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Fairytale Storyteller

Fairy-Tale Strategies Revisited: Constraints as Sources of Creativity and Ethical Reflection in A. S. Byatt’s Fairy Stories

Marzia Beltrami
p. 75-97


À partir des contes publiés par A. S. Byatt dans son recueil The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), cet article examine les modalités et les objectifs de la réutilisation du conte de fées. Il entend démontrer que, pour Byatt, une part importante de la force éthique propre à ce genre réside aussi de façon cruciale dans sa forme car, en raison des contraintes manifestes qui les façonnent et opèrent à divers niveaux (développement des personnages et du récit, discours), les contes de fées mettent en abyme la manière dont les êtres humains s’inscrivent dans une réalité qui les transcende. S’appuyant en particulier sur la philosophie d’Iris Murdoch, l’article problématise la fonction limitative et néanmoins créative de ces contraintes et suggère que Byatt se réapproprie les caractéristiques distinctives du conte, qu’elle utilise comme des limites qui, au lieu de faire l’objet d’une subversion, offrent une résistance devant être surmontée et prise en compte, souvent de façon autoréflexive. En retravaillant les schémas traditionnels des contes de fées, Byatt entend réinvestir leur pouvoir narratif plutôt que de le questionner. Loin de considérer les contes comme un réceptacle passif simplement en attente d’être subverti, la démarche narrative employée par Byatt consiste à adopter la perspective et les caractéristiques du genre—unique par ses stratégies fertiles d’élucidation et de représentation, à même de mettre au jour certaines tensions insolubles de l’existence humaine.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
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This research was supported by the Estonian Regional Development Fund and by the Estonian Research Council (Mobilitas Pluss MOBJD667 and PUT1481).

1Why does A. S. Byatt write fairy tales? How does her long-standing readerly affection for this genre intersect with her work as a writer? This article explores the role played by fairy tales in Byatt’s reflection on the moral function of imagination and on the complex interrelations between “what was realism and what was reality and what was truth” (Byatt, The Djinn 233). To Byatt, fairy tales are precious as they offer ways of reconciling life and death, wonder and boredom, pleasure and ferocity, eloquence and danger. My suggestion is that, rather than systematically subverting them, in her own fairy stories Byatt negotiates and interacts innovatively with the formal constraints traditionally characterising the genre because it is also thanks to these constraints that such powerful tensions are maintained. In doing so, Byatt creates fascinating postmodern fairy stories that convey topical meanings by positioning themselves within an ancient storytelling tradition: in favour of this kind of balanced integration, she asserts that “it is what is old in the new that compels assent for the new” (Byatt, “Fairy Stories”).

2My purpose is to situate Byatt’s fairy tales as a specific kind of short story production, in dialogue with her broader fictional work and critical thought as explored in Christien Franken’s 2001 study. As I will argue, it is no accident that Byatt turned to this form in the 1990s, and I aim to propose some possible explanations as to the distinctive perspectives this genre offered her to further articulate ideas about the ethics of imagination and storytelling. More specifically, it appears that certain formal features characterising fairy stories attracted Byatt’s attention because they provided her with new ways of addressing old problems, which she initially elaborated through reflecting on Iris Murdoch’s philosophy. In showing how fairy tales represent an effective ground to implement Byatt’s ideas around the ethics of imagination in narrative form, I hope to demonstrate how she combines conventional features and original reworkings in a nuanced and complex way, thus restating that “sustained ambivalence” which Franken (16) identifies as Byatt’s most authentic trait.

  • 1 While “Cold” and the story of the man in the ice told by Nils Isaksen in “Crocodile Tears” (Element (...)

3Because the argument advanced here specifically concerns the fairy tale genre, this contribution concentrates on the stories included in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), which are explicitly subtitled as Five Fairy Stories. Indeed, fairy tale patterns and motifs recur widely and are variably disguised across Byatt’s production. However, since they are often hybridised with similar genres—from ghost stories to myths and tales of wonder more generally—or framed within more realistic narratives, if extended too broadly their use would require a more detailed and diversified discussion.1 Additionally, the narrower focus makes it possible to outline some concluding considerations about the Djinn collection as a whole.

