Virgil Is Fan Fiction:
A Defense of Pastiche
“A continued underestimation of the techniques of fairy tales and their influence on hundreds of years of writing will lead, instead, to their disappearance. Also, it will lead to some wonderful books being disparaged by some influential critics as difficult or obscure or unreal-seeming.” — Kate Bernheimer
From the very first narratives in written and spoken history, artists have examined, critiqued, and in some cases revised the conventions and norms they inherited from their predecessors. A classic example is Virgil, one of the great revisionists of the “Western” tradition. He appropriated Homer’s plot and some of his style (dactylic hexameter, extended similes, Homeric epithets), but he also wrote Aeneas’ story for a more political (Augustan) purpose. While moving from the oral to written form, he sought to attain a more stylized, alliterative verse. His is glorious fan fiction. Always we copy, borrow, alter, reinvent, invent, create. Authorship is readership.1
Embracing this phenomenon is key to my own writing. Just a few projects I am working on lately include a short story inspired by the lines of Robert Frost’s “Acquainted With the Night,” multimedia add-ons to fiction, and the speculative piece included in this issue of Waxwing. In other words, I like pastiche. But is pastiche in some ways inferior to more conventional, “original” writing? In struggling to understand for myself the questions of original and unoriginal, of authorship and intermediary, of past and present, I worry about the merits of writing the original from the unoriginal. Today many have embraced the postmodern — or at least, a mainstream skepticism of absolutes and the notion of truth. Revisionist fabulism, pastiche, and postmodern theory are all part of a similar if not identical tradition. This tradition is not radical — it’s much closer to the origins of storytelling2 than the “well-made novel.” Nonetheless, the proliferation of narrative through the Internet, new forms of marketing, and free social media (which can be a good thing), invite the same old questions of originality and authenticity. If anything, the pluralism and democratization of narrative that new technology has allowed makes those questions yet more insistent. To some, the answer is obvious. As Tzvetan Todorov writes:
Dealing with any text belonging to “literature,” we must take into account a double requirement. First, we must be aware that it manifests properties that it shares with all literary texts, or with texts belonging to one of the sub-groups of literature (which we call, precisely, genres). It is inconceivable, nowadays, to defend the thesis that everything in the work is individual, a brand-new product of personal inspiration, a creation with no relation to works of the past. Second, we must understand that a text is not only the product of a pre-existing combinatorial system (constituted by all that is literature in posse); it is also a transformation of that system.
This double-work is even more true of pastiche, I argue. In his survey of the historicity of pastiche across multiple genres including literature and film, Richard Dyer writes:
Any work implicitly evokes and acknowledges prior models of cultural production, of which it is necessarily a perception and on which it is necessarily a variation. With pastiche (and other forms of self-awareness) the process becomes even more explicit, a positive affirmation of what a genre is like, even an intervention in defining it.
But I also worry, as others do (there’s a litany of book reviewers and high school English teachers who have normalized the Western realist tradition as the go-to form), about the “seriousness” of pastiche. Fredric Jameson’s survey of postmodernism criticizes pastiche as lacking in political intent or power. He denigrates pastiche as a random “cannibalism” of inherited signs and style, saying it “is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.”
Is pastiche a force for good or bad? At the heart of the ancient stories and their reiterations we do often observe rigid and antiquated conceptions of class, race, and gender roles. The critical theory devoted to literature often reflects these same problems, just as both the tales and the criticism reflect (often unconsciously) actual social injustice. But I believe pastiche has been used for social critique, and that these successes mean that revisionist fiction is begging to be used more and more satirically. To start thinking about these ideas, we can first look at an element at the heart of the ancient stories — their form — before moving on to a discussion of content, and how it intersects with form.
I. Some Background on Fairy Tale Structure
In her anthology The Classic Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar gives an overview of two main competing traditions:
We have the classical canon of tales collected by, among others, Joseph Jacobs in England, Charles Perrault in France, the Grimm brothers in Germany, and Alexander Afanasev in Russia. On the other hand, we have a rival tradition of heretical stories established by folklorists who have sought to unearth buried cultural treasures and to conduct archaeological exercises designed to connect us with a subversive dimension of our collected past.
On top of these, we have the more recent literary versions by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, and more, starting in the pre-Victorian era and moving into contemporary times.
All these types of fairy tales, fables, and folk stories have been analyzed from every corner of the critical-theoretical boxing ring (in particular, a Marxist reading varies greatly from a psycho-analytical one).3 The fairy tales have been revised and updated to fit the times, or, as Tatar writes, have been recovered after undergoing “a process of cultural suppression or cultural amnesia.” Some writers, like Angela Carter, seek to complete an unfinished picture. In an interview following the publication of the very successful The Bloody Chamber, Carter said: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” In his introduction to Carter’s Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, Salman Rushdie writes, “She opens an old story for us, like an egg, and finds the new story, the now-story we want to hear, within.” In other words, the revisionist narrative creates the original from within the unoriginal.
But Kate Bernheimer, perhaps the most important fairy tale writer working today, notes that traditional tales have been studied more for their “meaning” (whatever that is) than their form.4 Yet certain structural constants form the spine of the revisionist politic. Almost all “originals within unoriginals” share archetypal characters, plots, and images/motifs. In the last 150 years, Charles Frazier, Lord Ranglan, Otto Rank, Joseph Campbell, and others have carefully noted these, often connecting them to psychological patterns established by Freud and Jung. Take the famous example of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Campbell identifies formulaic steps of the “hero’s journey,” from the call to action, on to a meeting with a mentor or prophet, on through a trip into a foreign world (often the underworld), facing ordeals, and eventual returning home with a cure or elixir.
