Myth and Reality in younger gay fiction
And of course I could start by demanding of myself a definition of “younger,” “gay” and “fiction,” but in reality I’m going to look at two (set of) texts that have crossed my path recently: the Heartstopper books and Ian Eagleton’s reworking of the Snow Queen, The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince. The first world, I’m going to suppose*, sets a boy-meets-boy story in an everyday neighbourhood, somewhere south of the London sprawl (the text almost tells us: Rochester) where unhappy teenagers discuss their issues over social media; in The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince, Woodcutter Kai’s village is the low-tech/high magic setting for a a boy-meets-boy story, too – but seeing both stories side by side, I am struck by the question: what makes the fairy tale world work differently?
The versions at the back of our minds as we read traditional tales/fairy stories have probably got a moral, even if we aren’t wholly aware of it. Cinderella and her glass slipper that is the symbol of her fragile steps into courtly life; the Little Red Hen and her energetic self-reliance; Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots and all these others ask the modern adult reader to look deeper and to see quite what models of childhood, and society in general, are being employed. In the selections we have readily available today such as Pullman’s selection of Grimm or most recently Neil Philip’s Watkins Book of English Folktales, messages often seem to me pretty clear: status brings happiness (by and large); marriage makes you happy; a wary eye and an opportunity at the right moment may change your life.
I am joining a debate here about the role of texts in children’s literature that has its roots in the improving books of the early nineteenth century – and earlier – see below – which set the role of the author and the adult choosing the book as fundamentally about instructing children in making choices adult society will approve of. Mercilessly lampooned by Saki in his short story The Storyteller, and by Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales for Children, understanding where this basic objective sits in relation to gay fiction is important in grasping the reason for the vitriol that seeks to silence gay voices. In addition it also helps to understand why and how we tell stories.
It seems to me that Traditional Tales are rarely unchanged, but are altered in big ways or little. Often telling stories involves retelling old ones, looking at them and saying “how does this apply to my life/the lives of the children with whom I read?”. This can be a blatant reworking where the ‘message’ of an earlier story is skewed (The Little Mermaid would be a case in point, where the mermaid in the earliest story by Hans Cristian Andersen is left working out her salvation across the centuries, unlike Uncle Walt’s version where the mermaid gets her man). Traditional tales have always been subject to the movements of tradition: the contexts in which stories are told are subject to change, just as the vision of the setting changes too. More subtly the ideas and themes are reworked to allow a modern audience access to ideas and characters. Some of this is enlightening, revealing new insights into old stories or telling us something about different audiences. Conjoining myth and reality works, for example, for Joseph Coelho in his poem/novel The Boy Lost in the Maze, as it did in the 1950s for Mary Renault – but this is not what either Ian or Alice are attempting. Indeed, one of the immediate strengths of Ian’s book is that the young man, Kai, is already part of a mythic landscape, The Frozen North. Like his previous reworking of Hans Cristian Andersen, which I discussed here, Ian has set the story so that the principal human character, Kai is involved in a life far away from that of many of the intended readers. This allows the dynamic between the Prince and the Woodcutter to remain absolutely centre stage, as in any true stripped-to-the-bone fairy story.
Of course, this paring down might have come to us from the early collectors. As Angela Carter points out in her introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales, the editorial fingers are already at work as the first collectors transcribe – and, I suppose, before, as people telling stories to collectors might think “I can’t say that” or “they wouldn’t want that one.” Verbatim transcription cannot have been easy, and editing has been seen as like putting tinsel on a dinosaur. Class has been redefined, or become a subtext, sexual content suppressed or been tinselled into symbolism. So we have little glimpses of topography where maybe there was an origin legend or a clear location (see my post here on Tom Tit Tot), but the paring down for outsiders leaves us an unreal city, an any-old-castle, the universal wood. Ian Eagleton and Davide Ortu’s Faraway Forest is the Universal Wood as it stretches up into that other mythic place: The Frozen North.
If I say that among the “immediate strengths” of Woodcutter is this mythic landscape, the same is true in reverse for the Heartstopper books. A different paring down to essentials is required here. An immediate plunge into a world of bullying, of negotiating the safe places in school, or of being late for Maths allows the reader access without the leap of imagination: fountain pens leaking, and who gets to be in the Rugby team are recognisable landmarks. “You know this place” is really where the bare illustrations and text take us. We are less clear about Kai and his world, but that’s because we are on a different path; Eagleton and Ortu take us to the magic Frozen North and again we say “we know this place” – but in a different way of knowing.
