A conversation with Daniel Gabelman
Editor’s Note: Every now and then you discover a truly unique thinker, with the audacity and clarity to overturn the status quo—someone whose writings have a way of bending and inverting how you look at the world. Well, in the world of fairy tale studies, Daniel Gabelman is one such thinker, an emerging critic who’s distinguishing himself with his work on George MacDonald. In the opinion of this blog, Dr Gabelman has the potential to reinvent and reframe the way we think and talk about the aesthetics of fairy tales.
Dr Gabelman grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, but now lives in the English countryside just a short walk from where the Battle of Hastings took place. He studied in Virginia and Chicago before completing a doctorate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Currently, he teaches English literature at Eastbourne College. His new book, George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity (Baylor, $49.95), is just published today, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him and discuss George MacDonald, wundermarchen, and the curious, essential lightness of fairy tales.
UW: There are dozens if not hundreds of literary fairy tales—new and edgy and exciting and strange. So, out of all the authors and topics you had to choose from, why George MacDonald?
DG: I think I was most attracted by the precarious balance that MacDonald strikes in his fairy tales between surface and depth, or levity and gravity as I tend to call it. Fairy tales do strange things to writers (Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, for instance, are uncharacteristically sentimental and serious while Thackeray’s are almost wholly satirical), but I feel that they bring out the best in George MacDonald. Being steeped in German Romanticism, he understood fairy tales better than most of his Victorian contemporaries and thus was able to realize the potential of the genre without over-satirizing or over-sentimentalizing it. In other words, I think that MacDonald is one of the great mediators of the genre who bridged the gap between folktales and contemporary literary fairy tales. This fascinated me, as did the relationship between lighthearted play and earnest theological/philosophical questing.
So, what about MacDonald do you look at in the book?
I focus primarily on MacDonald’s shorter fairy tales: how he constructed them, why they were so important to him, and how he seemed to use them as vehicles for the exploration of universal reality. In the process, I also look at how he compared to Victorian contemporaries such as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, and argue that MacDonald was one of the few people to see the true value of lightness in an age of overwhelming seriousness. Many contemporary readers think of MacDonald as primarily steeped in the same heavy seriousness, but I try and show him in the liberating light of levity.
This is one of the interesting points about your work, actually—this emphasis on lightness and levity. Can you explain what that is, and why it’s important for fairy tales?
Lightness as I discuss it has a lot to do with non-rational modes of expression, such as play, folly, ecstasy, the grotesque, the ridiculous and so forth. Seriousness today is usually associated with things that are straightforward and/or single-minded, such as the news, politics and science. Here the normal way of speaking is to lay out information in a one-to-one fashion with the intention of directly communicating some specific, definite content—the prime minister flew to Russia this morning. For various reasons—but especially because of the Enlightenment over-emphasis on rationality and reason—this manner of speaking tends to be viewed as superior to any mode which allows for greater freedom or indeterminacy (such as jokes, riddles, puns and so forth), and as a result ‘serious’ has become associated with long faces and solemnity. I argue that levity doesn’t have to be viewed this way, that there are times and places when being ambiguous, suggestive, witty or otherwise might be the ‘superior’ or ‘serious’ way of saying something.
This is, of course, important for fairy tales in many ways. If it is true that rational discourse is always superior to non-rational discourse, then why would any intelligent, mature person read or write them? This is at the root of the old argument that fairy tales are just for children, I think. But once we get beyond that most obvious level, lightness is also vital to the composition and functioning of fairy tales. To give a single instance, fairy tales are generally short, terse and somewhat elliptical—they lighten themselves of all excess weight of words or emotion. So unlike a Henry James novel that dwells for twenty pages on how a single gesture makes a character feel, fairy tales skip over life-altering events with a sentence or phrase. This is not bad writing, but an intentional technique that allows for greater speed in the narrative and greater indeterminacy in the interpretation. This is only one way that fairy tales show their love of lightness, but as I argue in the book levity is one of the key aesthetic principles of fairy tales—it shapes and informs most of what they do.
It’s interesting that you tie ‘the Enlightenment over-emphasis on rationality’ aesthetically with ‘a Henry James novel’, because the novel as we know it is of course an Enlightenment phenomenon. But that raises another, interesting question, having to do with the technological advances in printing and distribution in from the 17th century onward that helped make a long-form narrative commercially viable, even as the Zeitgeist was becoming more introspective. How much of that brevity you describe as a central aesthetic of the fairy tale is simply the constraints of oral narrative, and oral storytelling? And is that lost in the context of a fairy tale novel, like MacDonald’s Lilith (1895)?
Oral narrative is more restrained than a Victorian novel, but it by no means necessitates brevity or other forms of lightness. The Iliad and the Odyssey were oral narratives—and actually they represent only two fragments of a much larger oral narrative—but they have very little interest in brevity or levity. The Illiad describes a period of ten days and dwells in great depth and length on characters’ emotions (‘rage’ is the first word of the poem and the theme that is heavily focused upon throughout). Speculating on the origins of folktales is not my forte (and I find the subject mostly dubious), but I don’t think it was just a case of ‘well, we are poor workers with only twenty minutes before we should be in bed, so tell us a tale that will quickly help us forget our problems.’ I think that most forms developed to meet particular psychological needs.