As quickly becomes evident when reading Campbell, there are blatant assumptions and propositions made about gender in literature (and society). Put crudely, Campbell saw the feminine not as a social actor in need of a journey, but rather as a divine destination. His work, especially after Thousand Faces, does assign women a power (“the feminine divine”) of sorts: woman is nature, man is society. But I found this problematic because such a view is deeply ingrained in the pseudo-psychology of infant development ritualization.5 While Campbell does say some brilliant things at times — and also occasionally reminds us that myth often reflects society and its imperfections rather than shapes them — I find it hard to take him seriously, since he tends to generalize and did not, actually, analyze in his books all that many texts. He writes reductively of fairy tales: “Fairy tales are for children. Very often they’re about a little girl who doesn’t want to grow up to be a woman. At the crisis of that threshold crossing she’s balking. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers and gives her a reason to think it might be nice on the other side after all.” Yes, Campbell is from a different era, but it’s still infuriating to read this twaddle in the 21st century. The inequality problem in art may be one of chicken-and-egg, but either way the structuralist scholarship here is deeply unsatisfying. All the more reason we need more Angela Carters and Kate Bernheimers — and more male fabulist allies.
In the fairy tale and fable realm, Vladimir Propp calls these archetypal plot situations “functions.” They form the constant structural backbone readily identifiable in all fairy tales: “Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.”
In compiling a of thirty-one functions6 that characters (or dramatis personae) undergo in the one hundred folktales he studied, Propp notes that, in many tales, “the names of the dramatis personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change.” Indeed, Tatar says the same of the variations of the Beauty and the Beast story: “While the monster as husband is a structural constant, the monster itself may (and does) take the form of virtually any beast — a goat, a mouse, a hedgehog, a crocodile, or a lion.” The search for the husband, Tatar explains, can vary greatly depending on the protagonist’s identity. But still, problematically, the recurring importance of the husband, of the glorious male, leaves many of us disenchanted. As we will see with Angela Carter’s work, changing the characters’ identities can in itself alter the story completely, helping to give voice to often-silenced characters.
Propp identifies seven archetypal dramatis personae whom I will try to identify in the example stories below: the villain, the donor/provider, the helper, the princess (or damsel) and her father, the dispatcher, the hero, and the false hero. These placeholders help identify the specific characters’ functions and organize the tale in such a way as to streamline the action. All but the most crucial exposition becomes superfluous, Propp argues. In this list, the rigid gender roles within these stories is, again, plainly evident.
Slightly before Propp, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson compiled a fascinating, exhaustive list of types of folklore.7 Unlike Propp’s approach, theirs is more of an Aristotelian classification of stories (including tall tales, jokes, and other formulaic narratives) based on the conflicts and motifs. Like the biological classification of species, Aarne and Thompson proceed from general to specific. For example, within the tale-type “AT327: The children and the ogre” — consisting of the arrival at the ogre’s house, the deception of the ogre, and finally the escape — there is the sub-type “AT327A Hansel and Gretel,” specifying that the parents abandon the children, who approach the gingerbread house, etc.
Propp’s list of thirty-one functions seems terribly cursory compared to the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index — which numbers in the thousands — but his list is perhaps more useful, analytically speaking, as it identifies structural components within the fairy tale rather than slavishly categorize every motif used in tales. Propp’s organizing principle, the “functions” (a character’s actions), aim to classify the plot potentialities of a story, like Campbell’s hero steps do, rather than list a story’s features.8 The functions usually come down to either fighting a monster (to protect the tribe, the family) or a villain. None of the thirty-one functions mention a woman by name — even when the hero marries (function thity-one) and ascends the throne. However, Propp does not restrict the identity of the hero to a male. Rather, we observe the preponderance of male heroes in the stories themselves.
Propp’s morphology and the Aarne-Thompson index help demystify fairy tales — which, Dyer might agree, is certainly crucial to understanding the revisionist task, for to understand a structure is to command it better. But we must examine more closely the revisionists’ versions to understand how they succeed in making new what might seem like such limited — though fertile — ground. There are many ways to skin a cat, and tale-typing alone is rather academic if the revisionist author does not possess the spirit of the thing. Ultimately, demystifying only gets one so far. In pastiche, as with revisionist fables, the author also specifically attempts to take the known into new, unknown territories.
II. The Evolution of a Tale: Little Red Riding Hood
Early fairy tales existed mostly either as salacious entertainment for the urban bourgeoisie or as bawdy diversion for a working agrarian class. While much mythology (early Greco-Roman, for example, or Native American) appears to consist first and foremost of narrative explanations of natural phenomena, the European fairy tales carry the pleasing vulgarity of pop entertainment. As Tatar asks, “Is it surprising that, in an age without radios, televisions, and other electronic wonders, they favored fast-paced narratives with heavy doses of burlesque comedy, melodramatic action, scatological humor, and free-wheeling violence?”
This might explain the myriad carnal conflicts Little Red Riding Hood has found herself in with the famous wolf. In the variety of examples Tatar gives, the characters are the same — though the name may differ slightly. Little Red Riding Hood (the hero) can be “Little Red Cap” or an unnamed girl. The wolf (the Villain) can go by “a wolf,” “the wolf,” or “Wolfie.” The setting is the same: woods, with a path or two, and in most cases her mother (the Dispatcher) has instructed Little Red Riding Hood not to stray from this path, nor to linger and talk to strangers (Propp calls this the Interdiction, which is then Violated).
Even most of the plot is the same: a girl needing to safely deliver nourishment to an ailing grandmother, with a stranger, the wolf, stepping in as resistance to this straightforward desire. Where everything changes is the outcome of the conflict, the ending.
