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. 

Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale & Form – Part 1

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.

Continue Reading > Kate Bernheimer On Fairy Tale & Form (Part 2)



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.