Notes on Literature: Recurring Moments in Fairy Tales and Fantasy

A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas.

…in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.

It was rather because of my interest in style and structure, in the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they [folktales and fairy tales] are told.

– Italo Calvino, Quickness, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Some fairy tales, and almost all fantasies influenced by the fairy tale and folktale traditions, seem to be fantasias that play on several recurrent—if not themes—moments. I have read quite a few such works: Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life, John Crowley’s Little, Big, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time and The Wee Free Men, and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And, in my opinion, all of them contain the following sequence of moments in one form or another:

  • It is prophesied and (mis)heard.
  • A naïve protagonist comes in contact with a wise and eccentric guardian, mentor, or father figure who is either unassuming or flamboyant to the point of ridiculousness. This character is gradually revealed to be someone immensely powerful.
  • An extremely dangerous situation is diffused by the guardian character rather casually, without fuss, right in the midst of everyday routine, and in the presence of the naïve protagonist. In doing so, however, the guardian character makes an inadvertent mistake that would come back to haunt both of them.
  • The naïve protagonist realises that he-she is the key to a mystery or problem of some sort, it is not clear what.
  • An antagonistic figure looms large and at various moments is twinned either with the protagonist or the guardian character.
  • The protagonist finds himself-herself in a gravely dangerous situation involving the antagonist and is saved again by the guardian character, who, apparently god-like and imperturbable, betrays traces of genuine fear.
  • The mystery is cracked. The solution itself is immensely dangerous, posing a threat to both the protagonist and the guardian character.
  • The solution is executed and the protagonist or the guardian character or both are transformed in irremediable ways.

Thoughts? Comments?

PS: When I think about it, Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials seem to fit into this framework rather surprisingly well too!

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