What is a fairy tale? (Novalis)

Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale (Photo credit: jpverkamp)

In the preface to his “faerie romance,” Phantastes, George MacDonald includes a fine quote (in German), from Novalis in which the poet tries to capture the essence of the maerchen, or “fairy tale.” Here is my translation:

One can think of it as a short tale without context, though with association, like a dream; a poem which is bare of euphonious and beautiful words, but also lacking all sense and context, at most some intelligible stanzas, like fragments from the most varied things. These true poems can have, at most, an allegorical sense in the whole, and an indirect effect, like music. That is why nature is so purely poetic, like the parlor of a magician, of a physicist, ….

A maerchen is like a dream’s picture without context. An ensemble of wonderful objects and happenings, for example a musical fantasy, the harmonic result of an aeolic mode, nature itself …

In a genuine maerchen all must be wonderful, mysterious and coherent; everything crowded, each from a different path. All of nature must be wonderfully mixed with all of the spirit world; here enters the time of anarchy, of lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of nature, the time before the world … The world of the maerchen is that which is set up opposite the world of truth, and thus is like it as chaos is like completed creation.

Maybe Novalis is right, maybe that’s what a fairy tale should be, but not every fairy tale really has that dreamlike quality about it. Most of them have a magical quality (what Novalis calls the “spirit world”) as part of the fabric of the universe in which the tale takes place. But they are not uniformly “crowded” with a dreamlike panorama of lawless, magical beings.

What I find helpful in this quote is the reminder that “all of nature must be wonderfully mixed with all of the spirit world.” In fairy tales, at least the traditional European kind Novalis has in mind, the world isn’t neatly divided between “nature” and “super-nature,” as if spiritual things are separate from the sober world in which laws of nature hold infallible sway. The purest kinds of fairy tales have a magic pervading them, not only because the reader is supposed to “suspend belief” in the normal laws of things, but because the world of the storyteller also harbors this element of wonder. Think deep woods–vast, unexplored woods with lonely cottages–and underground places and caves, rivers, mountain tunnels. While the natural world has this element of mystery, so do things that take place within it. You never know, crossing a great forest, what sorts of being you’ll meet, and what kinds of incredible powers they may have.

For us now, Novalis reminds us that to appreciate the fairy tale, we must recover this innate wonder of the world, withdrawing the probing eye of omniscient science, with its “laws,” and return to a sense of lawlessness, anarchy in things natural. Spirit must invade nature, re-infusing it with wonder.


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