Rediscovering Magic Through Form in Fairy Tales
by E.E. Jacobs

As a child, my backyard was alive and overgrown in the springtime. A large forsythia bush blossomed into thousands of tiny yellow flowers. I would pluck a few blooms of sunshine, hold them gently in my palm, and climb the branches of my dogwood tree. Up in the canopy, I would sit with the forsythia in my hand and wait for a breeze. When it came whiffling through the leaves, I would close my eyes and make a wish on the flowers in my hands, before releasing them into the wind. The young florets never made it very far, but I believed my wish did, that the wind carried it away to some strange place, far beyond my yard and home. The place, I imagined, where dreams came from.

I used to invent so many of my own rituals. Little things which I truly believed. If I saw a penny shining on the ground, I would pick it up, and to ensure the power of its luck, would tuck into my left shoe. Always the left shoe. At the time, this had felt so right and true, though no one had ever taught this to me. I was small and lonely, and it was books that allowed my imagination to run wild with magic like this. 

Now grown, my love for magic has not died, but it has changed. I’m not so sure I could dream up a wish on a flower in the wind. But I still desire that feeling of acceptance that incredible things happen just around the corner. That perhaps any loose brick might conceal a connection to the unreal. Only now, I turn to writing my own stories to create that blending of worlds. But I have to ask: how do authors inject their fictional worlds with strangeness and magic so authentic that readers don’t distinguish between the mundane and the fantastic? When I read brilliant contemporary writers like Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link, I feel like I belong in the worlds they’ve created. They become that familiar to me. How do they do it? How do I figure it out in my own writing? It’s not enough now for only me to see the wonder in the world; I want to keep the magic alive for everyone.

For me, this originates from fairy tales. I see the threads of connections from these forms of storytelling in the stories I now read. I struggled for a long time, however, to articulate exactly how I was making that connection. I think it is not enough to simply examine literature to attempt to glean something of their craft with my own knowledge alone. It is only when I discovered Kate Bernheimer’s thoughts on the subject that I knew how to proceed. 

In Bernheimer’s wonderful essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” she breaks down the structure of fairy tales and argues that the legacy of this form is pervasive in fiction beyond fantasy and fabulism. While I agree with this point, as a writer of fantasy, fabulism, and speculative fiction, my natural tendency is to examine how her essay can improve my writing of those genres. I am fascinated by how fairy tales achieve their suspension of disbelief. The idea that their structure continues to succeed in writing today makes perfect sense to me. In particular, I’m interested in Bernheimer’s break down of fairy tales into four main elements, “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic”(64). These four components can be found in much of contemporary writing. I believe that an understanding of these techniques will help me to see how authors achieve a mastery over their audience’s sense of reality.

Bernheimer’s first element of this structure is flatness, an element that mostly applies to character. In her words, “Fairy-tale characters are silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there,” with a limited range of emotions. It’s easy to want to push back against this idea as a modern writer, but because as Bernheimer points out, “this absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story. In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader,” (66-67). But despite this valid point, I still thought that there would be more resistance to this idea in modern texts. 

 I was surprised to find that “flat” characters are a far more prevalent technique than I’d imagined, though its use exists on a spectrum. For example, in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” no characters are ever named. The narrator calls herself “me” and those around her “my husband,” “my mother,” and her child, “Little One.” Every character is purposefully made vague. In the opening of the story, Machado’s narrator instructs the reader on how to read the voices of these characters out loud to a room. In particular, her description of herself and other women, “ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same […] ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own,” creates distance between the reader and the characters. Machado puts up this narrative distance as a response to the types of fairy tale stories that she invokes in this story. Like a fairy tale, it is that exact quality of Machado’s piece that creates a universal meaning beyond the situation of the characters. This added layer of depth serves Machado in her effort to create a modern-day cautionary tale, where her woman with a ribbon around her neck becomes a representation of all women, and her loss of autonomy becomes the universal pain of all women losing theirs.

