox was, but I knew it was the right name for an object that sprang open unexpectedly to release a goblin. Later it would come as no surprise that Benny Trimble, who lived down the street from us and was said to use snuff, set fire to his mother’s house by smoking in bed.
In the country of Hjørring, high up toward the Skaw in the north of Jutland.
She is in the teapot, and there she may stay.
The storks have a great many stories which they tell their
little ones, all about the bogs and the marshes.
Once every thousand years.
Kribble krabble. Skaw. Jutland.
Into the bag! The bright stars up there!
There was nothing passive about this experience. Even now, typing Andersen’s words and his sentences, I can feel a ghost of that first ecstatic shiver. This wasn’t like being a reader, not even the kind of reader a writer eventually becomes, studying, dismantling, pilfering. This was primal, this sensation, and not unlike the doomed prince in “The Garden of Paradise”—who isn’t satisfied merely to dance with the fairy but goes on to kiss her despite all the warnings—it released in me a heedless spirit, a desire not only to leave Hans Christian Andersen behind, but to leave him annihilated.
When I tried rereading “The Elder-Tree Mother” it was as if the story had turned to a block of ice my eyes were forced to slide across. The idea of reading the story, that it had once played a key role in my life, continued on some level to interest me, but there was nothing seductive about the story itself. I felt a version of the frantic repulsion I feel when someone reads over my shoulder; more than that, I felt something akin to fury at the fact of Andersen’s existence, that he should be there at all, preceding me. This has never happened with books I first encountered as an adult. Sometimes they disappoint on rereading, but they never prove impenetrable; more often I end up exhilarated. Nor does it happen with books recommended by friends. When I read The Spoils of Poynton on Steven Millhauser’s recommendation, my pleasure in the book was deepened by imagining his reaction to such sentences as “Tall, straight and fair, long-limbed and strangely festooned, she stood there without a look in her eye or any perceptible intention of any sort in any other feature.”
The difference stems in part from the fact that fairy tales (and not Henry James) first shaped my experience as a reader; it was in profound communion with fairy tales that my status as a reader was first negotiated. Surely my sense that these stories had their origin in me was based on this fact. When I first heard them I was very young. I had no other category at my disposal than “mine”: whatever I wanted with all my heart I appropriated. To the prevailing view of the helpless reader’s imagination held hostage by a piece of fiction, I opposed my own imagination’s desire to possess rather than be possessed.
In other words, there was a time in my life when there was no distinction in me between reader and writer. I was, in every fiber of my being, both, simultaneously; I was becoming an artist. Nor did it hurt that Andersen’s tales seemed oddly autobiographical: those breathtaking descriptions of the soul shedding her earthly plumage, strewing it mutely across an essentially shifty landscape where storks and teapots and vaporizers and snuffboxes jabbered on and on. It’s no wonder I can’t bear the thought of sharing whatever it was that made this possible with someone else, not even my adult self, who often seems bent on keeping the two parts separate. Andersen’s tales made ideal accomplices. “‘Do not come with me,’ the Fairy warns the Prince, ‘for with every step your longing will grow stronger … and if you press a kiss upon my lips, Paradise will sink deep down into the earth. … The sharp winds of the wilderness will whistle around you. The cold rain will drop from your hair. Sorrow and labor will be your lot.’”
These days we think we’ll live forever, or at least to a hundred. And then?
You can stay by yourself in the dark wilderness of your bedroom, turning pages, all by yourself, utterly alone.
Or you can go to Paradise.
Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, most recently The Silk Road. This post is drawn from her latest book, Aurelia, Aurélia, which will appear next month and is available for preorder. An earlier version appeared in the anthology Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, which includes contributions by Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Deborah Eisenberg, Vivian Gornick, Lucy Grealy, bell hooks, Fanny Howe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Connie Porter, Francine Prose, and Joy Williams.
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