Byatt and Fairy Tales

4Byatt’s involvement with fairy tales truly is a lifetime relationship. In interviews and critical pieces, she often refers to her time of boredom and fear as a young child during the war, when she fled with her mother to the countryside. Being asthmatic, Byatt was often confined to bed and reading crucially supported not only her mental well-being but also the early construction of her sense of identity (Byatt, Passions 22; Franken 10-11). While Franken writes about the impact of literature on Byatt’s young mind, it is worth stressing that in those early years literature for Byatt essentially meant myths and fairy tales, which she read voraciously: “So I learned the world from Asgard, and from the Greek myths, and from Grimm and Andersen, for the world is clearly not only what it appears to be in the pages of history books” (“Fairy Stories”). Together with myths and folktales, fairy tales populated Byatt’s imagination and, importantly, affected its form, as she came to associate these stories with their capability of giving “coherence to formless fears, dreads and desires,” of generating a sense of pleasure and security which, even though temporary and illusory, are nonetheless necessary (“Fairy Stories”).

  • 2 Among others, see Alban, Martínez Alfaro, Campbell (“Hunger”), Fiander, Franken.

5As a writer, Byatt often uses images and motifs taken from folktales, fairy tales, and legends of the Arthurian cycle to weave a thick web of references in Shadow of a Sun (1964), The Game (1967), and, while perhaps in a less close-knit fashion in the Frederica Potter quartet, certainly in Possession (1990).2 The Lady of Shalott, Cassandra, and the fairy Melusine stand out as the most recurrent figures that pervasively return in Byatt’s narratives. Starting from the 1990s, however, Byatt’s authorial exploration of traditional storytelling practices becomes more systematic, marking an engagement that is increasingly formal, as well as thematic. Elizabeth Wanning Harries convincingly makes this point when she emphasises the “structuring” element that Byatt increasingly borrows from “ancient forms” to inform her own fiction. While Byatt had previously employed certain images to spin ideas about the female artist and female identity in novels, from Possession onwards she begins to experiment actively with (re-)writing fairy tales and even myths (Ragnarok).

  • 3 The practice of embedding stories within stories will almost become Byatt’s distinctive mark: it wi (...)
  • 4 According to Franken’s bibliography, the only short stories that appeared before 1990 are “Daniel” (...)

6The essay “Old Tales, New Forms” (On Histories) helpfully illuminates this transition and, particularly, the key role played in it by form. Byatt’s specific interest in fairy tales can hardly be uncoupled from the intention of putting herself to the test with short stories, in a way that may interact with, yet is also distinct from longer narratives. As her first novel to include properly embedded tales within the text,3 Possession marks a turning point: after writing short fiction only sporadically over twenty-five years, she published five collections of stories between 1990 and 2003.4 Looking back to this period when, in her capacity as chairwoman of the judges of the European Literature prize, she was prompted to read extensively and reflect on emerging storytelling trends, Byatt recognises her own growing interest “in quickness and lightness of narrative—in small discrete stories rather than pervasive and metamorphic metaphors as ways of patterning and thinking out a text” (On Histories 130-31). More specifically, she sees that her curiosity towards alternative visions of narration and characters was prompted by “a need to feel and analyse less, to tell more flatly, which is sometimes more mysteriously” (131).

7Byatt qualifies fairy tales as distinct from novels on the one hand, and from myths on the other. While the “novel of sensibility” is historically typified by a strong interest in the process of construction of the self, older storytelling practices, including fairy tales and myths, are characterised by lack of psychological insight as they do not ascribe the same centrality to individuality (On Histories 124-25). Anticipating my argument, I intend to show how this feature should appeal to Byatt’s imagination because, due to their opacity and the limited range of actions conventionally allowed them by their function, fairy tale characters are better suited to make visible their embeddedness in a network of constraints than their novelistic counterparts. Secondly, and also in contrast with the novel, the fairy-tale genre’s peculiar relation to reality turns from a potential flaw into a limitation to be profitably negotiated. In her essay accompanying the Insel-Verlag edition of The Djinn, Byatt writes of how her intolerance and scepticism toward religion were sparked by the fact that Christian stories were proposed as truths, which made them harder to believe than fairy tales and myths: she comments on “feeling a mixture of guilt and distaste because what was required was historical belief and not imaginative assent” (“Fairy Stories”). The same episode is reformulated narratively in “The Djinn” (and an analogous passage can be found in her “Thoughts on Myths” and at the outset of the story “Arachne”), where it is linked to the protagonist’s realisation that a goddess had more reality than she herself could ever have, because of the vast number of people that believed in her:

[Gillian] had hated the stories of St Paul and the other apostles because they were true, they were told to her as true stories, and this somehow stopped off some essential imaginative involvement with them, probably because she didn’t believe them, if required to believe they were true. . . . She thought of the stone eyes of the goddess . . . and understood that real-unreal was not the point, that the goddess was still, and always had been, and in the foreseeable future would be more alive, more energetic, infinitely more powerful than she herself . . . (163, 166)

8Fantastic figures and stories, in other words, seem to be able to capture truth more authentically precisely when they are not bound to the expectations of realism. By taking a decisive step away from that, fairy tales leave the need of belief behind and aim instead for imaginative assent, which Byatt implicitly reappraises.

