Saturday, September 20, 2014

`A Natural Distance from Conventional Behavior'

The charm of a good fairy tale is the way it straddles worlds, ours and another that operates with an alternate physics but similar morals. Soft-hearted and -headed teachers and parents try to fob them off as cute and whimsical, and some translations abet the fraud, but kids know better. Despite the bowdlerizers, fairy tales can be savage and unforgiving though not in the way Bruno Bettelheim theorized. Frances Spalding writes in Stevie Smith: A Biography (1988): 

“When she was seven years old her mother gave her for Christmas a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The climate of these chilling fantasies, in which fate is simple and peremptory, had a profound influence on Stevie’s mental landscape. All her life she was to return to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a copy of which, in German, was found beside her bed at Avondale Road after she died.” 

Spalding’s summary is tersely precise: “fate is simple and peremptory,” amenable to change through trial and ritual but without guarantees. Not everyone lives happily ever after. This appealed to Smith who was more than half in love with death, easeful or otherwise, and who lulled adults into thinking she was writing for children. “The Frog Prince,” accompanied by a Churchill-like drawing of the creature, is her version of a story collected by die Brüder Grimm -- Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859). She adapts their “The Frog Prince; or, Iron Henry” (Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich; literally, “The Frog King; or, The Iron Heinrich.”) Smith does away with the story’s third-person narration and its focus on the king’s daughter, and shifts it to the frog who has doubts about becoming a prince again when the spell is broken: 

“The story is familiar
Everyone knows it well
But do other enchanted people feel as nervous
As I do? The stories do not tell. 

“Ask if they would be happier
When the changes come
As already they are fairly happy
in a frog’s doom?” 

Hardly childish thoughts. The frog comes to wonder if feelings of frog-complacency, being comfortable as a tailless amphibian, are a part of the spell. Jack Barbera and William McBrien in Stevie: A Biography (1985) quote a note left by Smith: “`The Frog Prince’ is a religious poem because he got too contented with being a frog and was nervous of being changed back into his proper shape and going to heaven. So he nearly missed the chance of that great happiness, but, as you will see, he grew strong in time.” See the poem’s final lines, in which the adjectives are dense with meanings: “Only disenchanted people / Can be heavenly.” Smith writes in another poem, “How do you see?”: “Oh I know we must put away the beautiful fairy stories / And learn to be good in a dull way without enchantment, / Yes, we must.” Kay Ryan says of Smith: 

“Nobody knows how to be light much of   the time. Maybe not even the Dalai Lama. Stevie Smith had some natural advantages, a natural distance from conventional behavior.” 

Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and Jacob Grimm died on this date in 1863.

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