Voici une interview dans le Telegraph réalisée par Gaby Wood en janvier dernier où Gaiman parle des contes de fées, de leur signification et de leurs pouvoirs sur notre inconscient.
« You don’t need princes to save you, » says Neil Gaiman, speaking about his new fairy tale, The Sleeper and the Spindle. « I don’t have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men. » And so, in his slim, gilded, wicked book, a beautiful young queen calls off her own wedding and sets out to save a neighbouring kingdom from its plague of sleep.
The brilliance of Gaiman’s story – which is spellbindingly illustrated by Chris Riddell – lies in the elements he has chosen for his mash–up.
Essentially, aspects of Sleeping Beauty are distorted by aspects of Snow White, but while classical fairy tale characters are stock figures (the princess, the hunter, the stepmother, the beast), Gaiman’s protagonists are the products of their pasts.
Snow White’s story so far has given her knight–like valour: thanks to her stepmother, she knows evil in another woman’s eyes when she sees it; having spent a year in a glass coffin, she is willing to brave the land of sleep; because of the poisoned apple, she can recognise the smell of magic; and when it comes to travelling companions, it matters that she has an affinity with dwarves.
But even this Snow White doesn’t know who’s who when it comes to the climactic scene in the castle – The Sleeper and the Spindle is a story of three women, none of whom is quite what you imagine.
« I feel like some kind of alchemist, » Gaiman suggests. « I have to go to the cupboard and take one ounce of Snow White and two ounces of Sleeping Beauty, and heat the Sleeping Beauty and froth the Snow White and mix them together: it’s kind of like fusion cuisine. It tastes like both of them but it’s actually a new dish. »
Are fairy tales back in fashion? Certainly, the recent success of Disney’s films Frozen and Maleficent seems to point to something. But most of the fairy tales we know have come to us via 17th century France or 19th century Germany, and have since been subject to so many retellings and rebellions that trends are difficult to map.
After the war, radical German writers objected, for obvious historical reasons, to the conservative groundwork they felt had been laid by the Grimms. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim – who had survived two concentration camps – wrote his influential study The Uses of Enchantment in 1976; Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French then too, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago.
By the time Carter turned the form inside out with her own stories in The Bloody Chamber (1979), the historian Jack Zipes was at work on his many unearthings of fairy tale history. Marina Warner – whose new short book about fairy tales, Once Upon a Time, is just out – wrote her seminal work From the Beast to the Blonde in 1994.
In other words, it has never really stopped: fairy tales shape our worldview and stalk our literature – not just in Calvino and Carter but in Byatt and Rushdie too. Philip Pullman’s retellings of Grimm, published two years ago and since brought to life in the theatre, are masterpieces of haunting clarity.
Still, even the most mainstream example among these reflects a modern appetite for agency over apathy. When, in Frozen, the ailing Anna is told that only « an act of true love » can save her, we assume she needs to be the object of someone else’s affection.
We also take it to mean romantic love. But the prince turns out to be a toad, and she is healed at the last minute by saving her sister’s life: in other words, the « act of true love » is one she bestows rather than receives. That such a sophisticated moral might, via Disney, have indefinite reach is something the Grimm brothers would have envied.
Gaiman, whose Coraline has become a generation’s favourite, knows all about stories that live on a dark threshold. Philip Pullman said of fairy tales that they were « too easy for children and too difficult for adults », and Gaiman has been thinking about fairy tales for well over thirty years.
« The Bloody Chamber is such an important book to me, » he says. « Angela Carter, for me, is still the one who said: ‘You see these fairy stories, these things that are sitting at the back of the nursery shelves? Actually, each one of them is a loaded gun. Each of them is a bomb. Watch: if you turn it right it will blow up.’ And we all went: ‘Oh my gosh, she’s right – you can blow things up with these!' »
When I ask Gaiman who his favourite fairy tale character is, he says he fell in love with Red Riding Hood when reading Carter. She was also Charles Dickens’s favourite, but in order to interpret Gaiman’s taste, you need to know that Carter’s take on the tale was « The Company of Wolves », an ornately told story in which the heroine makes a relatively late appearance in a savage, sexual world, not a small child skipping along a path but a daring pubescent girl who strips naked, laughs in the face of danger and sleeps with the wolf – rendering him post–coitally « tender » – in her dead grandmother’s bed.
