Friday, 25 July 2014

Gothic and Fairytale: The Roots of It All

As I think I've mentioned, I'm looking at applying for PhD this year (though it's slipped back a bit to take into account my other work, my tendency to fart arse about on the internet - yes I know, I need to vanquish that - and the fact that the black bug room's* doors have been flapping about like the entrance to a saloon in a cheap spaghetti western). In the meantime I've done some reading, though not enough to feel I can commit to the actual creation of anything official. This blog post sort of serves as a way to throw my ideas up and see if they stick, so please bear with me.

At the heart of my theory is the thought that fairy tale and the Gothic are intimately connected. In fact they are in many ways the same genre, sharing a great deal of their forms and conventions. They contain ideas like 'topsy turvey', to misquote the film based on Gilbert and Sullivan's works; that is to say that within the bounds of both fairy tale and the Gothic the real world is set aside in preference for story logic; things get turned on their heads and strangeness is allowed to run riot for the duration of the novel or story before everything is righted at the end. For fairy tale that usually means the protagonist gets married or that evil is defeated and the hero goes on their way back into the patriarchal world. In Gothic the same is true, the danger is defeated and the normal world resumes.

This perhaps does not seem so revolutionary, it is after all the foundation of so much fiction: things happen and the characters enter the world of the quest to pursue their goals and it is only after this is done that the 'real' world returns. This is the basis of the Hero's Journey and we see it everywhere from Norse Sagas and Greek myths to The Hobbit, Dracula and Star Wars. Whilst we must never confuse the tones and moods evoked by the Gothic with these other forms there is little denying that much popular storytelling derives from them.

We must however consider who was reading these forms as they were shaped at the end of the 18th Century. These were in the main young people in the newly cemented middle classes. Fairy tales were losing their universiality as they were transformed by the Brothers Grimm and others into stories designed to mold children into an idealised vision of model citizens. Sex and horror were slowly stripped out and the stories were reframed and politicised as improving texts. We can see this creep in different editions of Grimms' Fairy Tales; Zipes shows us in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion how in the space of two years, between 1810 and 1812, the Grimms' version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves the text describing the bargain Snow White strikes with the dwarves becomes much more prescriptive and controlling. It adds detail and clarity but also makes the role Snow occupies in the dwarves' lives much more restricted. In addition. the punishment for failing in her duty becomes far harsher, bringing the idea that work is a necessity not a choice and cementing the concept of 'woman's work'.

Gothic was aimed solidly at a newly formed set of readers, young middle-class women who had the leisure time to read for pleasure. As such it served as both a break from their lives and a reinforcement of them; something to draw them away from the chores they had been set, and to imagine some sort of agency, but which drew them back into the role reserved for them by patriarchy. Sensation fiction from the very beginning set out to provide a distraction but served as a way to educate the readers in a very conservative form of thought; one cloaked within a revolutionary facade.

Both genres share elements, even if many of these are largely superficial. Early Gothic frequently takes place in an imagined past, or connects to it via the shadows disturbed by the characters.  Similarly fairy tale takes place long ago and far away, which serves as a distancing tactic but also as a way of establishing a sense that the story's moral is universal.

In a similar fashion both rely upon stock characters, recycled characters that serve to be familiar enough to connect readers to the story almost automatically. These figures are frequently epitomes of gender essentialism and present normative ideals of what men and women, and boys and girls should be. In fairy tale these normative ideas are often held up against the 'animal bridegroom'. These figures reflect the idea that women are civilised and have a 'taming' influence on men. The depiction of many male figures in the Gothic males shares this idea. They are bestial and controlling, whilst never being in control of their appetites: Heathcliffe and Dracula are both cut from this cloth.

In contrast figures like Jonathan Harker resemble the fairy tale heroes the Grimms, and later Hans Christian Anderson, promoted. Harker is openly middle class, hard working, honest and faithful. In Dracula Dr Seward does not fall too far behind Harker in this order of respectability; acting in contrast to the more exotic natures of Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming). Notably neither of these latter figures are depicted as entirely trustworthy, Morris has too much of the wild man in him, whilst Holmwood is depicted as almost frivolous at the start of the book, only gaining gravitas after his father dies. We should not take too much notice of Dracula for the purposes of comparison with fairy tale however; it was written at a time when Gothic's touchstones were largely set and in many cases creeping into cliche and fairy tale was being transformed even further by Oscar Wilde and George Macdonald. Dracula was created far from the turbulence that engulfed the 1790s, when the genre was finding its feet and is a bearer of that tradition rather than a work that carves out new territory. Even the Count fits a pattern of predatory masculinity: one with its roots in Polidori's The Vampyre.

As the 1790s was also the period that the modern fairy tale was shaped in, this is where I wish to focus the majority of my research. It was a decade of great change in the real world and Gothic sits in the centre of it, decried as both a revolutionary force and one that does little to change anything, even at the time.

The animal bridegroom and the concept of the 'bad king' who must be shown the error of his ways appears in both genres too, often mingled together and in Gothic frequently conflated into one figure.  These are not the only archetypes to make appearances and I suspect it is not possible to tell if their presence across both forms is something deliberate Gothic simply appropriated them as part of its osmosis of sources. As Mary Shelley says in her foreword to Frankenstein, it is important to remember that the genre took things that already existed and repurposed them into a new form. Gothic's composite nature allows it draw on history, legend and story; delving into anachronistic forms. Initially it embraced medievalism, following the pattern set by Walpole's Castle of Otranto and the shadow of the medieval hangs over much of the genre in Britain and Germany. Later works would be firmly set in the then modern age (i.e. the 19th Century from 1830), but the medieval shadow remained, even in a diminished form.

 I have a few other areas where I'm still processing ideas, the importance of geography in both genres for instance and the way geography is used to convey fear. Then too there's the useof horror, though I feel I should tread carefully with that subject. Many fairy tales only started to have their horrific elements expunged in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods; early revisions often concerned the removal of sex from the stories. So whilst Rapunzel's hair was carefully relocated to her head, it was still acceptable for step children to be cooked in a pie.  This in itself may link back to the idea of the improving tale. Sex would only encourage immoral thoughts, whilst horror would be sure to keep children in line. Within the  Gothic of course many of the supernatural elements are proved to be bunk and where they are real they take a more morbid tone than those in fairy tale. Ghosts and vampires are the focus in the main, rather than wolves and witches. It is interesting to note however that both forms are interested in arming their protagonists against the evil and the strange in similar ways.

So at present, my thoughts are leading me to base this on structure, the implementation of borgeious morality and socialisation and the use of stock characters, particularly the animal bridegroom. Which feels pretty thin. I'm hoping further reading will throw up more touchstones between the two forms.  On the other hand, at least its a start. There's more reading to do, and more notes to take as I put things together. I think that Septemer may turn into a bit of a scramble to get this done but... I will hesitantly say that I think there's the germ of an idea here.


*To explain, the black bug room is the term I use for that bit of your head where you keep your self-loathing, hatred and the part of yourself that loves nothing more to pick apart your life, look at it and 'not much is it?'.