9On the other hand, fairy tales also partly distanced themselves from myths because they usually offer satisfactory endings and are foreseeable in their repetition, their purpose being “to give their reader the pleasure of recognising endlessly repeated variations on the same narrative patterns” (“Thoughts on Myths” 160). This emphasis on the combinatorial potential of traditional storytelling also emerges from Byatt’s comments on the work of contemporary authors such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. I will return to this later, as I will argue that it paves the way to an understanding of constraints as strategies that creatively stimulate imagination by presenting it with limits to play around and against. Wanning Harries (esp. 89-90) relentlessly seeks to map out the contrasting pulls of this unresolved tension in Byatt’s writing, which the author herself describes as the drive to work with and against ancient forms (On Histories 130). In particular, Wanning Harries remarks on how important it is that this tension should remain unresolved, unsettled, comparing the form of traditional stories to geological formations, hidden and yet still powerfully working beneath the surface of contemporary narratives (90-91).

10Byatt claims that her “own fairy stories are written primarily for the pleasure of entering that other world. . . . But they are modern literary stories and they do play quite consciously with a postmodern creation and recreation of old forms” (“Fairy Stories”). Without undervaluing the personal satisfaction that undoubtedly came from handling a repository of beloved images, atmospheres, and words, there is reason to believe that this interest in form significantly impacted on Byatt’s operation of reuse. Among the features typifying traditional storytelling practices, she thus singles out immediacy, laconism, a new vocabulary, and the psychological flatness of characters. As she came from a productive and intensely thought-through experience with realism, fairy stories provided her with an alternative form—old historically, but new for Byatt as author—to address from a fresh angle questions she had been tackling in her fictional and critical work for three decades.

  • 5 See “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction” in On Histories and Campbell (“Confecting” 119-20).
  • 6 See Coyne and, particularly, Franken for an exhaustive examination of Byatt’s conflicted relationsh (...)

11First, there is the relationship between imagination and reality, as fairy tales offer a radical scenario for Byatt to explore her belief that realism does not hold any privileged relationship to truth (Passions 4). Their challenge, in other words, lies in the possibility of truth-telling from a position of flaring non-realism. As such, they represent a variation on the complex relationship between fact and fiction which, perhaps not accidentally, will constitute a major focus of her narratives over the following two decades.5 Secondly, the genre offers Byatt a suitable frame to reconcile the principle of impersonality strongly fostered by the teachings of F. R. Leavis at Cambridge and aversion to solipsism on the one hand, with her defence of the artistic identity of the writer as skilled craftsperson on the other.6 In fairy tales, in fact, the impersonality of storytelling neither restates the absolute moral superiority of the author (Leavisite position), nor foreshadows its death (post-structuralist position): instead, it celebrates the communality of the storytelling enterprise while also allowing Byatt to give her tales a personal spin.

12Finally, the broader system of thematic and formal constraints scaffolding fairy tales and operating on both characters and authors, mirrors the human irreducible embeddedness in the world. For this reason, they function as a powerful magnifying glass to articulate Byatt’s views on freedom, which she developed in an intense dialogue with Iris Murdoch’s theories, through a form other than the realist novel. Wanning Harries also notes this dissimilarity within similarity with Murdoch, as she observes that, unlike the writer and philosopher, Byatt attempts to draw on the structural and imaginative resources of both the “self-contained form of fantasy and the messier structures of the ‘real’” (76). In this sense, constraints operating in the fairy-tale genre offer something more than the mere potential for subversion, as they become both a source of creativity and a springboard for ethical reflection. Although, for reasons of space, the present article will mostly focus on this latter aspect, by briefly mentioning how this discourse is also connected to the relationship between imagination and reality and to Byatt’s rethinking of her Leavisite education, I hope to give a sense of the broader examination to which this perspective may pave the way.

Why These are not (Simply) Feminist Retellings?

  • 7 For a discussion of the self-reflexive nature of Byatt’s narrative, see Gibson and Gitzen.

13To describe the nature of Byatt’s operation as subversive may seem initially fitting, inasmuch as it captures its originality alongside its postmodern self-reflexivity and attention to empowered women figures.7 However, to stress excessively or unequivocally the subversiveness of Byatt’s reuse is to run the risk of doing a disservice to her genuine admiration for fairy tales and their storytelling force, as well as of toning down the complexity of the ideas underpinning her retellings and reuses.

