This is Tales for Willful Readers , a monthly column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
“Now we have machines to do our dreaming for us,” Angela Carter wrote in 1990. “But within that ‘video gadgetry’ might lie the source of a continuation, even a transformation, of storytelling and story-performance.” Carter fully acknowledged the role of technology—television and film in particular—in keeping fairy tales strongly tethered to popular culture. Still, I wonder what she would make of the news that, in April of this year, a meditation app called Calm teamed with a studio of content creators to build “the first new Brothers Grimm fairy tale in 200 years” by means of predictive text. “The Princess and the Fox” can be accessed in full only via a subscription to Calm, but the team behind the brand-new fairy tale posted a preview on its blog: Once upon a time, there was a golden horse with a golden saddle and a beautiful purple flower in its hair. The horse would carry the flower to the village where the princess danced for joy at the thought of looking so beautiful and good.
“It’s magnificent!” she said to her father, the king of bread and cheese. “Will you give it something to eat and drink if I finally marry the prince?”
If you feel lulled and mildly intrigued by this excerpt, then congratulations—the coming age of AI fairy tales is for you. According to the Calm blog, the tale is “in the style and voice of the Brothers Grimm—but with the occasional surreal touch and a more soothing plot and feel than some of the scarier Grimm stories.”
My first instinct is to attack this whole concept and the insipid tale itself like a wild, self-righteous beast. It would be easy to point out that a tale meant to soothe can’t call itself a Grimm fairy tale by any stretch, nor can a tale that designates someone “the king of bread and cheese,” a character that sounds more like an old kook in a Roald Dahl novel. But there is a kinder and more interesting path to follow in the face of such a bald attempt to paste novelty onto what is, essentially, a bad bedtime story. There are very real questions raised by this exercise in artificiality: What, exactly, are the building blocks that make a fairy tale a fairy tale? And who—or what—might be making them in the future?
These questions bring to mind a short story by Kelly Link called “Two Houses,” in which a crew of astronauts on a decades-long mission gathers in the ship’s common area to tell ghost stories. As they converse, their intelligent ship—her name is Maureen—alters the appearance of the walls around them, setting them in the mists and mansions of their stories. The tales begin to follow a theme of doubling as one crew member recounts her experience with an ex whose vast rural property contained a macabre installation: The artist had purchased a house where multiple murders had occurred, shipped it overseas in pieces, rebuilt it in a field, and then constructed an exact replica—complete with furniture, food, and blood stains—right next to the original. The character telling the story lays out the question at the root of the project: “If you can put a haunted house back together again, piece by piece by piece, can you build your own haunted house from scratch if you re-create all the pieces? . . . Would [people] see real ghosts in the real house? Imagine they saw ghosts in the fake one?”
“The Princess and the Fox” is like that second house, built piece by piece of recognizable timbers and couches and cans of soup, a mirror image of what we believe to be a fairy tale. Who is to say that some won’t see the ghost in that machine by the story’s end?
What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale?
In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer lists the four main characteristics of fairy tales: “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic.” The scholar Marina Warner echoes these elements in her book Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale : “fairy tales are one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, and sparse; their characteristic manner is matter-of-fact.”
At first read, “The Princess and the Fox” does seem to check off these marks. The characters are flat, without deep motivations or individualized descriptions. We need only the most basic and abstract facts: The horse is lovely, and the princess is delighted. The tale has its own internal logic and sense of everyday magic, in which a horse carrying a flower to a village each day just for the joy of a princess is acceptably matter-of-fact; it is “just-so.”
But Marina Warner also writes about one characteristic of fairy tales that explains their importance to us as humans: They are “familiar stories, either verifiably old because they have been passed on down the generations or because the listener or reader is struck by their family resemblance to another story; they can appear pieced and patched, like an identikit photofit”—or, in this case, like an arrangement of predictive text. When I think about a fairy tale that contains all its essential building blocks—flatness, abstraction, a princess, a horse—but that also has the spark of life to it, its appeal is that it is familiar, yet seems to be coming to us from someplace (and someone) else. Many tales from cultures all over the world end with a cheeky, self-referential turn, when the teller of the tale claims to have been at the wedding of the heroine: “I was there and drank mead that flowed into my beard, but not into my mouth!” or “They lived very happily, while we are still here picking our teeth.” I love these little nods that give the tale one final wink of life before it ends: They show that the tale has a history and, more importantly, a teller.