The first tale Tatar treats is “The Story of Grandmother,” told by Louis and François Briffault in Nièvre in 1885. An unnamed girl is bringing milk and bread to “granny’s,” when she encounters “a wolf,” who, learning her plans, takes a different path to the house: “the wolf arrived at granny’s, killed her, put some of her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf.” When the girl arrives, the wolf has her eat and drink these parts of her grandmother. A cat remarks that the girl is “a slut.” The girl strips naked at the wolf’s request and climbs into bed with him. After a series of “Oh, granny, what big x you have” remarks from the girl, interchanging with the wolf’s, “The better to y with,” the girl cunningly escapes by asking to relieve herself.
This version bears some resemblance to Charles Perrault’s famous “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which the eponymous girl (“the prettiest you can imagine”) runs into “old Neighbor Wolf,” who opts not to eat her outright then and there because some woodcutters are nearby. The tale takes a moralistic slant: her mother warns: “Walk properly and don’t stray from the path.” But Little Red Riding Hood takes the longer path to her grandmother’s, picking flowers and generally tarrying, while the wolf rushes ahead and “devoured her in no time.” (As with the above tale version, no space is given to show the act. No scene is set until the girl arrives.) Once again, Little Red Riding Hood strips naked and climbs into bed with the wolf, and the Q&A series follows again. This time, the girl has no shrewd capabilities, and the wolf eats her up. Perrault then articulates the two-part moral of the story: “From this story one learns that children, / Especially young girls, / Pretty, well-bred, and genteel, / Are wrong to listen to just anyone, […] watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves are the most dangerous of all.”
The Brothers Grimm follow the same moralist theme — though threading the moral into the story rather than tacking it on at the end — but they change the plot by adding a friendly neighborhood male huntsman who happens by and saves Grandmother and Little Red Cap. Though the wolf has already gobbled them up, the apparently quite-cultivated huntsman performs a sort of C-section on the sleeping wolf, freeing the two females who, it turns out, were still alive. Rather whimsically, the hunter then places stones in the hole in the wolf’s stomach, sews the villain back up, and the bad guy meets his doom when he drowns in a pond.
A final example from 1940 shows the story can still contain a moral, of a sort. James Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf” contains the same characters and plot as the above versions, though their two pages are condensed in Thurber’s version into two paragraphs, for his is a satirical aim: “Even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge.” The little girl shoots the wolf with an automatic weapon, highlighting the absurdity of the Little Red Riding Hood’s story: “Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”
The same could be said of readers of literature — who, even while returning to primordial or foundational texts, crave revision and seek original content that is updated to fit the times. It’s possible that, if anything, readers will gravitate towards seeking originality even more than the authors and orators retelling old tales. In any case, we see a clear evolution in Little Red Riding Hood’s story; Thurber’s bears resemblance to Perrault’s only in spirit, relying on a few scant details to ground the reader in the traditional tale, then pull away a deceptively simple, absurd moral. Always, though, there are hungry villains and then there are little girls.
III. Ditching the Damsel-in-Distress Type: A Twist on Pinocchio
Many revisionist stories undergo transformations more complicated and radical than the Little Red Riding Hood variations. The pastiche form often involves an author using multiple influences in one narrative. An example is Angela Carter’s “The Loves of Lady Purple,” which seems to riff off Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, and a combination of vampire and zombie mythologies.
Some of Carter’s most enduring work revises plot structure by exploring how the conflict develops if the characters are changed, switched, or merged. “The Loves of Lady Purple” uproots Pinocchio in a glorious, depraved ten pages. Lady Purple (Propp’s Princess) is an elegantly decorated puppet; her puppet master (Princess’ Father), an old incoherent man, entertains gleeful fairground audiences in mountainous Transylvania with her stories of seduction and sexual debauchery. One night after a show, the puppeteer feels compelled to kiss Lady Purple. She opens her eyes and sucks the life out of her master. Still depraved in this newfound freedom, though, the Venusian marionette sets out in search of the nearest brothel to reenact yet again the only story she knows.
Carlo Collodi’s 1881 The Adventures of Pinocchio is a 184-page novel, comprised of short chapters that were originally serialized as short stories. A carpenter discovers a talking piece of wood and gives it to Gepetto, who was visiting his store wishing to build a puppet. Gepetto names the piece of wood before he begins carving. “I think I will name him Pinocchio. It is a name that will bring him luck.” It turns out that Pinocchio is a naughty little boy who disobeys his father repeatedly. This character trait leads the puppet through adventures and encounters with a variety of creatures: the philosophical Talking-Cricket (whom he accidentally kills), the devious Fox and Cat, and the Dog-Fish (epitomized in the wholly different Disney version of the story by the giant sperm whale).9 It’s notable that Collodi’s Pinocchio is a mean kid who only redeems himself in the end by giving all his money to the fairy, an act he would not have been capable of if he had not endured torturous trials and tribulations. In other words, the naive protagonist undergoes a classic Campbellian inner and outer transformation thanks to his arduous journey. That said, one of the story’s recurring motifs is the harsh reality of poverty and hunger, and Pinocchio quickly grasps this and hopes to find a way to give Gepetto a better life. He has a good heart. Unlike Lady Purple, Pinocchio does not get to become a real boy on the whim of the puppeteer. This and the relationship between the puppet and puppet-master are the biggest differences between the original and Carter’s variation (along with the fact that Carter adds vampires and such to the mix). Pinocchio does not receive the adulation of his maker, and his nose grows longer each time he lies. He even becomes a donkey before the fairy eventually rewards him for his good deeds.
