Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale & Form – Part 2

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)


Intuitive Logic

Intuitive Logic is where we really start to work our way into the language of fairy tales.

Kate refers to Intuitive Logic as “a sort of nonsensical sense” and what she is really talking about is the fairy tale’s ‘unconventional’ approach to narrative as we know it.

As writers, we’re often taught that every beginning must have an end. Everything must be cause and effect, scene and sequel, set up and pay off. Everything must make sense and flow consequentially. Actions and reactions.

In fairy tales, however, motivations and logic are often left at the door. Actions and scenes move from one to the next, but without much explanation:

“The language of traditional fairy tales tells us that first this happened, then that happened. There is never an explanation of why.” This is something we don’t question in fairy tales – as readers, we accept what is being told.

In a sense, we accept that we are inside the fairy tale.

This concept is brought to life in The Water Nixie at almost every turn. We’re not told how or why the brother and sister fall into the well, only that they do.

We don’t know why there is a water nixie at the bottom of the well or why she makes the girl spin flax and forces the boy to chop down trees.

When it comes time to throw down the brush, comb and mirror, there’s also no reason why the children even have these items or how they are able to create mountains.

Only the Intuitive Logic of the narrative (and the element of Normalized Magic) draws all of these events together – and yet almost magically, nothing is logically related.

In The Sweet Porridge, Intuitive Logic becomes even more apparent. This is the second sentence of the story:

When they had nothing left to eat, the girl went out into the forest, where she met an old woman who already knew about her troubles and gave her a small pot. 

If this were a contemporary story, you’d probably be thinking “Huh…?” Why does the girl even go into the forest? And how does the old woman already know about the girl’s problems? And what the hell is she doing going around with a magical pot?

But in a fairy tale, all of these happenings make sense because the language brings them together, encapsulates them in a sentence and simply makes them so.

This use of language in the realm of fairy tale narrative creates a type of “lyrical disconnect” for the reader.

The narrative doesn’t come together through logic, but through language – what happens doesn’t always connect, except through the telling and the language itself.

As readers, we read these stories and cherish them nonetheless, and we make these “intuitive” connections based on the way they are told, their structure.

This way of reading, this Intuitive Logic, is vital to fairy tale form. And much of its logic also depends on our acceptance of Normalized Magic.

Normalized Magic

This is my favourite fairy tale element. Normalized Magic tells us that everything is magical in a fairy tale.

Normalized Magic equates the fantastical to the ordinary and everyday – no one ever overreacts to a talking wolf or questions how a sorceress could climb up Rapunzel’s hair or thinks that spinning straw into gold is silly or unrealistic.

“The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous,” writes Kate. “Enchantment is not astounding.”

No matter how removed or fantastical the magic is in a fairy story, it is immediately accepted and considered normal, both by the characters and the reader. Magic is simply a part of everyday life. We just shrug and say, ‘it’s a fairy tale.’

This way of reading also comes into play when we look at The Water Nixie and The Sweet Porridge. Both of these fairy tales are saturated with Normalized Magic.

The second half of The Water Nixie, after the children escape, is entirely dependent on this element of everyday magic. We don’t question that a comb, brush and mirror have the ability to create mountains or scoff at the story’s use of such ordinary objects.

When the water nixie simply cuts down the mountains with an axe, we don’t sit there and say, “how incredulous!”

Even at the start of the story, the children’s act of falling down a well and “discovering” the nixie are also somewhat magical.

Yet we accept these narrative events for what they are – not only because of the presence of Normalized Magic, but because everything about the fairy tale structure – flatness, abstraction, logic – is working together throughout the text.

Let’s turn to The Sweet Porridge. One of the things I love most about this tale is its use of Normalized Magic: At the centre of this story is a magical pot that produces porridge upon command.

But when we read about this, Kate is right, the magic is not astounding. It’s not shocking or surprising or “built up” in the narrative in any way, nor are the events towards the end of the story, when the pot gets completely out of control.

Instead, magic is reduced to normality at every turn here – and this, I think, is what makes fairy tales so remarkable and captivating and easily readable.

Magic might make up much of the narrative, but it is not heightened to appear notable or impressive or even magical at all.

It’s simply part of the way things are in the fairy tale world, brought together by the Intuitive Logic of the narrative and also our intuitive understanding of flatness and abstraction (even if we don’t know these terms, we still “feel” them when we read a fairy tale).

For me, the existence of Normalized Magic works to reinforce these structural elements of Flatness and Abstraction – the magic of fairy stories is not deep or complex, and it is not described or explained in detail.

We don’t know how the comb, brush and mirror can conjure up protective mountains and we aren’t told anything about how the pot works.

Like the characters themselves and the worlds around them, the magic in fairy tales is flat and abstract.

We are positioned as readers to “imagine” the magic, the same way we are expected to imagine the characters and their environments, even when we are only presented with very basic tellings.

One last thing about fairy tales…

Despite their flatness and abstraction, their odd narrative logic and their ordinary-ised magic, they are still magical. 

Anyone’s that been charmed by Snow White or the Ugly Duckling or the Wolf and Seven Kids knows the true power that lies behind a fairy tale.

And it’s critics like Kate Bernheimer and Jack Zipes and Propp who deepen our understanding of what fairy tales are and how they continue to captivate us, even in this contemporary age.

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)



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. 

4 thoughts on “Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale & Form – Part 2

  1. […] Continue Reading – Kate Bernheimer On Fairy Tale & Form (Part 2) […]


  2. […] Continue Reading > Kate Bernheimer On Fairy Tale & Form (Part 2) […]


  3. […] see this in numerous fairy tales, from pots that spring endless porridge to birds that bestow young maids like Cinderella with beautiful gowns; from beanstalks that grow up […]



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