Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better
than a beast of yours.”
-- Much Ado About Nothing, (Act I, scene 1: lines 138-140), William Shakespeare, c. 1600.
Fairy tales, myth, legend and other traditional story genres have long provided women (almost universally it seems, though that hypothesis needs to be tested) with subtle and subversive vehicles for self-expression.
If men controlled and commanded the power of words in the front room―consider, for instance, the etymology of “parliament”―women crafted a contrapuntal commentary in the back room. The counterpoint continues to this day in modern speculative fiction, not least in the many explicitly feminist retellings of traditional tales of the marvelous. The power and appeal of the old stories as ways for women to contest male speech or to reshape discourse altogether seem undiminished (if anything, they may be growing). Most intriguing, woman-centered fairy tale themes and motifs thrive today not only in written form but influence, often strongly, popular music and the visual arts.
Since the 1960s, feminist and/or post-modernist scholars have studied vigorously and with great insight both the original fairy tales and myths of the world and literary adaptations of the same. See work by, for instance, Ruth Bottigheimer, Maria Tatar, Steven Swann Jones, Marina Warner, Cristina Bacchilegia, Kay Stone, Vanessa Joosen, Valerie Paradiz, Jack Zipes, Daryl Cumber Dance, Donald Haase, Helen Pilinovsky, Elizabeth Wanning Harries, Lewis Seifert, Marcelle Maistre Welch. (I will include a bibliography in my full-length SpecFic Colloquium paper). Their findings have become a core part of feminist theories of reading, poetics and literature generally, and have―somewhat more tentatively―been connected to the work of scholars exploring issues of race, ethnicity, colonialism and class. Among many others, see work by Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, Elaine Showalter, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Valerie Lee, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Susan Sellers, Toi Derricotte, Sheila Rowbotham, Cheryl Wall, Margaret Ezell, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
Over the past few decades, writers of many stripes have continued to revise and re-fashion fairy tales (and/or folkloric elements more generally) to make feminist points, in a project that goes back at least to Marie-Jeanne Lheritier de Villandon’s “Les Enchantements de l’eloquence” and Madame d’Aulnoy’s Histoire d’Hypolite in the 1690s. To name a handful from a long list:
Nalo Hopkinson, Sonya Taaffe, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, A.S. Byatt, Jane Yolen, Midori Snyder, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Terri Windling, Kate Bernheimer, Theodora Goss, Joan Aiken, Virginia Hamilton, Robin McKinley, Ellen Kushner, Cat Valente, Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Erzebet YellowBoy, Nnedi Okorafor, Patricia McKillip, Malinda Lo, Theodora Goss, Bharati Mukherjee, Jeanette Winterson, Delia Sherman, Helen Oyeyemi, Gail Carson Levine, and Margo Lanagan.
Even when folklore or fairy tale do not frame or focus a modern work of fiction, themes from folkloric traditions crop up in “mainstream” works more frequently than is sometimes acknowledged. Toni Morrison’s work comes to mind, and that of Dacia Maraini, to name just two. Modern poetry is also full of fairy tale references, even that published far from the usual fantasy genre outposts.
“Imaginary gardens with real toads in them” fascinate so much that a growing number of journals and sites devote themselves to the sub-genres: The Endicott Studio for Mythic Arts (founded 1987), SurLaLune Fairy Tales (1998), Cabinet des Fees (2005), Fairy Tale Review (2005), Goblin Fruit (2006), Enchanted Conversation (2010). And then there are the anthologies, above all the Windling & Ellen Datlow series begun in 1993 with Snow White, Blood Red.
At the SpecFic Colloquium we will talk about the resurgent interest in fairy tale and myth, specifically the desire to write and read them “against the grain.” I particularly want to learn more about traditions other than the various European ones and about current literary practice that is not Eurocentric.
Most of all: I want to explore how the renewed excitement for fairy tales―and especially the subversive elements of fairy tales (pace fans of Disney)―has spread into other popular media, in particular music. Just as women have (re)shaped the fairy tale canon on the page over the past several centuries, they appear to be doing the same in the musical realm.
Male composers have freely used motifs from fairy tales and myths to create some of the dominant pieces in the Western canon. Think of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Haydn’s The Fishwives and The World on the Moon, Mahler’s Wunderhorn sequence, Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird and Princess Maleine, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and―towering over them all in its attempt to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, a myth updated to encompass and overwhelm all other works―Wagner’s Ring.
In the past few decades, female musicians have been (re)claiming those themes, reworking them into works of their own, often in opposition to the dominant male canon, sometimes (most subversive of all!) indifferent to the male perspective―creating music that is not defined or definable in terms of male categories.
Working in and around a wide variety of musical forms, and with a wide sweep of perspectives, the following artists nevertheless appear to share an underlying approach in terms of deploying fairy tale and mythic motifs in their music: Angelique Kidjo, Bjork, Missy Elliott, Grace Jones, Enya, Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan, Rihanna, Kimberly Perry, Mediaeval Baebes, Alison Krauss, The Dixie Chicks, Anoushka Shankar, Goldfrapp. Yes, an idiosyncratic list. . .very far from complete. . .and begging to be queried and to be added to!
Surely one major impulse came from the British Neo-Folk movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, led by Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, Annie Haslam of Renaissance, and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span. Stevie Nicks further propelled Faerie onto the concert stage and into popular music (and I think Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle did the same, each in her own inimitable style). Sometimes the fairy tale overlay is explicit, self-referential even, as with many of those working the (all too often twee) Celtic Twilight angle. Other times it is less self-conscious, and more oblique.
I will end this teaser with album cover images to bolster my suggestion about the inroads of fairy tale into modern pop music, and to spark the conversation when we meet in Toronto in October.
See you there and then!
The 2nd Toronto SpecFic Colloquium will take place on Saturday October 15, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue). Register now at http://chiseries.ticketleap.com/specfic-colloquium/.
Daniel A. Rabuzzi's first novel The Choir Boats, put out by Chizine Publications, debuted at WorldCon 2009 in Montreal. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, Sybil's Garage, Chizine, Abyss & Apex, Mannequin Envy, Goblin Fruit, and Scheherezade's Bequest.
Daniel majored in the study of folklore and fairytales as an undergraduate at Harvard, with a minor in comparative lit and history. He spent two years on fellowships at the University of Oslo's Institute for Folklore Studies, collecting oral histories in Norway and in England (with results published in journals of folklore in the U.K., Sweden and Denmark). He earned a master's at The Fletcher School at Tufts, and then a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in early modern German gender and cultural history. In all, Daniel spent eight years in Norway, Germany and France. He is married to the woodcarver and artist Deborah Mills, who also illustrated his book. They live in New York City.
In Spring 2012 CZP will publish The Choir Boats sequel, entitled The Indigo Pheasant.