In fact, as Gaiman explains (becoming, in his own description, « fairy tale nerdy ») the bombs inherent in such stories have been defused more often than they have been detonated. For instance, the reason why Disney’s Sleeping Beauty doesn’t work, he says, is because « it’s not a story. It’s the opening to a story. The first versions we have of it make more sense but are less kind to human nature.
« The prince makes it in [to the castle] after a hundred years, tries to wake her up, fails, has sex with her, and leaves. And then, nine months later – still asleep – she gives birth to twins. And they climb up her. One clamps onto her breast and starts sucking. »
« The other clamps onto her finger, and sucks out the poisoned thing in her finger that has put her to sleep. She and the prince and their children go back to the prince’s house, and his mother is an evil, cannibalistic ogress who tries to eat the children. The story is really about the nightmare of your mother–in–law being a monster. »
Gaiman’s least favourite fairy tale character is Goldilocks – or at least she used to be, until he found out who she really was. In Robert Southey’s 1837 story, the intruder is an old woman – a vagrant – who is looking for shelter and stumbles upon a house that belongs not to a family of bears, but to cohabiting « bachelor » bears of three different sizes.
The old woman’s nickname, « Silverhair », became « Goldilocks », and she was transformed over time into a protagonist more similar to the story’s intended readers. Nevertheless, « as a kid I found it impossible to empathise with her, » Gaiman says. « Frankly, back then my sympathies were always with Baby Bear: ‘Some horrible lady just came and ate my food and broke my chair’. These days, now that I’m old, my sympathies are with Father Bear. I go: Yup, shoulda locked the door. Did I lock the door? I meant to lock the door. »
In his account of these revisions, Gaiman points out something that has long been known to historians of the topic – but not, I think, to most readers. In the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales, published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812, most of the characters we now know as wicked stepmothers were mothers.
« There were a lot of monstrous mothers, » Gaiman says, « who pretty much uniformly became step–mothers ». Snow White’s stepmother was her biological mother in the original; Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, who sends them out to starve in the woods, was their mother in the first instance. Of all the historical revisions of fairy tales, perhaps none was as dramatic as the self–censorship of the Grimms themselves.
Their book began as a philological project at the birth of a unified Germany. The Grimms – who also, as part of the same mission, compiled a dictionary – began to collect folk stories. These were not, as has been supposed, the tales of the masses, but stories gathered from among the bourgeoisie. The project was a matter of cultural and national record – it was not intended for children. But it was soon clear that children had become its main readers, and Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two brothers and – in Jack Zipes’s phrase – « a moral sanitation man », cleaned them up.
In what was now the motherland, it wouldn’t do for children to see biological mothers as jealous of their own pubescent daughters. And although he wasn’t very worried about violence, Grimm was concerned about sex: by 1819 – and certainly in the last edition of 1857 – those same stories had become prudish and pious. « So now, » Gaiman says, « a pregnant Rapunzel doesn’t say to the witch: ‘this is really weird, my belly is swelling and I don’t know why’ – which is how the witch knows that a prince has been visiting her. Now, she says ‘you are so much lighter than the prince when you climb up my hair’. And you go: Oh! I thought you were smart but no, you’re a moron. »
That’s quite an agenda the Grimms had, I suggest to Gaiman, and ask him if he has one, fully expecting him to say no.
« Yeah, I do, » he replies. « I want people to imagine. I think that your imagination is the most important tool that you possess, and I think that in addition to being a tool, it’s a muscle, and unless it’s exercised, it atrophies. » He points to the lines he used as an epigraph to Coraline – remembered from GK Chesterton but loose enough a paraphrase to be his own: « Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. »
What does he mean, I ask – that they are true and also… inspiring?
« True and also lies! » says Gaiman. « If someone says: ‘We have investigated – there was no Snow White’, I’m not going to go: ‘Oh no, my story is now empty and meaningless’. The point about Snow White is that you can keep fighting. The point about Snow White is that even when those who are meant to love you put you in an intolerable situation, you can run away, you can make friends, you can cope. And that message, » he says with a smile of satisfaction, » – that even when all is at its darkest, you can think your way out of trouble – is huge. »