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Illustration by Sophie Fatus from The Story Tree by Hugh Lupton. Used with permission.

“I think I figured it out,” said Sagacia the next morning, after her second cup of coffee.

“Figured what out?” Simplia asked.

“Your question about nursery tales and fairy tales,” Sagacia replied. “Just using the common definition of fairy tales, we can see that some stories for the very young which are often called ‘Fairy Tales’ are not fairy tales at all. They might more appropriately be called ‘nursery tales.’”

“You mean the common definition that fairy tales are stories with magic or enchantment in them?” Simplia asked.

“Exactly!” Sagacia affirmed. “Some stories, like ‘The Three Little Pigs’ have no magic in them at all, though they are often found in books called ‘Fairy Tales.'”

“The pigs and wolf talk,” said Simplia. “Isn’t that magic?”

“In a way, but animals talk in all kinds of children’s stories: trickster tales, pourquoi tales, fables… The animals can talk at the beginning of the story, and they can still talk at the end, so the magic didn’t happen in the story. In a fairy tale, the magic happens somewhere in the middle, and it affects the outcome of the story.”

Simplia turned and ran upstairs then back down with a library book, Hugh Lupton’s The Story Tree.

“A storyteller like him ought to know,” she panted. “This book is filled with stories for the youngest of listeners; you know: kids in the nursery. So they’re nursery tales, right?”

“But what kind of stories are they?” asked Sagacia? “Fairy tales, or what?”

“I’m not sure parents really care about categories,” Simplia said. “They want stories their children will sit still for and ask for again.”

“But, just for the sake of argument, let’s look,” Sagacia insisted, and the two friends spread the book open between them.”

Simplia began with the table of contents: “‘The Magic Porridge Pot’” she pronounced. “There must be magic in that story!”

They turned the page and saw Sophia Fatus’s delightful images of the pot that wouldn’t stop cooking unless you said the magic words exactly.

“Like Strega Nona,” Sagacia said. “You are right; that story is all about the magic. By the common definition, it is definitely a fairy tale.”

Simplia turned some more pages. “See, this story of the monkeys copying the hat peddler is just monkey’s doing whatever they see. No magic there!”

“But the African American tale ‘The Sweetest Song’ is like ‘The Gunniwolf,’” Sagacia said, turning the page again. “She charms the wolf with her singing. Would you call that enchantment? I would! And it’s what brings about the resolution of the story, so that makes it a fairy tale.”

“True,” said Simplia. “But the next story, ‘Little Lord Feather-Frock,’ is pure talking animal. Two animals saving a short-sighted friend from a fox.”

“Hmmm…, so it is,” Sagacia reflected. “And it has that classic element of the ignored admonition: ‘Don’t do this,’ and he does it anyway, like Ivan taking the firebird’s cage when he was specifically told not to. This time, it’s the more powerful friends who save the day.”

“Yeah,” said Simplia. “Sometimes you need magic to get you out of that kind of situation, but in this case, you just need to outsize the villain.”

“Same in this next story, too, ‘The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff.’”

“Right, and after that is ‘The Little Red Hen,’” Sagacia said, turning more pages. “No magic, just a smarty pants chicken trying to boss other people around.”

“And showing how everyone in society must do their part!” Simplia stated in defense of the goal-oriented fowl.

“Maybe,” said Sagacia. “And here’s the tailor’s coat story, the one where he keeps making something smaller and smaller out of the parts that are still good. No magic, though, just a little boy, in this case, whose mother sews ‘The Blue Coat.’”

“That’s a story which I’ve heard told to all ages,” said Sagacia. “It may be a little abstract for the nursery set in the end, but the process of creating something new from old is certainly told in an engaging way for them, with rhythm and repetition.”

The Simpletons flipped back through the book and enjoyed the lively visual flow of the stories once again.

“Know what I think?” Sagacia said suddenly. “I think ‘nursery tales’ are just that; tales to read in the nursery. Some might be simple fairy tales or have fairy tale motifs or elements such as the broken admonition even if they don’t arrive at the complete ‘Morphology of the Folk-tale’ definition Vladimir Propp laid out to define full-blown skazki, those Russian stories that you might call the ultimate in Fairy Tales.”

“Through and through Fairy Tales!” Simplia echoed.

“No-doubt-about-it Fairy Tales!” Sagacia affirmed.

“So why did Propp call them ‘Folk-tales’?” Simplia asked.

“Oh, please!” Sagacia rolled her eyes. “Let’s not get into translation! Just take my word for it; he was talking about Fairy Tales.”

“Know what I think?” Simplia asked. “I think ‘nursery tales’ is more like a rating than a category; it’s like PG or NC-17 in movies. Nursery Tales might include any category of story so long as they engage a young child’s mind and heart.”

“Like ‘Goldilocks, and the Three Bears…’” Sagacia began.

“Or ‘The Shoemaker and the Elves…’” Simplia continued.

“Or ‘The Gingerbread Man…’”

“Or ‘The Turnip.’”

Or, dear reader, what do you think? What Nursery Tales do you tell? Are any of them fairy tales?

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