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conte de fées.

We’re exploring  fairy tales in one of my courses, and it is amazing to me not only how many of–and how vividly!–the more peculiar original Grimms’ I remember, but how differently I experience them now. I remember as a child accepting with a pure and unquestioning mind the bizarre universes in which the stories took place, and the absurd whimsicality of the tasks to which the various heroes and princesses would qualmlessly set their lives. When I was a child, there seemed something utterly reasonable about the prospect of a golden forest, or a maiden mysteriously compelled to dance each night until her feet were bloody and raw, or a land enchanted by a terrible spell. Certainly these tales seemed no less strange than the inanity of the given world around me; if anything, they were arranged in much more internally logical and clearly defined patterns. If anything, they then made much more sense.

It makes me wonder if that was what once made them so appealing. It was not that they were magical, or promised a stranger and rarer fantasy than the everyday world provided, but rather that, in them, everything was clear. Here was the kingdom; here was the king; here were the tasks laid out for completion; here was the reward. It was less that there was magic, and more that there was no mystery. Or perhaps that was the mystery of it–that in this self-contained bubble, the world made sense.

Rereading them now, they stretch the imagination. Unlike, say, the fables of Aesop, or various cultural tales and myths, they seem without moral, without message, without a clear ethic, without the remotest of links to the everyday world. The motivations of the characters are alien in their amoral simplicity; the lands they explore as circumscribed. Their foreignness is complete, and tantalizing. As stories they epitomize an impossible. It feels somehow cruel that they should be so familiar, and remind me so much of home.