The subtitle of this collection of short fiction is “Five fairy stories”, which isn’t quite right. Four stories could be described as ‘fairy stories’ — they’re told in a style that’s a pastiche of traditional fairy tales or folk tales, with much of the armature of princesses and ghosts and stock motifs that make up those kinds of stories. But the last story, the title story, which takes up more than half of the book, is nothing of the sort. It’s set in the modern world, and is told in much the same voice Byatt uses for her other fiction; it deals with love and power through the relationship of a woman and a djinn, and feels like what it is — a fantasy story, something you could find in a genre magazine like Fantasy & Science Fiction. So “fairy story” here is apparently meant to be read like “magic realism”; a marketing term, an attempt to signify to an audience that a given fantasy story is meant to be read as literary fiction, and more precisely that a book of fantasy stories is aimed at the readers of literary fiction.
I mention this mainly to explain why I don’t intend to discuss the “fairy story” aspect of the collection, especially with respect to the title piece. That tale aside, this is a fairly slim book. Two of the remaining four stories, “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story”, were originally written as part of Possession. They stand alone quite well, but to my mind don’t gain anything by being removed from their framing novel.
“The Story of the Eldest Princess” was written (Byatt notes in an afterword) for a volume of stories in which writers were asked to make fairy tales of their own lives. Byatt chooses here to play around with fairy tale motifs; as the eldest child, she makes her heroine the eldest princess of three, rather than the youngest. But she also makes her princess aware of the standard way these stories play out; the Princess expects to fail, knowing that it is always the youngest who is destined to succeed, and so abandons her given quest to seek out another story entirely.
Much of what follows is simply an inversion of standard fairy tales, in which the Princess is helped not by traditional archeytpes, but by a scorpion, a toad, and a cockroach (who all insist on their status as animals, explicitly disavowing any hidden human part). They teach her to shun a fowler, a huntsman, and a woodcutter. The Princess, having refused the quest she has been given, believing herself doomed to fail, instead finds a witch with power to heal — again, the image of the evil hag inverted — and a kind of resolution: “We are free, as old women are free,” the witch tells her, “who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.” Which sounds good at first blush, but the more you think about it the more you wonder: to what extent is that really freedom, and to what extent is it sour grapes, an excuse for being content with a life others have defined? Can a Princess really simply choose not to worry about Princes? This Princess never accomplishes what she sets out to do because she chooses not to try; it is unclear whether she finds a new goal, or remains with the witch, acting like an old woman while still young.
On the other hand, we’re given a tale told within the story, which follows her sister as she does accomplish the needed task; and then another tale of the third sister, finding her own way. So the most engaging aspects of “The Story of the Eldest Princess” are its insistence that every creature has its own story, and that the proper response to these stories is to believe them as they are being told and then to use them as a guide to one’s own action. The problem is that these things aren’t particularly new or weighty, and there’s no kind of real critical reaction to the stories being told — a surprising omission from Byatt. It’s hard, reading this story, not to feel that it’s a bit too facile, a bit too easy; if it subverts old tropes, that subversion is by now almost as hoary as the tropes themselves.
“Dragon’s Breath” is to my mind more successful. But I wonder if it can be said to be a proper fairy story. In essence, it follows three siblings in a village, which is menaced by a number of unstoppable earth-dragons that come down from the mountains, slowly grinding along in the earth breathing fire. The village is abandoned, the dragons burn and destroy and kill, and finally meet their end through no human action, reaching a cold lake into which they vanish. The survivors must return and rebuild their village.
So this is a story about surviving violence and devastation. It’s well-written, but the story’s meditation on the relationship between truth and fiction, especially fairy story, seems to me to be misguided. At the very end, stories are made out of the dragon attack, but: “Some things they made into tales, and some things they did not speak.” Bravery is celebrated, but not “the day-to-day misery of the slowly diminishing hope” that someone lost in the dragon attack might survive. “And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became[,] in time, charms against boredom for their children and grand-children, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.” The bit about boredom refers to the joy of the villagers in simply being alive after the coming of the dragons: “Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss.” Which is fair enough, but how is that really transmissible to children?