  • 8 Although Byatt’s stance towards feminist theories is not unproblematic (Franken), it should be emph (...)
  • 9 Byatt’s comment in her interview with Dusinberre aptly captures the reasons of her resistance again (...)

14Although Byatt’s ambivalent relation with feminist theories is not the focus of the present discussion, it is hard to overlook the fact that she explicitly distanced herself from the view, which underpins many feminist rewritings, that traditional fairy tales are generally reactionary and tend to feature powerless female characters (On Histories 143).8 Capturing this feeling, Lisa Fiander in fact observes that the Grimms’ female characters are notable for their strength and determination compared to those of the French tradition, and speculates that this may be one of the reasons why Byatt (together with Murdoch and Margaret Drabble) is especially drawn to German fairy tales (7). In this light, while Jane Campbell’s analyses of the potential and perils of imagination are compelling (“The Hunger”; “Confecting”; Heliotropic Imagination), I do not fully share her claim that the five tales in The Djinn “cleverly subvert the fairy-tale genre, subjecting the form to feminist revision” (“Forever” 135). A reading of this kind would turn Byatt’s stories into what Cristina Bacchilega calls “activist adaptations” (35-36), which are perfectly legitimate in their own right but are not a case in point here.9 Annegret Maack is more cautious in her reading of “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” story, and she rather focuses on the elements of truth and on the empowering function of storytelling that can be learnt from fairy tales and myths.

  • 10 “The Glass Coffin,” which was originally embedded in Possession and told by Christabel LaMotte, is (...)
  • 11 More exactly, upon returning to her house Eva appears to rediscover and appreciate the craftsmanshi (...)

15Readings that intend to emphasise the subversive action of Byatt’s stories run the risk of writing themselves into a corner because elements diverging from the tradition are often entwined with others which, instead, fully comply with it. In “The Glass Coffin,” the princess does end up marrying the little tailor, although, importantly, she freely chooses to do so; moreover, while their arrangement allows them both to go on with their preferred lifestyles, it is also worth pointing out that Byatt’s perspective arguably aligns more with the male tailor and his delight in craftsmanship than with the princess.10 “Gode’s story,” which was originally included in Possession as a nineteenth-century oral performance by Christabel’s Breton nurse, is the least subversive of them all, to the point that there is virtually no alteration of any traditional power structure. It is a dark and cautionary tale, in which Byatt deliberately weaves the Victorian literary motif of infanticide (Byatt, “Fairy Stories”). “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is decidedly the most interesting in terms of subverted conventions: and yet, as examined below, while introducing self-awareness it also still crucially plays with the rules of fairy tales without fully rejecting them. “Dragons’ Breath” is original in that the dangerous situation caused by the giant worms is endured rather than actively fought. This anomaly, however, foregrounds states of passivity and acceptance which do not serenely align with feminist retellings; nor is the female character ascribed any pre-eminent role in the action. In fact, the tale ends with the reappraisal of once despised traditions, with Eva rediscovering the art of weaving rugs as something meaningful and full of beauty.11 Even in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” which undoubtedly reshapes the conventional form of the fairy tale and blends it with novelistic strategies, one cannot overlook that Gillian’s first wish is to have her body restored to how it looked when she was thirty-five, and her second wish is to be loved by the djinn. The story shows how these desires can be rightfully pursued while also reaffirming Gillian’s intelligence and independence; but the fact remains that such desires can hardly be deemed subversive.

16It follows that Byatt’s originality cannot be explained simply in terms of feminist revision, and that the interplay of elements subverted and maintained deserves further attention. One should avoid framing Byatt’s operation too unambiguously, not because her stories do not reflect significantly on the limitations operating in women’s lives or on the impact of gender on the construction of the artist’s subjectivity, but because it is misleading to assume that Byatt holds the genre as reactionary and in need of subversion in the first place. The fact that Byatt’s stories can be regarded as positively feminist in nature does not exclude that this result may be achieved not by “alter[ing] the shape of conventional fairy tale itself” (Campbell, “Forever” 135), but rather by skilfully employing its constitutive features.