Family life, in the traditional tale, no matter whence its provenance, is never more than one step away from disaster, suggests Angela Carter and this is in some ways because the sparseness of the story – narrative, setting, character – is echoed in the death that often sets the principal character at odds with their world (Cinderella) or off to seek their fortune (Puss in Boots). With Kai, it is his community’s own fearful “old wives tales” about the Prince that are the thing he will need to come to terms with. Often the hero or heroine will have a difficulty to conquer: the family collapses, or disperses, but we are rarely given much in the way of description to aid our imagination, and remains hand-crafted. I suspect that this “bring your own furniture” sparseness is what allows the devourer of the traditional tale to say with Phillip Pullman, remembering his childhood reading “I want to be in this story with them.”
So I have to be clear I’m not setting out to compare texts in a crude way: both approaches have strengths. But I am struck by how a reader has to make a different set of strategies work in the two different authorial approaches. Are we actually facing here examples of text-to-life and life-to-text reading? Is this true of traditional tales and “real life” dramas? Are traditional tales “real”? What purpose do they serve?
In the debate between Dawkins (who has claimed Fairy Tales have a pernicious effect) and Pullman, the creator of one of the most beautiful, complex sets of fantasy worlds remembers that when he was playing out his fantasies, his mind
…was feeling a little scrap – a tiny, fluttering, tattered, cheaply printed, torn-off scrap – of heroism…Exhilaration, heroism, despair, resolution, triumph, noble renunciation, sacrifice: in acting these out, we experience them in miniature or, as it were, in safety.Philip Pullman “Imaginary Friends” in Daemon Voices
Is this the effect story has on childhood imagination? That it teaches by inviting experience-at-a-distance, by getting the audience to enter into its world? That there is a long standing thread of moral didacticism in children’s literature is uncontested. John Newberry’s Pretty Little Pocket Book (cited in extenso in Patricia Demers’ From Instruction to Delight), has incidents in a child’s life followed by a “rule ” or a “moral:” learn to capture every moment as you play marbles; play at being king and reflect on your own imperfections. Similarly we see a thread of this with Cinderella. What do Cinders and her fairy godmother/ghostly mother allow us to learn in a text-to-life connection that really works? Not how to get your Prince or even how to better your abusive family. It is not a handbook of rules for interaction, but has a more general message: if Red Riding Hood says keep your wits about you, Cinderella tells us persistence wins through. Stories need looking at critically as well as with joy and awe. To do that we can employ the tools of retelling. As Angela Carter expresses a desire to validate my claim to a fair share of the future by staking my claim to my share of the past, we need, like the early tellers and audiences of fairy tales, to know the power and the limits of the tale. LGBTQ+ retellings have their own place in staking a claim for part of the community of readers, and Ian Eagleton’s Kai comes up with his own.
Literacy, Margaret Meek proposes in “On Being Literate” helps us to think about something by giving us the words to do it with and a wider range of examples, in stories especially, of how people behave…” (p47) and Kai’s encounter with the magic of his Snow Prince raises a question that is in some ways the queerest question of all:
“Perhaps his grandmother’s stories weren’t entirely true after all?”
No, Ian, Kai, Nen and the rest: perhaps the wrath of Pelagios stirring up a storm in the sea is unfounded; perhaps the grandmother’s warnings too need consigning to history; perhaps there is companionship, and love and trust and affection, a place where “old wives tales” do not have currency. The doubt Kai experiences turns the whole magic realm on its head… He is in a fairy story and in his story he even manages to turn fairy stories on their heads. This is what I mean by the “different way of knowing:” the independent life of the traditional tale allows the teller – such Ian, such as Disney – to edit and reshape. The transmission gives the teller that license, and to challenge the reader to think and think again. Are all stories valid?
Writers want readers who are prepared to engage with their ideas and to adventure with them in their writing. Habitual readers go to writers for reading lessons as ways of reflecting on experience. together they keep on creating texts, confident that they will, together, solve the puzzle of how should this go…How do writers deflect cynicism and ignorance?Margaret Meek: On Being Literate, pp163-4.
And all of a sudden I am back in the world of teenage boys texting into the small hours, a world of who is in and who’s out in the small jealousies and hatreds of school life. Like Ian Eagleton and Davide Ortu, Alice Oseman has turned school romance and school friendship stories on their heads, with happy endings rather than tragedy. She tells a story set in the every day, but maybe the two worlds aren’t so different after all. Angela Carter at one point suggests that the domestic situation is often at the heart of the fairy story – but as Neil Philip in his The Cinderella Story suggests, we often need
to recover the sense of surprise and the sense of danger in a tale with which we may be wearily familiar…a way of understanding and confronting our profoundest desires and fears…The Cinderella Story, Introduction: p2
With Ian and Davide, we find, if we read carefully enough, that the profound desire for love and affection can even pull the rug from under the storyteller.
*I do have some misgivings about the narrative of the various love stories in Heartstopper, which, despite dealing with complexities of acceptance and love and mental health, seem sometimes limited. Not to say I didn’t enjoy them, but they have their own sparseness, or maybe coyness about the realities of adolescent males.