There seems to me to be an implication that these are lesser stories because they leave out certain aspects of the true experience, the lived emotion. But as the stories are re-told by later generations, surely these things would be added back in, if they make for better stories? Even if “slowly diminishing hope” is used as no more than a single line in a folk tale to help break up the action, it can do something for that tale.
“Dragon’s Breath” is a story about the absence of heroism — not the absence of good intentions or strength of will, but about the inability of people to do anything in a life-threatening situation. Which is fine, but I’m not sure that can be said to be a “fairy story” in any meaningful way. I don’t know whether its plot and structure can be said to fall under the definition of “fairy story”. Again, it’s a fantasy story, told in a certain style with a certain kind of vocabulary. Like “The Story of the Eldest Princess”, it celebrates a kind of quietism, a withdrawal from the broader world to focus on more local concerns and an awe of the meaning in everyday life. “Dragon’s Breath” seems to me to be much the stronger, more emotionally coherent and far less vulnerable to the question of the abdication of responsibility.
Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced by either. After reading both of them, I had a distinct feeling that Byatt hadn’t quite worked out how to use the style she was employing to get the most power out of the stories. There seemed to be a struggle between what she wanted to say and the half-memories of traditional fairy tales; as though they had gone part of the way toward revising the fairy tale, but not all the way. If “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story” worked because Byatt was able to inhabit another voice to tell them — the voices of the characters in Possession — “The Tale of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragon’s Breath” seemed to me to be hampered by an inability to fully inhabit the voices of the narratives.
“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, though, is literally another story. The lead character is Gillian Perholt, one of Byatt’s scholarly elder women, who goes to Turkey to deliver a speech at a narratological congress. Her surname may be meant to evoke French fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault; at any rate, her speech deals with the story of Patient Griselda, a medieval tale of a long-suffering women which appears in Chaucer and Boccaccio. While in Turkey — after assorted visits to museums and the Hagia Sophia allow Byatt to bring in references to ancient Mesopotamia and unaging mother goddesses and the like — a friend gives Perholt a glass bottle, made of a type of glass called Çesm-i bülbül, literally “nightingale’s eye”. The bottle turns out to have a djinn within it, and the rest of the story essentially follows Perholt as she and the djinn fall in love and find a sort of modus vivendi.
This is largely a story about love and freedom; about the different kinds of bonds lovers may put upon one another. It’s also about the passage of time — Gillian has a terrifying vision of an aged, desiccated woman during her discussion of Griselda, an image of what she fears awaits her; the story of Gilgamesh is retold, at one point, in such a way that the object of Gilgamesh’s quest becomes the restoration of youth rather than the resurrection of his best friend; Gillian’s first request to the djinn is that he make her younger. Aging and the restrictions of love are recurring themes for Byatt, but the introduction of the djinn gives her a new way to explore them. Further, in addition to the obvious fantasy element, Byatt uses references to other mythologies to create a certain kind of atmosphere within her tale, linking it to a tradition of storytelling. At the same time, of course, she’s analysing the nature of story; so Gillian speaks of the Griselda story as an example of the way in which women’s stories may be seen as being about “stopped energy”, which returns not only to the theme of aging women but also hints at the image of the djinn within the stoppered bottle.
But primarily one notices the range of other tales which Byatt brings into this story. The Arabian Nights, of course; also Coleridge (a later conference, in Toronto, is held at the Xanadu hotel), The Thief of Baghdad, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (with whom the djinn has interacted), The Winter’s Tale, Persephone — the latter two of which point to a theme of rebirth, not unconnected to the issue of aging. “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is almost overrun with other stories, complementary stories, contrasting stories. Even tennis becomes viewed as a kind of story; story is the lens through which we see and understand the world.
“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is a success as a story in its own right, and a success as a fantasy story. Byatt’s prose and use of imagery is as fine and detailed as ever, but the ability to transgress the limits of realism gives her work a new force. Stopped energy is released. Fairy story or not, it shows a writer exploring new resources, new possibilities for form. It may be Byatt’s strongest short piece to date.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.