And of course, his story ends on a far less abject note! “Pinocchio turned and looked at it; and, after he had looked at it for a short time, he said to himself with great complacency: ‘How ridiculous I was when I was a puppet! And how glad I am that I have become a well-behaved little boy!’” The abjection10 metaphorically inherent to a marionette’s life only becomes manifest in Carter’s radical revision — the entire Campbellian journey is omitted, or otherwise so ingrained as to not bear repeating. By using well-established “unoriginal” structures, Carter can focus, then, on the darker side of the puppet’s life. Pushing the abjection to an extreme, she delivers an entirely “original” story of mortality and lust.11
While Collodi heavily employs dialogue and tells his story almost entirely in the form of “scene,” Carter — as do the Little Red Riding Hood variations — relies mostly on “summary,” as the only scene in “Lady Purple” is in the last three pages, beginning at: “even on the night of the Feast of All Hallows when, the mountain-dwellers murmured, the dead held masked balls in the graveyards while the devil played the fiddle for them.” Her writing is economical; it interchanges present and past tense in a way that allows Carter to paint not just a particular story but to universalize, to paint a portrait of a mythology.
Carter focuses first on how the inarticulate puppet master makes his “sticks dance, make love, pretend to speak and, finally, personate death; yet, so many Lazaruses out of their graves they spring again in time for the next performance and no worms drip from their noses nor dust clogs their eyes.” By the third paragraph of her story Carter has taken the moralizing world of “little boy” Pinocchio and transmuted it with the Biblical language of resurrection — the puppets are not toys, they are (clean, polished) zombies.
Along with the reference to Lazarus, Carter alludes to Greek mythology: the puppet is a “hetaera,” a “Circe.” This diction also extends the story into the multitudinous “tradition,” opening this reader’s eyes to recognize how the piece is more than just an inversion of Pinocchio — it also appropriates vampire mythology and Sleeping Beauty. Moreover, it contains elements of meta-fiction: Carter winks to the reader about the creation and telling of story when describing the “simulacra” of the puppeteer’s life, his narrative “conducted in nuances rather than affirmations,” where “the grotesque is the order of the day.” After being given life — given breath — by her master’s kiss, puppet’s “next performance with an apparent improvisation which was, in reality, only a variation upon a theme.” Indeed, the hetaera’s transformation into vampire, into puppeteer (her master now the puppet), all seems a bagatelle, a puppeteer’s trick.
We see the power of secondary details12 in the following paragraph, in a seemingly needless aside about the location the puppet master is performing in: “a dark, superstitious Transylvania where they wreathed suicides with garlic, pierced them through the heart with stakes and buried them at crossroads while warlocks continually practised rites of immemorial beastliness in the forests.” In this setting, suicides are treated with the rituals one expects to be reserved for vampires. Such secondary upsetting of readerly expectations again cues the reader to understand the story is playing by a different set of rules. Establishing this helps make the gender inversion less blunt, for it is just one of many alterations to a world. Thus, Lady Purple comes off more naturally and subtly than a simplistic femme fatale.
Descriptive passages can help the pastiche writer swiftly appropriate the traditional dramatis personae and place them in a new function. Carter illustrates that, in effective revisionist literature, the structural constants can remain intact while the details (in setting, in characterization, in tone choices) make the difference — often an intentionally parodic one. In this sense, I would disagree with Jameson’s distinction and claim rather that pastiche is parody — and parody is most cruel and rewarding when it captures the incisive, “little things” that make the object of parody worthy of the revision.
Carter is brilliant, wholly original within the unoriginal. But the feminist variation is vitally important. A particularly sharp line explains how Lady Purple is the “quintessence of eroticism, for no woman born would have dared to be so blatantly seductive.” As the puppet master and Carter know, “all fairs are the same.” But the female character’s new, empowering functions enact the actualization of Lady Purple’s independence from men: “she was not a true prostitute for she was the object on which men prostituted themselves.” In Propp’s terms, Pinocchio was the hero; upon approaching Lady Purple, we might presuppose she will follow the gendered Damsel role. Soon we recognize she might be a Hero. Then, soon after, we might wonder if she is in fact the Villain. That is the nature of the uncanny — and the nature of the political, too. Given the historical patriarchy of the West and despite the variations in feminist theory on this particular subject, for most readers the villainous girl is probably, by the end, the sad hero. One might argue that a problem exists here, with the simplified femme fatale type, because her narrative still depends upon a male victim. But I think that, by imbuing her stories with additional elements of irrealism, Carter counter-intuitively avoids such a problem. It is not a female reversing her role in a typical world. It’s a different, Wonderland-like world. The parody is thus more effective. Jameson would approve.
IV. Marauders and Male Violence: The Thoughtful Modern Fable
Carter’s variations on the traditional tale take the fairy tale into a realm of abjection. In rendering the puppet not as a little boy but a dangerous and sexually mature woman, the story is transformed and develops an element of the uncanny. As we see in Wells Tower’s 2009 story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” another way to play with traditional fiction is to leave the characters and functions intact and instead instill variations in narration, diction, and/or perspective. This kind of play brings thematic nuance and can cast a new (potentially progressive) light on an old tale.
Tower’s pastiche does not seem to be revising a specific story — rather, he uses anachronistic narration (specifically, contemporary American colloquialisms) to tell a conventional story about an aging professional faced with the thought of what comes next. In riffing off the stock Viking characterization, Tower renders absurd the image of the violent male we’ve inherited from classic mythology. This story provides a defense of pastiche against any critic who might call such revisionist work gimmicky or silly.
The story follows the narrator Harald (for Propp, the hero, though a violent one!), a veteran warrior who, seemingly approaching a Viking version of retirement, now turns to his wheat field and his desire to start a family with his young wife. He agrees wearily, though, to follow his restless and bloodthirsty leader, Djarf (Propp’s Dispatcher), on one last killing spree. The story’s perfectly paced, sweetly textured moments of reflection by the jaded Harald serve as anchors to the swashbuckling, often devastating language of heady pillaging and giddy slaughter. Tower chooses for this story a vulgar, humorous language. He also repeatedly plays with contradiction, all of which helps assert a tone that does not simply dwell reductively in negative irony, but moodily contemplates important themes: in this case, the paradoxes of love and war. In other words, what initially reads as “riffing” on a borrowed plot does not end with an effective yet silly little diversion, but rather something provocative and touching. Pastiche is only silly if the “original made from the unoriginal” that results from such referential writing neither a) parodies the first source for political effect, nor b) contains any character transformation. Tower’s pastiche does both.