This, however, is a very extreme use for flat characters and how they serve an author’s purpose in a narrative. In Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” the fairy tale “flatness” is less pronounced, but still serves an important purpose. This story follows a young family moving from the city to the suburbs, and their struggles together. These characters are not flat, but the characters that exist around the family purposefully are. In the very opening of this short story, we are given the character of the real estate agent. She is depicted with great detail, but never named, and yet continues to be mentioned throughout the story, as if her presence wasn’t something that served to set a scene. Same is true with the Crocodile, the father Henry’s boss. This character is also not named, and her presence exists mostly to create conflict. But she is defined in the story beyond the scope of your typical secondary character. We understand her motivations, and she has a recurring fascination with creating a giant rubber band ball. Link plays with how flat a character feels to the reader, and purposefully misdirects. These unnamed characters have more life in them than Liz and Marcus, the mentioned but never present neighbors. These characters live somewhere just off stage, always out of sight. We are convinced by the narrative that they are real people, just as we might know some evil witch in a fairy tale has played a role, but their presence is never actually felt. By doing this, Link plays with the reality of her story. She makes us question, who is real? The characters from the city, or the suburbs? The family, or the neighbors?

This perfectly muddled confusion brings us to another piece of fairy tale structure that Kate Bernheimer describes in her essay: abstraction. “Fairy tales rely on abstraction for their effect. Not many particular, illustrative details are given. The things in fairy tales are described with open language: Lovely. Dead. Beautiful,” she states (67).  This particular part of form excites Bernheimer, as it excites me, because flatness and abstraction are what opens up a reader’s imagination. The work of making something feel universal, as Machado does in “The Husband Stitch,” leaves room for the reader to imprint their own experiences onto the story. In the case of Machado’s story, the scenarios themselves are familiar. Machado doesn’t need to explain much about her world or the lives of her characters. Her descriptions may have specificity, but she need say little to have the desired effect. Teenagers falling in love, marriage, pregnancy, parenthood, womanhood, all of these are experiences grounded in a reality that readers are going to instinctively map their own lives onto, and Machado draws on these more powerfully the more abstract she gets. For example, when the narrator is pregnant, we get lines like, “My body changes in ways I do not expect […] I feel monstrous,” to invoke common feelings of pregnancy, and even in more specific descriptions like, “Inside me, our child is swimming fiercely, kicking and pushing and clawing,” she is always still getting the familiar (14).  

In “Stone Animals” we get another version of this technique. Throughout the story, the family describes random objects, rooms, and even people, as “haunted.” Just like how Bernheimer in the above quote describes, fairy tales sometimes use very simple words to imply emotion, and this is more the case here than it perhaps is in Machado’s. The word haunted is used by the characters, but it is not elaborated upon. Link knows that her audience will see the word “haunted” and think “ghost.” This is, after all, the most popular meaning of the word, and thus we are forced to ask a question of the story: Who, or what, is haunting these things? In fact, despite the use of this word, nothing else in the story implies that there are ghosts haunting their house in the stereotypical sense. Instead, I ponder some of the other definitions of the word haunted. Merriam-Webster’s website, for example, defines the verb haunt as:

1a. To visit often, 1b. To continually seek the company of, 2a. to have a disquieting or harmful effect on, 2b. to recur constantly and spontaneously to, 2c. to reappear continually in, 3. To visit or inhabit as a ghost. 

Note that the word ghost isn’t mentioned until the end. All but one definition has nothing to do with ghosts. Instead, these definitions home in on the presence of another person. In fact, the use of the word “haunted” in Link’s story seems to fit much more closely to these other elements, while still playing with the expectation the readers will have for something supernatural to be associated with the word. Particularly, the effect these objects really have on the characters is disquieting, it is harmful. We just aren’t given a clear understanding of how.  

So how do we reconcile the idea of an alarm clock, a cat, or a little boy being haunted, without their being some sort of ghost haunting them? This is where we get into what Bernheimer calls intuitive logic. She defines this as a different kind of connective tissue within a story or, “This is not logically connected to that, except by syntax, by narrative proximity” (68). A paintbrush becomes haunted by following the logic that the words are placed next to each other. Haunted paintbrush. Fairy Godmother. One word without the other invokes a different response. Together the logic may seem questionable, but it’s laid out in a such a straight-forward manner that so long as the characters themselves don’t question that logic, the readers have no reason to either. I like to think of it like the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is finally granted her audience with the great and powerful wizard. Up until this point the audience has had no reason to doubt the existence of this character or his validity. We have seen other strange things, and every character, from the Munchkins to the Wicked Witch, and especially Dorothy herself, have not called into question the existence of the Wizard. But by showing the audience a curtain, we know something must be hidden behind it, and thus that there is a different answer than the one we have been given. Don’t show the audience the curtain, and they will never ask what is behind it.  

