It all began very badly.
That actually wouldn’t be a bad beginning, though, for what’s apparently known as the antimärchen, or anti-fairytale. Put simply, it’s an inversion of everything the fairytale should be. The wicked stepmother lives happily ever after. Cinderella has to dance in red-hot iron shoes. It’s the shadow—or, more suggestively, the reflection—of the fairytale.
The Fairytale Cupboard recently brought this odd subgenre to my attention. Apparently there’s a small but growing interest in anti-fairytales, both artistically and academically. In a way, this fits with the academy’s continuing interest in subversion and reevaluation in literary studies.
In another way, it felt like meeting an old friend in a hospital waiting room.
There’s a bit of antimärchen floating around here at Paradoxes. Particularly the incessant chronicles of a certain novelist. The anti-fairytale can be endearing—we often ridicule things we love. Cheesecake, for instance. Or philosophy. It can also be critical, a reprimand couched in a chuckle.
I can’t claim to have studied the antimärchen intensely. I can, I think, claim to have written a few of them, and read a few more. Anyone unfamiliar with Thurber’s Fables for Our Time should rush out and become familiar with them. And that quickly.
Based on my preliminary analysis (read: whatever I pull off the top of my head just now) there are two predominant types of anti-fairytale. The one is whimsical, absurdist. The other is dark, gothic.
The absurd antimärchen approaches the fairytale as inherently malleable. It distorts the contours of story and happenstance into hilarity. It substitutes chaos for order, and preys on unsuspecting solemnity, rushing in with wild nonsense without apparent purpose. Masters of this form include Maestro Douglas Adams, and Thurber.
The dark antimärchen eradicates the happy ending. Things begin badly and continue badly. These are generally depressing stories. The idea behind this is to either bring fairytales into a dialogue with human suffering, or to insist that fairytales have no place in dialoguing about human suffering. Allegedly, fine specimens of these lurk in the writings of Kafka and Gaiman.
Fairytales, at their heart, are the art recapturing wonder. We venture into the perilous realm in hopes of returning to a changed world. Perhaps not irrevocably, as Rip van Winkle and others who spend nights beyond the walls of the world. But if we linger at least for a few moments, a subtle sweetness lingers in the air when we return. It’s the quest of Smith of Wooten Major.
Antimärchen of both kinds see the limitations and the potential of fairytales. It sees the fairytale is limited in scope. According to the antimärchen, it cannot and does not account for the full gamut of human experience.
So it must be disfigured. Or it must be dressed in funny-nose glasses. It must be subverted to reveal the lack. This change either rebukes it as an inadequate form, or it respects it as capable of sustaining more pressure.
There’s a freedom inherent in antimärchen. It’s the freedom of the waiting room—an inability to hide. In the antimärchen, we have to admit our inadequacy. We don’t have all the answers. We can’t find our way through the Perilous Realm, however we try. Something more is needed.
But it can also be hope. Or, if not quite hope, the absence of despair. The thought that, perhaps, this is not the answer, implies there may be one. That there is an illness may give hope of a remedy.
Antimärchen, after all, don’t have to end badly.
So now it’s your turn. Where and when have you met the antimärchen? Are there any you recommend? Any you detest? And, above all, why?
If you disagree with my analysis, or think it’s insufficient on whatever front, please take a moment to have your say below.