The first sentence of the story introduces Tower’s slapstick vernacular by setting the story within the “dragon-and-blight circuit.” All the characters except Harald are rather one-dimensional stock figures. The leader Djarf resembles an attention-seeking child hell-bent on avoiding boredom. Orl (Helper) is “soft-hearted” and puts tortured enemies out of their misery, but addresses his own problems with a wine sack — a classic passive sufferer. Gnut (Helper) is lonely ever since the passing of his wife to “bad milk.” Eventually, he claims as his wife the daughter of one of the pillaged victims, a one-armed seamstress — oh yes, of course there is a one-armed seamstress — who helps suture the wounded Haakon (Helper). This last wizened warrior, meanwhile, is too old to row, so he mans the rudder. He is wounded by a young boy whom he has admonished, a fairly new recruit in the clan who realizes his mistake only seconds before Haakon “cleaves his head across the eyebrows.” His existential bent rests not in wine or love but rather in the vocation of being a good Viking. When the boy stabs him back, Haakon is “greatly vexed.” The natural order of the warrior society — and Haakon’s place in it — has been disturbed. He must cleave the kid’s head, lest the social order become similarly torn.
But vexation is not the main order of the day — brutal killing is, and Tower employs any number of synonyms to indicate the vagaries of the ravaging life. There are “search-and-destroy” missions, which should not be confused with “pillage-and-consternation tour[s].” Tower accuses the Vikings at various times of “harrying,” of “sacking,” of having “troubled” some people. The ironic language serves as a contrasting foil to the horrific Djarf, whose people have traditionally drowned colicky babies such as he — he is extraordinary, as all good villains are, because he survived this ritual, and grew into a devilish fighter: “When the axes broke, he took up someone’s severed leg and used it as a club.” When food is low, he burns his own dead and eats the half-digested food out of their bursting entrails.
One scene stands out as particularly burlesque. To excite the younger warriors, Djarf shows them a creative piece of torture, the so-called bloody eagle: “He knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.”
Tower juxtaposes the slapstick and this horror with a humor borne out of the disconnect between the domestic simplicity Harald yearns for and the warped values of the warrior world. The young “hockchoppers” that follow Djarf are “so innocent about the world they would just as soon stick a knife in you as shake your hand.” The allusion to notions of conventional childlike innocence runs up against the young savages cheering on Djarf. He encourages this, of course, in his own childish way. Before pulling the bloody eagle stunt, he demands attention, “yelling for everyone to be quiet and watch him.”
There are many moments when certain words seem out of place, which makes them stand out more and invite reflection into the oddity of a Viking knocking at the door and informing a fellow warrior that “we got to get it on.” This interrupts the “mainland domestic groove” Harald had been so enjoying. A “turncoat” priest who’s a major player on the “dragon-and-blight circuit” may or may not be making it hail and summoning dragons who’ve been scaring the warriors’ wives. The supernatural serves Djarf’s plot, giving him the excuse he needs to attack the island of Lindisfarne — even though he only just looted the place a month ago.
So is this just a silly gag? Irony is insufficient for pushing formal structure somewhere permanently interesting or serious — to draw a connection to post-structuralism’s earliest moments, the point of play in Jacques Derrida’s pivotal “Signs, Structure, and Play” was always to push the structure in a direction worthy of his term presence.13 We need a thematic passage to link the fireworks to the kindling. Despite the apparent focus on juxtaposing humor and violence, what holds “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” together and makes the story evoke more complex emotions are the carefully placed moments of calm. Often, Tower evokes the thematic overtones via character thought. In discussing with Gnut the merits of yet another pillaging trip abroad, Harald reflects: “I wished Gnut would go ahead and own up to the fact that his life out here was making him lonely and miserable instead of laying on with this warrior-man routine.” Of course, he won’t say this out loud. Rather, he asks his friend when he’d become such a “gung-ho motherfucker.”
With the “seriousness” of play in mind, I particularly appreciate the few sweetly textured moments when an entirely different kind of innocence takes hold of the warriors, such as when Harald reflects: “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself.” Moments like these do not feel gimmicky, but poignant and essential:
But when we came into the bright little bay, a quiet fell over all of us. Even the hockchoppers quit grab-assing and looked. The place was wild with fields of purple thistle, and when the wind blew, it twitched and rolled, like the hide of some fantastic animal shrugging in its sleep.
There’s nothing funny about Harald’s reflection upon seeing the island they are about to ravage. He describes the wonder everyone feels for Lindisfarne, speaking as if for us all as we consider how we approach life: “It was a lovely place, and I hoped there would be something left to enjoy after we got off the ship and wrecked it up.”14
Bernheimer identifies psychological flatness of character as one of the four main formal qualities of the fairy tale. As we see in Tower’s piece, even that structural constant can be revised.