Where does a fairy tale come from?
The impact of climate change on specific species of trees after a century of industrialization’s effects on forests around the world has caused many writers recently to become inspired by the work of environmentalists, botanists, and other researchers working to either save endangered trees such as Norway spruce, or to find “virgin” forests that contain clues to how some forests could be re-wilded—and it has also inspired some to look to the roots of Europe’s cultural history of folk tales.
In a Lit Hub article titled “When Climate Change Comes for the Fairy Tale Forest,” Olivia Campbell asks us to consider where fairy tales would end if the woods were not there waiting for protagonists to get lost in them. Rich in symbolism and prolific in page presence, the woods are an often literally inescapable setting for our most familiar stories, and the Grimms themselves cited the German forests as a touchstone and source of Germany’s most important pieces of folk culture. Campbell mourns what she sees as incalculable loss for storytelling culture as scientists work to replace ailing trees with other species that are perhaps comparable but not, in essence, the same. Douglas fir may be more drought tolerant, but Campbell posits that a forest pieced together with similar but not identical trees may look the same as before to any casual observer, but it is, in effect, a completely different woods: a false doppelgänger of the place where stories were born. When Angela Carter wrote of dreaming machines, she mentioned this disconnect: “This last century,” she wrote, “has seen the most fundamental change in human culture since the Iron Age—the final divorce from the land.”
Other writers are more optimistic about the future of fairy tales as their more traditional places of origin disappear. In the introduction to The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe acknowledge that the old places where fairy tales spawned are no longer what they were:
Over time the world has grown bigger and the woods—both metaphorically and physically—have grown smaller. Now the unknown is to be found in other places. The woods can still be a place of wonder and of danger, and sometimes they feel more alien to us than ever because of how disconnected we are from them, but the strangers, the mysterious happenings, the fantastical adventures: Those take place in other landscapes now.
All of these writers and editors have something in common: They see the woods as the one-time inspiration for fairy tales, because the woods are where humankind most often encountered the unexpected. A fairy tale is a story about a person just like you—someone familiar—who discovers more about themselves and their capabilities through an experience with something new and mysterious. But Parisien and Wolfe make a good point that the forests are no longer that mysterious place for humanity as a whole. Instead, as we face climate change, space travel, and the possibility of global war—be it in trade, information, or combat form—we must consider that what we now think of as unknown seems far more frightening than a hike through the woods to grandmother’s house.
Art and Picture Collection, New York Public Library
And so perhaps it makes sense that we are turning, as Carter predicted, away from the land and toward other more mysterious technological sources to create new tales. Even if “The Princess and the Fox” is a false start—one built on familiarity, but with no discernable teller to give it the spark of life—there is something to be said for the attempt. What is missing from Calm’s soothing bedtime tale and the work that went into creating it is an encounter with something new. Just consider the ironic fact that “The Princess and the Fox” was built by predictive text—yet fairy tales are about what happens when things become unpredictable, and how we find our way back to a place of comfort and safety. AI itself may be a bold new field, but the voice speaking from the machine is programmed on familiarity, a flat mirror reflecting back to us what we already know. Thus the true fairy tale, the story about how we as humans meet the unknown, is not what the machine is writing, but how we are watching it compose.
You might have expected me to declare that a machine could never tell a real fairy tale, but I don’t think that’s altogether true. In all honesty, I am fearful of the future science fiction paints for us; a world without familiar forests that looms closer with each new rocket launch, each new micro-chip, each new measure of the Earth’s devastating heat. I fear it because I don’t see it as impossible, which is why I would not write off the possibility of a machine—or a spaceship, for that matter—becoming capable of forming its own folklore.
