Salley Vickers: Fantasy’s power to cast a spell on us

Owen Wilson (centre) is transported back to the 1920s in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson (centre) is transported back to the 1920s in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris
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REAL fairy tales aren’t mawkish, they contain all the brutality of human life, says Salley Vickers

To begin with a story: when I was a Man Booker judge I had a regular disagreement with one of my fellow judges. His favourite line of dismissal of a novel he didn’t rate was, “It’s a fairy story” at which I would jump in and say, “Then I insist we put it on our list.” I liked my fellow judge and in many other matters we agreed. We agreed, for example, on the works of Jane Austen. But when I said once, “But, look, they are fairy stories too,” he wouldn’t have it. “Jane Austen is a hard-headed realist,” he would aver.

And of course he was right. But so are fairy stories “hard-headed” and “real”, as anyone reading the new Phillip Pullman renditions will confirm. In a true fairy story there is nothing mawkish or sentimental. People die at the drop of a hat, are orphaned, abandoned, robbed and exiled.

Their limbs are cut off, they are imprisoned, forced into servitude, humiliated, ridiculed, deprived of their rightful fortunes, and reduced to grinding poverty. There is a brutality in fairy stories which is sometimes considered too much for modern children, or, more likely, their parents, for children acutely grasp life’s harshness. Anyone who has tried to comfort a distraught three-year-old who has lost a toy, or, worse still, whose mother has just left her at nursery, will know what I mean.

And yet, fairy tales continue to be popular, as much with adults as with children. We see this not only in the novels of Jane Austen – and their modern Romantic spin-offs – but also in their explicit use in film. Snow White and the Huntsman is only the latest example.

Woody Allen’s acclaimed Midnight in Paris is another recent piece of cinema that depends on a fairy-tale motif: the witching, and transformative, hour of midnight. The enormous appeal of Harry Potter, Tolkien and Phillip Pullman testify to the wide net of the fairy tale’s entrancing power.

There is nothing new in this. The old tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were never the special province of the nursery. If they were learned in the nursery it was as a means of imparting important lessons – a kind of initiation into the complexities and perplexities of adult life that a growing child was going to have to face.

They were also a way of imparting moral – something close, in fact, to spiritual – truths. It has been suggested, in the context of JK Rowling’s departure into adult fiction, that one appeal of the Harry Potter books was that readers like to read about “good” people. I suggest it is subtler than that. People like to feel that the good is still a possibility. In a fairy tale life may be a battle between good and evil, but good can, and should, triumph in the end.

This is a hugely important message and one that our society badly needs. It impinges on our lives at every level. If “the good” – the qualities of courage, fairness, justice, kindness – is to have a living place in our society then we must meet it in fiction, for fiction enters the imagination early, nourishes our sense of morality, and thus shapes our mature relationship with the real.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest the governess Miss Prism famously pronounces “The good end happily, the bad unhappily, that’s what fiction means.” Wilde, as ever, is being humorous but Miss Prism has a point and one that her author, for all his witty mockery, shared. His own beautiful and much-loved fairy stories – “The Selfish Giant”, “The Happy Prince”, “The Fisherman and His Soul” – are three well-known examples – follow Miss Prism’s precepts, although the “happiness” of their ends is not of her simpleminded kind. The prince’s faithful swallow dies; the fisherman’s great love, the mermaid, for whom he sacrifices his soul, dies; the giant dies; and yet, the tale tells us, death is not the worst ill when a greater good, the inestimable value of the human heart, prevails.

The writer Katherine Mansfield, who wrote stories of formidable realism, once said: “An artist communicates not his vision of the world, but the attitude which results in his vision; not his dream, but his dream state; and as his attitude is passive, negative, or indifferent, so he reinforces in his readers the corresponding state of mind … a new attitude to life on the part of writers would first see life different and then make it different.” I am with Mansfield on this. A fairy story will not only render the essential realities of life but will do so though a particular prism that affects our relationship with those “realities”.

The prism is commonly called “magic” and magic is a more common ingredient in human life than is often supposed. There are not, in fact, many actual fairies in fairy stories.

The odd one does crop up (Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, for example) but more often the supernatural motif makes itself felt through some maleficent character (the witch is the commonest example) or circumstance; some curse or spell. And what human life is not overcast by some seeming curse or blight? Which of us does not need to be fortified by the sense that there are resources available to us if we can believe in them, that disaster and catastrophe can be overcome. President Obama won his way to office in 2008 with his now legendary “Yes we can!” The magic of fairy stories consists of the dispelling of the curse, the overthrowing of the blight.

And that this is possible for the human spirit is a truth that needs to be cherished and preserved. In my own fiction, I often refer to old stories, myths and legends, precisely because in my former life as a psychoanalyst I learned that they encapsulate timeless truths about the human condition, in images which the unconscious instinctively understands and is fortified by.

In my latest novel, The Cleaner of Chartres, I found I was creating my own version of a fairy tale. An orphan, a foundling, rescued from death by an old countryman, some foolish nuns who cause her a terrible loss, a kindly doctor, a malevolent old woman, a sacred place and a young man who is restoring it and, through kindness (always the wining card in a fairy tale) helps to restore her.

I never meant to write it but it happened, as in the best tales, willy-nilly. And yes, the good do end happily but not in a way that Miss Prism would perhaps recognise.

• The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers is published by Viking priced £16.99. Her story “Vacation”, set in the Highlands, is available from Penguin on Kindle for 49p.