V. And Some Can’t Escape: The Recursive Loop of Goldilocks’ Demise
Robert Coover has shown a fascination with fairy tales since his 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants, in which his “The Gingerbread House” retells the Hansel and Gretel story. In 2013 he published a stunning revision of the Goldilocks story. In fact, his “Goldilocks Variations” is almost a meta-revision, because its thirty-two sections — an aria, thirty variations, and the aria da capo — treat not only a variety of revisions to the Goldilocks story, but also the act of revising the story itself. To make the enterprise even more mind-boggling, Coover threads the meta-narrative into the story from the characters’ perspective, through character thought rather than through a more authorial post-modern device. In short, Coover’s piece epitomizes the telos Calvino alludes to in his essay noted above: “a playful attitude, a combinatorial game that may at a certain stage take on preconscious content and finally give it voice.” The main problematic of this essay is the question of how pastiche effectively pushes the revisionist politic without falling over the edge into absurdism. Coover succeeds, much in part because his revision borrows from preconscious content like the “Rule of Three.” He plays with the tale’s structure explicitly, and does so not irreverently but rather to help demystify the first source and make original or “give voice” to the unoriginal.
First, Coover creates an aria, which in traditional opera form is a melodic self-contained part of a larger work. Coover’s aria is the classic Goldilocks plot condensed to a few sentences. He immediately introduces the rules of the revisionist game he is playing: “G enters the unoccupied cottage. Porridge, chairs, beds. Too hot, too cold, too high, too wide, too hard, too soft. Just right. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. An intruder!” His experiment does not change anything about the story’s characters or initial plot;15 rather, at least at the outset, Coover’s focus is on eliminating any superfluous words, retaining only the key imagery and Proppian functions. To take Propp to a meta-level, Coover has Goldilocks fulfill her function of fulfilling her function.
The three bears are B1, B2, and B3, chess pieces that initially seem to serve only in delaying the eventual escape or eating of G by playing games. Over the course of the variations we begin to realize that the bears are in fact thoughtful creatures aware of their own place in the story, of their character-ness, and somewhat fed up with the eternity of blonde-curled girls sneaking into their house:
They have heard the stories about girls with golden hair, about their divine resplendence, their demonic powers. These stories and their embodiments haunt their lives. B2 is particularly afflicted by such creatures and wants to see this one impaled on the church steeple like the thieving old crones of the past. Bygone tales also haunt B3, who wishes to be free of them, by whatever means, once and for all. B1, more comfortable with tradition, prefers to welcome the intruder into the family circle, each member free to use her in turn as they please, he leading, they following. He plucks her out from under the coverlet, lifts her high. She is still wearing her clothes, but he removes them with a swipe of his paw to make her more like one of the family and then dances a cheerful little jig with her. She is making a noise that might be laughing, or else screaming, one can’t be sure.
Coover repeatedly brings up the “Rule of Three” as part of the ideation of this eternal cycle that is the famous fable:
The intruder is passed from hand to hand, sometimes pinched, sometimes caressed, sometimes tossed or swung by her ankles, each gesture repeated three times (the rule), B1 leading, the others following. She is making an undefinable squealing sound — of joy perhaps, or terror — that adds to their pleasure. Even B3 agrees this is better than eating her, though that option is still on the table, so to speak. We should fatten her up first, B2 says. Fatten her up, fatten her up, the others say. She is such a thin hairless little thing, there is scarcely a bite each. Scarcely a bite, scarcely a bite. Hairless, yes, except for her golden strands which weave beautiful patterns in the air as she is flung about, patterns that express the family’s delight in having an intruder to play with. And there are many more games they can play. B3 will not be allowed to spoil their fun with too hasty a finale.
The aria establishes a theme (in classical music, this would be the traditional term for what he does here) to be developed over the course of the piece via the thirty variations. Each variation repeats elements of its precursors, but builds on them to further the theme and new plot. The result is an elaborated plot, raunchy sexual undertones, and some beautifully poetic moments of character thought: “Someone has been tasting my porridge! … tasting my porridge! … my porridge! B3 knows he is the unlucky one, his porridge will be eaten, his chair broken, his bed invaded, but though the grip of the past on the present is fierce, variations can happen. It would earn him a fearful cuffing, but new endings can be imagined, old rhythms broken.” Coover’s story is both a humorous revision of a classic fairy tale and a reflection on the mytho-poetic tradition in general.
Poor Goldilocks — it does not appear things turn out well for her: “A window is open. The oven is lit. The intruder may flee or be their dinner. Or perhaps (three) they will simply, fighting over her, tear her apart. Way of the wild.” This is followed by the contrapuntal “quodlibet” in the thirtieth variation, wherein Coover “ties in”16 many of his key images that have been patterned through the story:
After dinner, the B family takes nostalgic delight in singing some of the old songs — sad songs, inspiring songs, indecently comic ones — about life’s ecstasies and time’s betrayals, about unavoidable endings, unchanging change, and the tender agitation of desire, about skinning vixens for their fur and impaling old crones on church steeples and about shearing towheaded sprites of their golden locks.
Finally, the story ends where it began: “G enters the unoccupied cottage. Porridge, chairs, beds. Too hot, cold, high, wide, hard, soft. Just right. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. An intruder. But where is she now?”
Where — and when — indeed. Everywhere, possibly — and forever. The jazzy riffing of Coover’s romp is pastiche at its best: borrowing a story (or, in jazz terms, a theme), tinkering with the structure without ignoring it, playing it out to see where it will go. As the spectators used to yell in the dark jazz dives of American cities, one is compelled to urge the soloist on and cheer, “Go, go, go!” The revisionist fabulist spends years studying both the underlying structures and the spirit of the tale before jumping on stage to transform such sacred notes.
VI. The Necessity of the Modern Fairy Tale: Kate Bernheimer’s Torch-bearing
Not all of today’s revisionist fiction spins into such metafictional dances as Coover’s.17 As we see with the Tower example, the ancient and sacred worlds of fabulism can serve to explore a mundane experience typical of the Western realist tradition: one’s mid-life dissatisfaction with a career.
Too often, though, fairy tales are seen as female and infantile. As I keep arguing in this essay, revisionist fiction and pastiche are a literary form begging for more satire. Bernheimer plays with this in her most recent collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales.
