When I was in high school, we had something modern schools don’t seem to have called study hall. During study hall, you were free to do choose what to do. You could study, do homework, sometimes even talk quietly. Me? I chose study hall in the library, where I could wander through the stacks, reading titles and book blurbs, looking for the next thing to read.
Our school library was a place of magic. It had high dark shelves filled with books on all sorts of topics. I would wander among them, lost in daydreams, wishing that I had a magic power that would lead me right to a book I would enjoy reading. I read all sorts of books during study hall: historicals, romances, mysteries, the occasional fantasy, but my favorite books were the fairy tales.
High up on a shelf were a series of books, each of a single color: red, blue, pink, gray—Andrew Lang’s Red Book of Fairy tales, etc..
We did not have them all, and I don’t think I ever finished reading all that we did have, but I read a number of them cover to cover. I also discovered and read a wonderful book of Nordic fairy tales that included a number of stories of Cinder Peter* and what might be my favorite fairy tale of all, East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
* It was here that I learned that the familiar character Cinderella was really Cinder Ella—Ella who spends time in the cinders.
One thing I loved was reading fairy tales from around the world and seeing how much they had in common. For instance:
There is a Celtic tale of a man who came upon a beautiful woman bathing. Lying beside her was a cloak of brown fur. The woman was a selkie, a seal who had taken off her fur to enjoy the sun. The man grabbed the cloak and hid it. He took the woman home and made her his wife. She was a good wife and mother, but one day, while cleaning, she found her lost cloak, hidden in a box under some blankets. When the man came home, he found his children crying and his wife gone. She had fled, returning to the sea.
This tale is also told in the Scandinavian countries, only it is a swan cloak the man steals, rather than that of a seal. In Italy, she was a dove. In Africa, she was a buffalo maiden. In Japan, it’s a crane cloak; in the Americas, a bear cloak.
The story is told all over the world, always the details are the same, always as simple, only the animal changes.
This simplicity, which makes it so that I can tell almost the entire story in one paragraph, is one of the joys and mysteries of fairy tales. We go out of our way nowadays to write long descriptions, to make our writing “fresh”, to “show not tell”. And yet, fairy tales are almost entirely telling. They are age-old, and they stay exactly the same.
And yet, they are just as enjoyable now as they were three or five hundred years ago.
They are almost entirely pure story.