Fairy Tale Friday: Tom Brightwind

July 24, 2009 at 12:00 am 7 comments

Tom was about six feet tall and unusually handsome even for a fairy prince (for it must be said that in fairy society the upper ranks generally make it their business to be better-looking than the commoners)….His eyes were blue, and he looked (as he had looked for the last three or four thousand years) about thirty years of age. He glanced about him, raised one perfect fairy eye-brow and muttered sourly, ‘Oak and Ash, but there are a lot of women in this room!’

It is a little unusual to consider a story this recent to be a fairy tale; most fairy tales we read now are either Victorian or older folk tales, rather than contemporary fiction. However, I think Susanna Clarke has done as much for this form as Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde, and so her take on the fairy tale is definitely worth examining.

What’s unusual about Ms. Clarke’s tale is that it has a defined time period. Most fairy tales occur within a sort of mystical ‘once upon a time’ or ‘long ago,’ but Ms. Clarke places this story within one day in one specific year — 1780, to be precise. This almost makes the story seem like an historical account, adding authenticity to Ms. Clarke’s work and actually making it more believable, in my opinion.

One would think that this historical specificity would place Clarke’s work more in the genre of alternate history, a la Harry Turtledove, especially in light of her extensive footnotes documenting sources for her work. In a way, that’s correct — in the same way that we know the South didn’t win the Civil War, but kind of wonder what would happen if they did, we know magic didn’t return to England during the Napoleonic Wars. And we certainly know that there are no fairies in England…or do we?

Here is where the fantasy/fairy-tale element enters into play. It can be definitively proven that the North won the Civil War (in the sense that the Union was preserved, Southernerns, not in the sense that y’all have stopped putting the Confederate flag on your cars), it’s impossible to prove a null. So while most of us operate under the assumption that there are no fairies because we’ve never seen them (sensible enough), it’s impossible to prove that we’re not just looking in the wrong places, or that we wouldn’t recognize a fairy if we saw one.

By adding historical authenticity to her fairy tale in the form of dates and documented sources, Ms. Clarke makes readers take a second look at things they thought they already knew — such as the Regency era, for instance — with a subtle twist. Neil Gaiman, a fellow fantasy writer and friend of Ms. Clarke’s, has perfected this in his work by combining realistic settings such as the London Tube with fantastic people and creatures (who is to say there isn’t a market in the Underground Stations late at night when no one is around?). But Ms. Clarke’s use of fairies specifically makes her work a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.

There is one more aspect of the fairy tale that Susanna Clarke has twisted and adapted: fairy nature. Ms. Clarke’s fairies are irrational, egotistical, and essentially humans with the power of magic rather than the power of reason. Tom Brightwind is not unusual in his statue, as all of Clarke’s fairies are this tall and most of them are beautiful as well. Clarke is actually restoring an older tradition here, channeling Oberon rather than the more familiar Tinkerbell.

Why would Clarke move to a more unfamiliar fairy form? Perhaps for dramatic effect; a six-foot fairy is certainly more dramatic than a tiny one, and more powerful. A six-foot fairy could also masquerade as a human, as seen in this story, thereby reinforcing the ‘second-look’ aspect of Clarke’s work.

Also, Victorian fairies have been discredited ever since the Cottingley Fairies hoax, to the extent that J. R. R. Tolkien admitted that his elfs were basically fairies, but refused to allow them to be called that, even in the international editions of Lord of the Rings, leaving strict translation instructions.

The whole idea of a diminutive fairy was actually quite offensive to Mr. Tolkien, as it appears to be to Ms. Clarke, whose fairies have more in common with Tolkien’s elfs and thus are more easy to take seriously within the context of the stories. Little fairies are for little children, Ms. Clarke seems to say, but the fairies she writes call to mind times when people were so genuinely frightened of these powerful creatures that changelings seemed entirely possible.

At any rate, through her work, Ms. Clarke has firmly re-oriented the fairy tale within the adult literary canon. As her work is fairly recent, it’s difficult to tell whether others will follow her example, leading to a fairy tale renaissance of sorts; however, no matter what her legacy, it is completely possible that generations from now, readers will look to her along with Mr. Andersen, Mr. Wilde and Andrew Lang as examples of  great fairy tale writers.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  July 24, 2009 at 10:19 am

    I love this post. This is just amazing. I am so glad to hear more from you about Susanna Clarke after your delightful paper!

    Anyway, among the many things I adore about Susanna Clarke, chief among them is her retaking (so to speak) of the fairy as something perfectly admissible for adults and anyone else who isn’t a 3-year-old girl to talk about seriously. The fact that everyone today is so wrapped in Tinkerbell (a pixie often mistaken for a fairy, I might add) leads to modern people failing notice the historic progression of fairies and how they did use to be fearsome, unpleasant creatures. This makes understanding older reactions to fairies really difficult and I laud Clarke for taking this on.

    What I also like is that she doesn’t go completely reactionary and really make her fairies like those of yore (i.e. rather evil-minded spirits who are entirely apt to run off with your child or play nasty mind-tricks on you). She finds this excellent middle ground between the modern pixie/fairy (tiny, wings, lives in a rose blossom, etc.) and the old, almost evil fairies of the middle ages/early Renaissance. Like you say, they are more like people than not and the only real difference is their magical powers. It doesn’t make them all-powerful, it just makes them people with powers and all the character flaws that go along with being a person.

    Brilliant.

    Reply
  • 2. KT  |  July 24, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Is Tinkerbell really a pixie? Wow. The things I learn on this blog :P

    Anyway, Susanna Clarke really is just amazing in every single way. Again, she is one of those people whose books I wish I had written! They’re so much fun and so smart that I can hardly stand it!

    Additionally, did you buy Troublesome Things in the US or in England? I’m having trouble finding it as it appears to either be out of print here or printed under a different name…

    Reply
  • 3. Corey  |  July 24, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Is she working on something new? Any word? I can’t imagine what amazingness will come forth from her next, but I’m very excited about it nonetheless. :)

    I honestly can’t remember about Diane Purkiss. I do know that I have two copies, though, so if you want one I can just give you one of mine. One is hardback and one is paper (and published under the other title, Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History, but I’m 98% sure they are the same book). Or I found this at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Fairies-Fairy-Stories-Diane-Purkiss/dp/075244073X. Same thing, right?

    Reply
  • 4. Corey  |  July 24, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Oh, and it also seems to be called “At the Bottom of the Garden” sometimes, too. SO confusing!

    Reply
  • 5. KT  |  July 24, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    If it’s the same thing with a different title, then I’m good — I’ll just find it on Amazon!

    I think Susanna Clarke is working on a book that takes place a few years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it seems like it might deal with different characters…slightly lower-class characters, it appears, which should be interesting!

    Reply
  • 6. Corey  |  July 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Hmm, sounds good! Let’s face it, even if it sounded dodgy, I’d still be lining up to read it!

    Reply
  • […] that lack appears to be abating. I’ve already mentioned that Susanna Clarke has done wonders in recreating the fairy tale as an adult form, especially in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Laini […]

    Reply

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