anti-tales: a beginning

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.


10 thoughts on “anti-tales: a beginning

  1. Some Funny Ones:

    Scieskza: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales; The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, etc. (Modern children’s lit has still got it.)

    Milne: Once On A Time (more of an affectionate send-up, but still)

    A. J. Jacobs: Fractured Fairy Tales (teleplays for Rocky & Bullwinkle. Some are on YouTube.)

    Garner: Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (truth is stranger)

    Disney: Enchanted

    Gaiman: The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds (uncharacteristically light for Gaiman)

    Henson: So, so much.

    Sondheim: Into the Woods (falls somewhere between your two categories I’d say. Funny but with a very dark turn.)

    Monty Python: Happy Valley “I hereby change every single person in this cathedral into chickens!”

  2. Huh. Haven’t run into that with Neil Gaiman, in the few books of his I’ve read. Dark and certainly fond of trope subversion, but the endings are at least partially happy. A Series of Unfortunate Events has a strong flavor in that direction, although it never leaves the reader with no hope whatsoever.

  3. Eric – leave it to you to come up with Fractured Fairytales (one of my favorite cartoons) and Into the Woods. You are so wonderful! Would Wicked qualify?

    Mr. Pond – thank you for writing about this – I really had no idea about antimaerchen before your post. Why am I not surprised the name of it is teutonic in origin.

  4. Not too surprising, Joivre, given the long and by now venerable tradition of critical study of marchen in German acadmemics. Apparently (and I had to look this up), Andre Jolles coined the term in Einfache Formen (c.1930). But, for the sake of honesty, I hadn’t encountered the term until the day I posted about it. Ah, hem, breaking news, or something like that…

    Yes, I think Wicked would certainly qualify as an anti-tale. Inverting the story, to tell the story of the villain, retelling a classic, not necessarily a happily-ever-after, etc. It may not be the finest example of the genre, but it definitely qualifies.

    And saying that got me wondering if Faust could possibly qualify, as well? And, actually, in certain lights T. H. White’s Once and Future King may well count, especially if we include The Book of Merlyn as it’s ending.

    Zed–I’m not well versed enough in Gaiman to know where to point you to find the anti-tale, so I’ll just reference you to Eric’s comment. And spot on with Snickett. I suspect the anti-tale is a genre you’d enjoy discovering…

  5. I’d count Wicked certainly, especially if we can count Wizard of Oz as a märchen. There’s definitely the requisite vein of postmodernism and muddying of morals.

    Faust, I’m not sure– though now you mention it, in some ways it does seem like a deconstruction or inversion of the Divine Comedy. (Protagonist wants to win the love of an ideal woman but turns to the Devil instead of God to learn about temptation and its consequences… hmmm…)

    Zed, the first Gaiman title that comes to mind is Snow, Glass, Apples— which I’ve not had a chance to read yet, but is reportedly a highly disturbing take on “Snow White.” There’s also several lighter ones in his anthology M is for Magic.

  6. That’s an interesting question–does Wizard of Oz count as a fairytale? It certainly could in some definitions, but if we’re using Tolkien’s, it becomes more complex. It seems almost to like Alice, with the device of the storm. And the Wizard himself is an anti-tale figure. In many ways, it’s about dismembering wonder. A coming of age story, perhaps, more than a fairytale?

  7. Pingback: anti-tales: a continuance « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

  8. Pingback: Anti-tales Panel at Myths & Fairy Tales | Catriona McAra

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