In her form essay, Bernheimer explained how easily the fairy tale normalizes the supernatural aspects of a world. This is also true on a meta-level. The nine stories in this short collection are interspersed with an elusive address to someone — the reader, or perhaps someone close to Bernheimer. (Indeed, one could imagine this is Bernheimer weaning her daughter from fairy tales, though only because her life is a fairy tale. And, in this, the intimacy of the book seems to reiterate the immediacy of the form — disbelief is beyond suspended; for anyone who bothers to open the book, disbelief is terminated.) These short, fable-like missives are interstitially threaded through the collection without any seeming moral or meaning attached to them — but they play with the recurring refrain, “I’m yours.”
This collection, inspired as always by older tales, plays with a very restrained palette of images and themes: death, the color pink, the woods, and the fairy tale itself. The title story playfully revises a Russian tale, “How a Man Weaned His Wife from Fairy Tales.” A girl owns two story-telling dolls; one day, her mother offers shelter to a witch in exchange for good fairy tales. The witch fails, then steals the dolls when they mock her (they’re not very nice dolls). The daughter tells her mother: “It was worse for her really. She didn’t know how to tell a good story.”
The mother-child dynamic plays the key role in many of the tales. My favorite is “Babes in the Woods,” about a stepmother who seeks to ditch her kids in the woods. Eventually, she fails in this venture — and rather than be demonized for her evil desire, she gets away with it. She changes her mind and takes care of her stepchildren: “By the light of a lamp in the shape of the earth, the mother read the same book every morning and night. It had no fairy stories inside it, but it did offer a path, and she never strayed from it again. And though she still wished to poison herself, only when she herself dies will that wish go away. And to this very day she is still living, you see. She lives for her daughters. That’s the beauty of things.”
As usual, none of the characters’ motivations are explicitly treated. Character transformation in fairy tales is rare — usually, the only transformation in a character occurs when, so often, the once-alive hero dies. In her form essay, Bernheimer argues that this does not cheat the reader of a character’s depth: “In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader.” This is in stark contrast to the myth tradition Campbell and others analyzed, where we note the hero must transform psychologically to return home with the knowledge or elixir his people need. Possibly, the fable and the myth are different beasts. But they are twin siblings, then. I think my arguments about revisionist fiction can treat both fairy tales, fables, and myths. (They can also treat D.H. Lawrence’s short story “The Rocking-Horse Winner” for that matter, if we’re keeping score.)
Bernheimer plays with this idea when she quotes Walter Benjamin in the epigraph to this latest collection: “The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.”
To fully emphasize the universal potential of pastiche and revisionist storytelling, it is important to remember that the techniques examined here as applied to fairy tales nonetheless appear in all manners of literature. Coover but also Jean Anouilh,18 Andre Breton, and T.S. Eliot are trying to interact with and critique the timeless reality of their ancient traditions. Jorge Luis Borges, for example, might never have written a traditional story, yet, like the writer of pastiche, he is all about tradition (he is a curator, a librarian, a poet).19 His experimental stories reference everything from Averroes to Zeno.20 Unfortunately, like so many otherwise great writers, he too reduces his female characters to rather typical roles, and shows little consideration for the matter.
It’s true, experimental fiction can lack seriousness or can be politically tame. The real problem (besides the ingrained injustice in our social structures) isn’t the structure of stories; it’s intent. Writers can be afraid. In his Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton (one of play’s greatest champions) upbraids authors’ “flashes of wit and other niceties” which, rather than emit honest thought, obfuscate and diminish any potential revelation. In other words, the cowardice of the realist novelist restrains him or her. The overabundance of misused irony is a modern symptom of this classic problem — undermining one’s own work with uncommitted “hedges” out of fear of sentimentality. What I mean is that too much irony is used negatively rather than to explore themes and new meanings. Breton seems to bemoan an ironic wit that would come off as insincere in hopes of pleasing a crowd.
But it’s tempting to lose oneself in play. Postmodernism asserts that fiction itself is a spurious notion in that real life can be considered itself no less a fiction than literary writing. With the 20th and 21st centuries’ proliferation of advertising and social network narratives, it seems appropriate to remember that revisionist fiction of the sort I mention here does not exist in a vacuum. It does not sit on a high(-brow), hard-to-reach shelf. Really, postmodernism doesn’t move away from tradition but merely extends the revisionist project of ancient Greek bards, Zunis, and Angela Carter into today’s techno-information realm. Postmodernism’s additional touches can well serve those who would seek to revise the traditional forms for political or other reasons: breaking linearity, embracing digression, reexamining the physical aspects of the medium (i.e.: the way the words are placed on the page/screen), using characters less as well-made puppets and more as self-conscious agents, embracing the irrational, and accepting the notion that the author is a social critic. It is all the more important in contemporary literature for writers not to forget to look back at the tradition, at the stories and narrative structures that came before.
To conclude. Slandered as reducible, gimmicky, and sometimes even as reductive, experimental fiction is in fact infinite as it is rooted in ancient storytelling forms; it includes simple role-reversals, anachronistic adaptation, the pushing to extremes of a particular plot form, the pushing to extremes of language, and even a paradigm shift in how we perceive the nature of reality. It includes Don Quixote, pastiche, and any work that expresses a curiosity about its origins (or lack thereof) — its tradition. Studying the forms of our cultural traditions contributes to the vast potential of revisionist art. “That sense of the presence of the past in pastiche is not just something cerebrally observed but felt,” writes Dyer in his survey of pastiche. “It is part of the knowledge we can have of our place in history. We make our own feelings but not in affective circumstances of our own choosing; pastiche can help us understand those circumstances through feeling them.” If experimental fiction wants to be “taken seriously” and be politically effective, this point by Dyer is very important. Demystifying the origins of a piece of art should not threaten us.21 On the contrary, it is important for the reader and the artist to develop an understanding of the tradition within which an artist is operating. Only then does experimental fiction really succeed at social satire; only then can revision become subversion.
