Kate Bernheimer has long been attributed with starting a contemporary fairy tale revolution.
Her extensive work and critical analyses on all things from the fairy tale realm are all widely recognised and respected in the field today.
One of the coolest things Kate has done is to break down the form of the traditional fairy tale into 4 elements: Flatness, Abstraction, Intuitive Logic and Normalized Magic.
These elements show us how fairy tales work in the structural sense, which also communicates meaning.
There’s been a lot of focus over the years on the meaning and significance of fairy tales, as Kate points out in her essay Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale. Yet there is not a great deal of discussion on their form or on how they are able to function and convey so much value to us as writers (and general story lovers) through their structure.
In this 2-part blog, I’d like to provide an overview of these 4 Bernheimer-ish fairy tale elements and apply them to two lesser-known fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm: The Water Nixie and The Sweet Porridge.
The Fairy tales
You’ll probably recognise the tales of The Water Nixie and The Sweet Porridge, even if you aren’t familiar with the titles. One tells of two children who are kidnapped by a nixie and who make their escape using a magical brush, comb and mirror; and the other tells of a poor girl and her mother who are given a magical pot that produces porridge:
In The Water Nixie, a brother and sister fall down and well and are taken hostage by a nixie, who forces them to carry out chores (spinning flax, chopping down trees) for her and who only rewards them with dumplings that are “as hard as rocks.”
One day, while the nixie is at church, the brother and sister escape. The Nixie chases after them, but the children throw down a brush, which gives rise to a huge mountain with bristles that the nixie must cross. They do the same thing with a comb, and another mountain appears.
The girl finally throws down a mirror, which forms a glass mountain. The nixie gets her axe and “chopped up the glass”, but she was too slow and the children had already made their escape.
The Sweet Porridge is a story about a “poor but pious girl who lived alone with her mother.” In the forest, she meets an old woman, who gives her a magic pot that will produce sweet porridge whenever commanded.
While the girl is out one day, her mother asks the pot to make porridge, but can’t remember the words to make the pot stop cooking. The pot boils over with porridge, which subsequently fills the kitchen, then the house, then the next house, then the entire street and town.
Finally, the girl returns and speaks the right words and the pot stops producing porridge. But the way to town is now blocked with porridge and whoever wants to go there “had to eat his way through.”
The first element of fairy tale form that Kate identifies is Flatness. Flatness refers to the ways characters are portrayed in fairy tales. It is a kind of a widespread characterisation that takes away any complex emotion or “psychological conflict” in fairy tale characters.
Fairy tale characters are emotionally simple, more like cardboard cut-outs than real people (yet, do they or their stories ever feel unreal when we read them?). While our own character creations must be psychologically complicated and emotionally engaging, those that hang about in fairy tales are more two-dimensional.
The characters in both of these tales at once subscribe to the element of Flatness. In The Water Nixie the two children are only identified as ‘brother and sister.’
In The Sweet Porridge, the girl is “poor but pious” and lives alone with her mother, who is given no description at all.
There isn’t much more beyond these descriptions of the characters and their identity solely relies on their relationship to another character in the story (brother/sister/mother/daughter).
They are not psychologically complex and their emotions are completely absent from the stories, even when they run into peril or triumph over their antagonists.
Kate explains that “this flatness functions beautifully” in fairy tales because “it allows depth of response in the reader.” Less is more (for us), so to speak.
“Fairy-tale characters are silhouettes,” writes Kate, “mentioned simply because they are there.”
In this way, the brother and sister and the girl and her mother act as vehicles for the narrative. They exist, but only because the narrative needs them, not because they must engage us as complex characters.
I also think that this flatness of form is what makes fairy tales much more enticing – they’re easy to ‘fall into’ and identify with because their characters are so simple and straightforward; they don’t challenge us, they invite us in.
And they force us to focus on the narrative chain of events, the language of the tale and the world of the fairy tale itself.
Abstraction flows on from flatness. Instead of specificity, fairy tales rely on abstraction – on our ability to “imagine” or “see inside” the fairy tale world, even when we’re only given very indistinct or generalised, one-word pointers.
In the structure of fairy tales, Abstraction is noted by an absence of details, elaborate descriptions and complex or multiple adjectives. “The things in fairy tales are described with open language: Lovely. Dead. Beautiful,” writes Kate.
But like Flatness, less is more when it comes to Abstraction: a stripping back of the language allows us to imagine more as readers.
In both of the tales, we are not told anything about their fairy tale worlds beyond what is essential to the story. Yet because of this, we can imagine whatever we want, because in the language, there is not much there.
In The Water Nixie, for instance, there are barely any adjectives used to describe the world and its elements. We’re not told anything about the appearance, location or nature of the well, or about the nixie herself.
The flax the girl must spin is only described as “dirty, tangled”, the bucket they must use is “bottomless”, and the ax the boy must chop trees with is “blunt.”
Similarly, when the mountains sprout up, they are only defined as “huge.” There’s no sense of the greater world “around” these narrative events, and when the children finally escape, we don’t know where they really go.
We assume they return home, but again, we aren’t told where or what “home” is.
The forest and the town function in much the same way in The Sweet Porridge. The girl and her mother live alone, but we aren’t told where or in what kind of house. There are no descriptions of the fairy tale forest that the girl ventures into and the pot she receives is only depicted as “small” and the porridge is only described as “sweet.”
As the narrative unfolds, so does the abstraction: the porridge spills into the kitchen and the house — of which we learn nothing else about — and then it flows onto “the next house and the street.”
In the very last line, “the town” is also mentioned. But what is the town? How big is it? How far away is it? We don’t know. Or perhaps we do know, but only because we’re forced to envisage it ourselves, thanks to the abstract form.
Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairytale by Kate Bernheimer in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books: 2009.
‘The Water Nixie’ (no. 79) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, p267.
‘The Sweet Porridge’ (no. 103) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, pp345-346.
This post was originally published at nataliesutherlandwriter.wordpress.com.