Strictly speaking, therefore, I wouldn’t classify Lilith as a ‘fairy tale novel’. It is very much in the same vein as Phantastes (1858), which MacDonald called ‘A Faerie Romance’. I think MacDonald read enough literature to know what he was talking about, and indeed when we look at both of these works, they share more genre characteristics with Malory and Spenser than they do with George Eliot or Hans Christian Anderson. The presence of the supernatural does not automatically make something a fairy tale, nor does introspection automatically make it a novel. Genre is much more nuanced than that.
So, I suppose, to answer your question directly, the ‘loss’ that occurs is the same as that between any two genres. Hamlet incorporates a ghost story and might have made a very good pure ghost story, but Shakespeare wrote it as a tragedy. From my perspective, I am not trying to say that the fairy tale is a better genre than the romance, just that the romance (or the novel or what have you) is not necessarily better or more important than the fairy tale simply because it has a greater tendency towards heaviness and weighty introspection.
What particular psychological need do you see the fairy tale as meeting?
Why, the need for levity, of course.
But beyond this brief, lighthearted answer (which is nonetheless the best way I can describe it), let me point to the old German word for fairy tales—wundermarchen. I am not a psychologist, but I think there are all sorts of emotions and desires caught up with the experience and need for wonder. MacDonald seemed to lay emphasis on the fairy tale’s ability to awake and nourish hope, among other things. He compares hope to twilight (his favourite fairytale time) saying that when the brightness of the day dims and bathes the world in fantastic pinks and reds, we not only see everything from a new and thrilling perspective, but we also are able to see things that are far away—like the mountains or the island in the middle of the sea or the shyly pulsating stars. And seeing these things might just awake our longing to go there, or see our own immediate situation from a different perspective, or give us a purpose that extends beyond just meeting our daily needs.
Is levity exclusively the property of fairy tales? Or can’t it be found in the natural, dare I say rational, world as well?
By no means is it the sole property of fairy tales—I just think that fairytales epitomize lightness better than most literary genres (among the performing arts ballet seems similarly to epitomize lightness, and hence, not surprisingly, ballet also loves fairy tales).
Whether or not it can be found either in the ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ world depends somewhat on the definition of those words and largely on the perspective of the individual. The Romantics readily found a kind of lightness in nature (consider Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem or ‘My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold’), but a hard scientist might say that such sensations were merely anthropomorphisms caused by chemical reactions in the brain. Such a ‘rational’ perspective excludes most levity, I think. But if by ‘rational’ we mean that which is logical and which follows a particular pattern of reasoning, then, I would say, levity can be found everywhere. Often this occurs when two different ‘rationalities’ clash—so when a rich man who is decked out in a three piece suit trips and falls, the humor happens when the expectation created by our understanding of the social world (the dignity and importance of wealth) is suddenly shattered by the visual reminder that all things fall.
What is it about levity in MacDonald that interests you specifically?
I was initially interested by how MacDonald’s levity made him sound very similar to post-modern thinkers at times. When discussing his fairy tales in ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ he talks about how people who are ‘true’ will ‘imagine true things’ in his fairy tales whether or not he put them there. This lack of concern for authorial intention (among other things like the play of language and communities of interpretation) aligns him very oddly with writers like Jacques Derrida and Hans Gadamer. MacDonald’s levity in this way seems to anticipate postmodernity even as it draws upon pre-modern models (like fairy tales and romances). But in addition to this, MacDonald was a great practitioner of levity, not just a theorist, and I was fascinated by how his levity seemed to influence people like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis profoundly. Indeed, both these writers suggest that MacDonald’s levity was much more transformative in their lives than his gravity.
As writers and storytellers—mythic artists, if you will—how can our work incorporate, or be affected by—this idea of levity? How can we move it out of theory and into practice, in other words?
Take up your pen and fly.
Being only a dabbler in storytelling, it is hard for me to give advice. I think, perhaps, it has a lot to do with your frame of mind while you are writing and what you are trying to do/say in your stories. Try not to take yourself too seriously. Everyone has a tendency toward pride and thinking what they have to say is desperately important, but I think if you write in this psychic state you are likely to overburden your stories with too much weighty angst.
Think about your audience. Some of the best stories that incorporate levity were originally crafted with the intention of pleasing very particular people, often children (Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh). One of the reasons MacDonald claimed to write ‘for the childlike’, I think, is because children are more willing to engage dialogically and spontaneously with stories. Maybe try writing a story for a cousin, niece, godson or other child. In addition to forcing you to think outside of yourself, it will also make you think carefully about each word and sentence and give you an impetus for brevity.
Enjoy yourself. Enjoy language and characters and symbols and settings and ideas, and don’t fret so much about whatever it is that you fret about.
Dr Gabelman was interviewed by John Patrick Pazdziora.