Pastiche is more necessary than ever. Whether by playing with the form, twisting traditional characters, or by altering the world the fable inhabits, we can bathe in the comforting familiarity of sacred narratives while, through parody, scrutinizing and critiquing the problematic structures of our own inherited world.
- While it is a debate of critical theory whether a story is “retold” every time it is read, looking to ancient texts (the Trojan epic cycle, the Old Testament, etc.) it seems plainly evident that stories are living, breathing things that evolve over time, if not through intentional revision than because of the imperfections of human memory. The bards did their best to memorize their poems, but room was left for improvisation (in the details, in description) partly because of the difficulty of retaining 16,000 lines verbatim.↵
- In his study of the oral poetry tradition of the Zuni, Dennis Tedlock argues that narrative folklore, when passed down through generations, inherently contains not only the repetition and performance of a set (non-textual) script, but also the criticism and improvements that he calls “interpretation.” It might be frustrating for any overly reductive structuralists, but Tedlock finds that the structures at the heart of a given story such as chimiky’ana’kowa is the room for variation, even improvisation. I draw an analogy to the apprenticeship and mastery of the musical form of jazz, which requires both great attention to inherited scales and theory, but also a critical view toward improvement and innovation.↵
- To oversimplify: the former seeks to portray these universal characters’ conflicts in universal external, material contexts (class struggle, etc.) while the latter similarly generalizes the characters’ conflicts as the product of universal internal, psychological impulses.↵
- See her influential essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” for a primer. In fact, read it now. Bernheimer, who founded Fairy Tale Review in 2005, has become the torch-bearer for Carter’s cause, especially since she published this essay, a piece that both offers analytical insights and sounds the clarion call for a better understanding of modern fairytelling.↵
- Campbell basically ignores Weber, Durkheim, and sociology in general. He is more interested in psychology, pseudo-psychology, mysticism. For a particularly enjoyable take-down, see Robert Ellwood. I also recommend the work of Maureen Murdock, who formulated the “Heroine’s Journey.” Even that particular piece, though, seems too reactive against male power.↵
- A few examples: “1. One of the members of a family absents himself from home (abstention). 8. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family (villainy). 11. The hero leaves home (departure). 15. The hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search (spatial transference between two kingdoms, guidance). 18. The villain is defeated (victory). 27. The hero is recognized (recognition).”↵
- An example of one entry, which Tatar identifies as Beauty and the Beast: “The Search for the Lost Husband I. The monster as husband; II. Disenchantment of the monster; III. Loss of the husband; IV. Search for the husband; V. Recovery of the husband.” Husbands galore!↵
- Kind of a classic functionalism vs. structuralism debate, though Propp is identifying what we call “narrative structure.”↵
- For what it's worth, I don't see Disney as intrinsically included in or excluded from the banner of revisionist fiction. Some Disney (and Pixar, DreamWorks, etc.) films are fluff, some push boundaries and play with character and form.↵
- Julia Kristeva’s formulation of the abject: “On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its socio-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so — double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.”↵
- As I am fond of reminding my high school students, love/sex and death are what all great literature is about. What else is there?↵
- I think Bernheimer would approve of my analysis. She writes in the previously mentioned essay: “Fairy tales tell; they do not often show. […] The images in a fairy tale are very isolated, very specific. So precise. So deceptively simple.”↵
- Derrida discusses the terms “play” and “presence” at length as part of his identification of the “rupture” of the structuralist episteme: “From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions, the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens] — that is, a history, period — whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence. This is why one could perhaps say that the movement of any archeology, like that of any eschatology, is an accomplice of this reduction of the structurality of structure and always attempts to conceive of structure from the basis of a full presence which is out of play.” I find his terms metaphorically useful.↵
- Italo Calvino arrives at a similar conclusion regarding tone in his essay on myth in storytelling — which, incidentally, argues controversially that fable-making precedes myth-making (the idea in a nutshell being that enduring myths are chanced upon when fable-making goes particularly well). He writes: “Literature achieves this [transmits full consciousness of the established order of things and tries to subvert it] when it can at last afford to indulge in a playful attitude, a combinatorial game that may at a certain stage take on preconscious content and finally give it voice” (see Federman).↵
- Ultimately Coover does vary the plot, by greatly extending the period between Goldilocks’ capture and her attempts to flee. In between she is turned into a marionette (puppets, again!) and sexually used by B1, who finds this all peaceful and tedious in his Zeus-like way. Poor Goldilocks.↵
- Douglas Glover’s term for an author’s adjoining of key image patterns accumulated in a given text.↵
- Though, to a certain extent, all fairy tales are “meta.” As Bernheimer notes, again in the same essay: “The tales live inside of me, it seems, and this feels lovely. Fairy tales are the skeletons of story, perhaps. Reading them often provides an uneasy sensation — a gnawing familiarity — that comforting yet supernatural awareness of living inside a story.”↵
- Anouilh’s retelling of Sophocles’ play was immediately censored by the Nazis upon its 1943 release, as the story was told as a parable of Resistance criticizing the Vichy government.↵
- In his “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges evinces Andre Breton’s self-awareness, though he also elevates it to a reflection on authority, commentary, fame: “I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition.”↵
- Similar to Dyer’s explanations of pastiche, in “Kafka and his Precursors” Borges writes: “Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”↵
- Dyer goes so far as to say: “The most valuable point of pastiche resides in its ability to move us even while allowing us to be conscious of where the means of our being moved come from, its historicity.”↵
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