This intuitive logic is less prevalent in Machado’s story. But where it is present, it would be useful for us to also discuss the final of Bernheimer’s fairy tale components: normalized magic. It is this aspect of the fairy tale form that makes both these stories and hundreds of others.  As Kate Bernheimer describes this final tenant, “The natural world in a fairy tale is a magical world. The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous. In a traditional fairy tale, there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is normal” (69). In a story with normalized magic, the characters are not alarmed by the existence of it. They might be curious about it, may not understand it, but its presence in their world does not elicit the same reaction that it would for us. Were we to stumble upon a house made of gingerbread in the woods, we might have second thoughts before stepping inside. This is at the crux of Machado’s story. The concept of a ribbon tied around a woman’s neck. Those words on their own aren’t quite intuitive logic, but knowing, as the audience does, that the narrator refuses to remove her ribbon, and that we do not know what will happen when it is removed, creates the same sort of effect. It falls under normalized magic as well, though, because while the husband and son of the main character do question the ribbon, the narrator and other women within the world don’t. It’s a part of them, the way that other secondary sex characteristics appear on the biologically female. It confuses and distracts men but is still something normal. It is still something that coexists in the world alongside other things that we might find strange. It is weird, but ‘not call the reporters and scientists, we’ve just discovered something entirely new about our reality,’ weird.

The normalized magic of “Stone Animals” is sneakier than it is in “The Husband Stitch.” The elements that we would not consider part of our real world do not greet us at the beginning of the story. Instead, Link slowly brings in these elements over time, letting each strange element linger, occasionally stirring the pot and blending them more into the world. The concept of the haunted objects, for example, is never directly questioned by the characters. Henry doesn’t entirely believe it at first, but over time he begins to view the hauntings as another problem of daily life. An inconvenience that only adds to the stress of his failing marriage, like his late trains and demanding boss. When Carleton, the younger child, is pronounced haunted, while this makes his sister uncomfortable, it doesn’t send her screaming, and he doesn’t seem to start acting any different. Even the all-important rabbits which recur throughout the story seem normal enough. Ominous, but normal, up until the very end when the carpet is pulled out from beneath the reader, and any sense of reality is purposefully removed by Link.

To me, the way that Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link have crafted these stories is how I want to see the world. By identifying how they expand, develop, and twist elements of form that began with fairy tales, I begin to see how my own stories can be crafted with these components in mind. But beyond that, by training my mind to think about writing this way, I am in turn getting closer to something I used to have. I recapture a little of the intuitive logic of childhood, where I could watch the world pass by from my school bus and swear that just beyond my vision, there were gnomes and fairies carrying on about their daily lives. To me then it felt so palpable. The natural world was magic, as Kate Bernheimer says it is in fairy tales, but more so. The whole world was magic. The dining room table and the silverware had just as much possibility for magic as the statues in my grandmother’s garden. It was everywhere. As a writer it is my desire now to help us all see strangeness in the world again. With these tools in hand, I feel as if I can step outside. Close my eyes. Make a wish. 

Citations:

Bernheimer, Kate. “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” katebernheimer.com, 

http://www.katebernheimer.com/images/Fairy%20Tale%20is%20Form.pdf

Link, Kelly. “Stone Animals.” Electric Literature, 04 Feb. 2015, https://electricliterature.com/stone-animals-kelly-link/  

Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Husband Stitch.” Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 3-31. 

E.E.Jacobs, or Eli, is a Maryland-based writer, poet, & graduate student. Her work has appeared in multiple student journals, including AACC’s Amaranth & SMCM’s Avatar. In 2017, her short screenplay “Neptune’s Daughters” was awarded Best Script, East Coast Division by the Community College Humanities Association. She is currently working on her debut novella Guppy in Baltimore while completing her MFA.