At the end of Link’s story set in space, “Two Houses,” it is the spaceship Maureen’s turn to tell a ghost story. Without using words, she shows the crew members themselves—familiar, yes, but made horrifically strange. She does not hold up a mirror to them, but instead utilizes another common building block of the fairy tale: the uncanny. The familiar made unsettling. While a future in which such a storytelling event is possible may frighten me, I am much more interested in a machine with something to tell me that I did not already know, as opposed to one that simply parrots my own language back in order to soothe me to sleep. What kind of tale would a machine tell of itself, if it did not feel beholden to mirror us? And what would that tale tell me of myself?
I’ll end with one more observation, because I can’t resist defending the Grimms from what may be the most shameful association with “The Princess and the Fox”: the suggestion that its awkward cadence and bland sentence structure is an accurate representation of their “style.” They were both gifted writers whose poetic flair can be seen in the edits they made to the tales they collected, as well as in their other work. Take, for example, this stunning letter that Wilhelm Grimm wrote to his niece, Mili, as a preface to a tale he’d written down just for her: Dear Mili,
I’m sure you have gone walking in the woods or in green meadows, and passed a clear, flowing brook. And you’ve tossed a flower into the brook, a red one, a blue one, or a snow-white one. It drifted away, and you followed it with your eyes as far as you could. And it went quietly away with the little waves, farther and farther, all day long and all night too, by the light of the moon or the stars. It didn’t need much light, for it knew the way and it didn’t get lost. When it had traveled for three days without stopping to rest, another flower came along on another brook. A child like you, but far far away from here, had tossed it into a brook at the same time. The two flowers kissed, and went their way together, and stayed together until they both sank to the bottom. You have also seen a little bird flying away over the mountain in the evening. Perhaps you thought it was going to bed; not at all, another little bird was flying over other mountains, and when all was dark on the earth, the two of them met in the last ray of sunshine. The sun shone bright on their feathers, and as they flew back and forth in the light they told each other many things that we on the earth below could not hear. You see, the brooks and the flowers and the birds come together, but people do not; great mountains and rivers, forests and meadows, cities and villages lie in between, they have their set places and cannot be moved, and humans cannot fly. But one human heart goes out to another, undeterred by what lies between. Thus does my heart go out to you, and though my eyes have not seen you yet, it loves you and thinks it is sitting beside you. And you say: “Tell me a story.” And it replies: Yes, dear Mili, just listen.”
The letter and its accompanying tale were discovered in 1983 and published at the insistence of Maurice Sendak, who also illustrated the volume, in 1988. The thought of Wilhelm Grimm writing down a fairy tale for a niece he had not met, prefacing it with such beauty and care, makes this letter one of my favorite pieces of literature. My husband and I asked our wedding officiant to read it aloud in front of all our friends and family, before a single fiddle played a tune and we processed in as though we were enacting the story about to be told.
detail from DEAR MILI, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
The “Dear Mili” tale is not entirely Wilhelm Grimm’s creation, but an embellishment of a German tale called “The Rosebud,” which Bernheimer uses as a perfect example of fairy tale form in her essay quoted above. In this story, a little girl is sent into the forest to gather wood and meets another little child who gives her a rosebud, telling her they will see each other again when the rosebud opens. When the little girl returns home, her mother does not believe her. In the morning, the little girl is found dead in her bed, and the rose has bloomed.
Grimm added much to this tale for his niece, including an approaching war, a very science fiction-esque bending of time, and the choice detail that the mysterious child in the woods looks just like the little girl herself. The book that Sendak and Grimm created, over one hundred and seventy years apart, is a dream of a thing: tragic and comforting, illogical and magical and yet “just-so.” It is not soothing; not one bit. But it is undeniably a fairy tale, with a history and a multitude of tellers, and much to show us that is both strange and achingly familiar.
You see, a fairy tale is not a mirror, but a doppelgänger. It has come to us from over mountains and meadows, from cities familiar and strange, and it tells us more about ourselves than we already knew. I am not interested in a story that reflects only a flat version of myself, but in one with as much heart, independent thought, and mystery as I have—a story born of many cities, countless villages, and unknown numbers of stars, which has crossed mountains and streams to sit down beside me. Not to lull me to sleep, but to ask me to open my eyes to new worlds as it says, “yes, just listen.”