Jungle gyms for the artist: Fairy tales and formulas

Wayne Young’s “Raven Steals the Light.”

Last time I was talking about structure and formula, I was talking about music — songs that are formulaic and modular, and the way their relatively rigid structures allow for creative expression. Today I want to look at (or at least start to look at) that concept in storytelling.

This is gonna be harder for me to pin down, I can already tell, for a number of reasons. First, there are so many different story structures out there, including many I’m probably not even familiar with. Second, because I think it’s really easy to just slip into kind of a Joseph Campbell/Edward Casaubon “key to all mythologies” mode, and that’s not exactly what I’m interested in. The hero’s journey and its related archetypes are certainly examples of this concept, but they’re not the only ones. How about we call what I’m talking about “formula stories,” to get away from the term “archetype” and its associated baggage a bit, and move on from there?

And having agreed on a vocabulary, let’s dive in.

I grew up on fairy tales. We had an almost complete collection of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, and they lived next to Seasons of Splendour and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Folktales from India (and I guess some Norse stuff too, but I have only ever been passingly interested in Norse mythology — nothing against you guys, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth!). Fairies, spirits, gods and goddesses, witches in the woods and deals made with supernatural beings were my bread and butter.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.

Might’ve been into Norse mythology earlier if it had looked like these guys earlier.

Fairy tales and folk tales, in particular, tend to have very clear structures. The protagonist or protagonists often leave home to go seek their fortune or fulfill some kind of quest — so in that sense, yeah, they’re related to the hero’s journey. In a lot of folk tales, Western and Indian, there’s an emphasis placed on helping out people you meet on the road; usually all the items the hero needs to help people out on her or his way were given to her or him at the outset of the journey, and then the people helped by the hero will give the hero something in turn that will help the hero fulfill his or her quest.

Take the story of Baba Yaga, for instance, or at least one version of it: in this one, the girl and the boy are sent off to Baba Yaga’s house with cookies and ham in hand. They use the cookies to get the birds on their side and the ham to get the cat on their side; the cat gives them a towel that turns into a river and a comb that turns into a forest. They show kindness to the dogs, the gates, and a tree, and all three help them escape the witch.

What I’m interested in here is not the Bettelheim-ian (Bettelheimish? Bettelheimwegian?) analysis of what Freudian undertones there are in the Baba Yaga story, nor what morals and life lessons the story teaches us. What interests me are those building blocks that are so clearly evident. There are the impossible tasks, completed with the help of kind strangers — see also Cinderella’s stepmother forcing her to pick lentils from the ashes, and Cinderella accomplishing the task with the help of doves sent by her dead mother. There’s the kindness done to strangers — see also the Grimms’ little tailor who shows mercy to a foal, a stork, a hive of bees, and a duck, all of whom come back to help him in his distress later.  And there’s the magical transformations of the towel into a river and the comb into a forest, which is one of my favorite tropes; this version of Baba Yaga is unusual in that there are only two obstacles, where usually it’s a body of water, a forest, and a mountain.

An illustration of the main fantastic characters of Pan's Labyrinth in a style reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” by galazy on deviantART. You should click on this and go see it full-size, it’s GORGEOUS.

That’s just one example of a formula story, of course. There are stories about escaping a prophesied fate through cunning and bravery, like The Prince and the Three Fates, or Sleeping Beauty, or Rumpelstiltskin. There are origin stories, like How Coyote Got His Yellow Eyes and How Raven Stole the Sun and How Paul Bunyan Dug Puget Sound and Kipling’s Just So Stories. Somewhat more recently in Western folklore, there are stories about deals with the devil, which owe a lot to the older stories of tricksters: Faust, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” so on and so forth. The building blocks of all these stories often overlap.

There is an unmistakable but almost indescribable logic to these kinds of stories. Like a lot of good art and good magic, you know it when you see it. As a writer, I love the challenge of replicating that kind of logic, and some of my favorite short stories I’ve ever written have been along the lines of folk tales (probably my favoritest of favorites is the one I wrote for a friend for her birthday about “How Coyote Got Her Motorcycle”).

It’s harder than it seems to get the feel of these things right, at least for me. Too much real-world logic and it’ll feel not like a fairy tale but like science fiction or literary fiction; too much arbitrary magic and it won’t satisfy our ingrained desire for rules. Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) balances magic and logic beautifully, for example. Ofelia is set three tasks, which all have very clear logic and rules: she makes the toad vomit up its belly to retrieve a key; she takes a dagger from the Pale Man and breaks the rule of not eating from his banquet table, narrowly escaping; the Faun tells her to spill the innocent blood of her baby brother, and instead her own is spilled to prove her goodness of heart.

The three tasks, the alien and child-like logic needed to solve them, and the primal, archetypal symbols — keys and daggers and blood, mazes and trees and doorways — all make the fantastical portions of El Laberinto del Fauno extremely successful as a fairy tale. It uses familiar building blocks to make something new; it resembles, but doesn’t replicate, other formula stories. I think that’s what ultimately makes it more successful as a fairy tale than, say, The Brothers Grimm (which I unironically love, haters to the left; did you realize that’s Lena Headey as Angelika?) or The Tenth Kingdom, both of which are more successful as action stories than fairy tales. Both works revisit and rework existing fairy tales, like the vain and wicked queen obsessed with mirrors of Snow White, the Woodsman of Red Riding Hood, and the ladders made of hair of Rapunzel.

But I will save the discussion of what makes movies like The Brothers Grimm or Pacific Rim or The Dark Knight Rises successful (or unsuccessful) as formula stories for later, because the building blocks of cinematic formula stories deserve a post all of their own.

Do you have a favorite original folk tale? Have you written any and have suggestions on how to make them work? Here’s a few more recommendations of people I think really nail it:

  • Pigpen Theatre Co.‘s plays — at least, the two I’ve gotten to see, The Old Man and the Old Moon and The Nightmare Story — and music consistently capture the nebulous, numinous feeling of folk and fairy tales; their stories have that internally consistent, childish logic of magic.
  • Manly Wade Wellman is a fairly recent discovery of mine. His story “The Spring” is in one of my many SF anthologies back home, and rereading it inspired me to go looking for more of his work. His stories often have a Biblical or parabolic slant to them, like in “On the Hills and Everywhere.” But then he also is apparently heavily into the Cthulhu mythos? Hey, I’m not complaining.
  • I can hardly skip Neil Gaiman, who uses fairy tale logic extensively in his Sandman comics, in Mirrormask, in Coraline, in Stardust, and in the fabulous “Instructions.” Along with, you know, everything he’s ever written?
  • Some of Diana Wynne Jones’ works fit into this: Howl’s Moving Castle and Castles in the Air in particular.
  • I can’t not mention Ursula K. le Guin’s “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight?” because it’s been profoundly influential on how I read trickster stories, even if that influence is mainly “dear god that story was depressing, I will never write a trickster story that depressing if I can possibly help it.” It’s a very good story, though!

2 thoughts on “Jungle gyms for the artist: Fairy tales and formulas

  1. There were lots of collections of fairy tales from around the world as well (some of which you mention). In order to work, the story must have edges. It can’t be sweet and (as others have pointed out), everything must be at risk. It can have beauty, but not just that. And, as you note, it must have the misdirection in order to have the magic. Can you get Doc to see if one of the robots or AI inventions can take the building blocks and make a story?

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