Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose

In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.

Poet, dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde had a decided taste for fairy tales, even in some of his most mundane work. His play The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, ends with a scene that could be lifted straight from any of a hundred stories of children lost at birth eventually found by parents, if with more than a touch of Wilde’s mockery: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Take that, all of you abandoned and kidnapped fairy tale princes and princesses!

But his mockery could not hide his genuine love for the genre. He indulged this love in two collections of fairy tales: ...

Music and Mechanics: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale

“Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”

In the early 1840s, fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen had already published his first collections of short stories, as well as two popular, well reviewed novels. Emboldened by these early successes, he had begun to turn from creating delicate literary versions of the oral stories he had heard as a child, to creating his own stories. These new tales were part fairy tales, part social criticism. Among these was “The Nightingale,” first published in New Fairy Tales in 1843, a story of music, near death, and mechanics—one of the closest things Andersen ever wrote to a steampunk tale, and one that he wrote swiftly, assuredly, over just two days.

“The Nightingale” is set in a very imaginary China of “a great many years ago.” ...

Transforming a Fairy Tale into Court Politics: Kara Dalkey’s The Nightingale

Demons. Poetry contests. A cat that may not be exactly a cat. Not elements that exactly come to mind when thinking about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a story without demons or cats, but all blended into Kara Dalkey’s novel-length retelling of the story, The Nightingale, which transforms Andersen’s fable into a novel of palace intrigue, magic and poetry. Dalkey wrote her novel as part of Terri Windling’s The Fairy Tale series, novel length fairy tale retellings intended for adults. She kept many elements of the original tale. As in the original story, for instance, the emperor learns of the music in his gardens from reading a book written by outsiders, not his own courtiers, and as in the original story, the courtiers are led to that musician by a kitchen maid. As in the story, his own courtiers are frequently none too perceptive—or alternatively, so focused on their ...

Driving Without Wonder: Pixar’s Cars

Disney executives watched the success of the Pixar films with mingled joy and alarm. On the one hand, the Pixar films—particularly Finding Nemo and the two Toy Story films—were bringing quite a bit of money into their coffers, both in box office receipts and ancillary merchandise revenue. On the other hand—well, after the late 1990s, most of the Disney produced animated films were losing money, and only Lilo & Stitch was bringing in anything close to the ancillary revenue generated through sales of little Woodys, Buzz Lightyears, Monsters and Nemos. Pixar arguably was overtaking Disney on what had been their exclusive, lucrative domain. (Arguably, since other studios had also produced financially successful full length animated movies, and the Disney issues had more to do with the quality of their films than with their rivals.) And, far more alarmingly, relationships between the two companies were slowly but surely disintegrating, even ...

Two Visions of Transformation: Riquet with the Tuft

“riquet wiFor the most part, the French salon fairy tale writers all knew each other, at least casually, and all worked from more or less the same sources: oral tales heard in childhood, classical mythology, and collections of Italian fairy tales, in particular Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. So it is not surprising that many of their tales end up sharing some, shall we say, strong similarities, and in some cases nearly identical plots—or even, as with Beauty and the Beast, abridgements of another author’s original tale. What can be surprising is how and why these tales differ—as a look at two French versions of “Riquet with the Tuft” show. Catherine Bernard (1662?-1712) worked primarily as a playwright, eventually becoming the most successful woman playwright of her era. She also wrote three novels and multiple poems. None of this earned her all that much ...

Fairy Tales and Trauma: Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl

No story was just a story, though. It was a suitcase stuffed with secrets.

One of the more enigmatic figures in the history of fairy tales is Dortchen Wild, the woman who told Wilhelm Grimm many of the most brutal tales he collected in Household Tales, and who later—much later—married him. In her novel The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth pulls from history and fairy tale to try to reconstruct Dorchen’s life. Most of the novel is told in a lengthy flashback, explaining exactly how lovers Dortchen and Wilhelm found themselves desperately in love but unable to be together as the novel started, in 1814—right after her father’s death, and shortly after Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm had published their first, scholarly edition of Household Tales. Forsyth’s answer can be more or less summed up by “money” and “trauma,” though, as in so many fairy tales, the answer is more complicated ...

Hubris and Poetry: The Fisherman and His Wife

Sometimes, you’re just trying to fish a little to get by and bring home some food to your hovel. And sometimes, you pull up a magic fish, and find your life transformed—for a little while, anyway. The Grimm brothers published The Fisherman and His Wife in 1812, in their first volume of their first edition of Household Tales. They noted that the tale was particularly popular in Hesse, told with several variations, sometimes with doggerel rhymes, and sometimes in prose, without any rhymes—versions, they sniffed, that were rather lesser as a result. Their version, therefore, included the rhymes, which has led to numerous differences in translations. Some translators decided to leave out the rhymes entirely; some decided to go for a straightforward, non-rhyming English translation, and some decided to try for English rhymes. This leads to something like this: The original German:

Mandje, Mandje, Timpe Te!
Buttje, Buttje, in der ...