The Ethical Truth of the Fairy Tale Form

17It may be argued that, while novels aspire to truth through their capability of representing the complexities of the inner life of the self and its relations to others and the world, fairy tales are real because they intimately have to do with ultimate truths regarding human nature (Wanning Harries 75-76). Above all, this truth consists in the unsolvable tension engendered by the co-existence of life and death, wonder and boredom, pleasure and ferocity, beauty and danger: reflecting on Italo Calvino’s work, Byatt agrees with him that “le fiabe sono vere. The reason for the truth of the tales is the human truth they reiterate plainly—the fate of beauty and ugliness, fear and hope, chance and disaster” (On Histories 129). Building on Byatt’s observations about fairy tales as carriers of a certain fundamental truth and on the fact that it emerges quite strongly from her essays that her interest in this genre is crucially related to its form, my hypothesis is therefore that for Byatt an important part of the ethical strength of fairy tales is embedded precisely in their form. More specifically, I focus on how fairy tales provide Byatt with an appealing playground for ethical reflection because, due to their highly visible patterns of constraints operating at various levels (characterisation, language, plot development), they enact the condition of humans’ embeddedness in a reality that transcends them.

18To clarify my argument, it is useful to revert to Byatt’s ideas on the relationship between realism, truth and fiction, which she developed in close dialogue with Iris Murdoch’s fictional and critical work (Degrees of Freedom). Her 1961 essay “Against Dryness,” in particular, exerted a fundamental impact on Byatt’s understanding of the connections between ethics and literature. Here, the philosopher articulates her dissatisfaction with positivist and existentialist views in which “the individual is pictured as solitary and totally free. There is no transcendent reality, there are no degrees of freedom. On the one hand there is the mass of psychological desires and social habits and prejudices, on the other hand there is the will” (Murdoch 289). By contrast, Murdoch argues—and Byatt agrees—for the need to elaborate a “theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn from” (290). Instead of unlimited possibilities, what human beings—and characters—can aspire to are degrees of freedom, which express the variable extent to which we are embedded in the world and enmeshed in the stories we ceaselessly spin around ourselves and around one another. This is Murdoch’s “hard truth” that Byatt may see reiterated in fairy stories.

19In her study of Murdoch’s novels, Byatt observes that for these characters “freedom is worked out . . . in terms of a constant . . . interaction of their own attempts to act . . . with the transcendent ‘reality’” (Degrees 7). Understanding reality as transcendent means to believe that individuals do not move in a void; instead, there is a reality of conditions and relationships existing beyond the individual that both shape and resist their will. Fairy tales question a view of the will as an absolute and independent force and make the transcendent nature of reality visible in multiple ways. Through their dense system of highly structured conventions and patterns, fairy tales reify transcendent reality, turning it into a constitutional feature of the genre. These constraints operate both at the mimetic level on characters, and synthetically on Byatt as writer (but also on characters as narrators, given their postmodern awareness and the peculiar thematisation of storytelling in her fairy tales).

20It is no accident that fairy stories, both generally and in The Djinn collection, revolve crucially around the idea of Fate or destiny, which is the ultimate limitation par excellence. Fate becomes a way of conceptualising the complex need to come to terms with one’s unavoidable condition of embeddedness, or, in other words, with the transcendent nature of reality:

“Characters in fairy-tales,” said Gillian, “are subject to Fate and enact their fate. Characteristically they attempt to change this fate by magical intervention . . . and characteristically too, such magical intervention only reinforces the control of the Fate which waited for them, which is perhaps simply the fact that they are mortal and return to dust.” (Djinn 258)

  • 12 Byatt herself describes the stories collected in The Djinn as “play[ing] quite consciously with a p (...)

21In Byatt’s postmodern fairy tale, Gillian Perholt comes to accept her own ageing and mortality as she learns to see that some limitations cannot be erased and there is much more pleasure and power in negotiating them wisely rather than in trying to break them.12 The protagonist learns to appreciate the beauty of the narrative arc and the new possibilities that may arise from one’s position changing throughout it—as she “is ready to become the crone when her time comes” (Campbell, “Forever” 143).

  • 13 By interweaving the myth of Melusine in the nineteenth-century plot of Victorian poets Christabel L (...)

22Alongside Fate, which is an extreme instance of the constraints determining one’s situated position in everyday life, limitations affecting characters may also take the form of promises, obligations and prohibitions. They constitute a key passage in most fairy tales and, as Gillian self-reflexively observes in “The Djinn,” almost invariably “carry with them the inevitability of failure, of their own breaking” (Djinn 111). Byatt’s ambivalent stance is worth stressing, as it captures how the action of constraints is and must remain an open question in order to be ethically fruitful rather than morally normative. In discussing the double plot of Possession, Franken (103-04) observes that it is not clear whether breaking prohibitions turns out to be worth the suffering and disruptions brought about by the consequences.13

23The peculiar representation of evil in The Djinn may also lend further support to my hypothesis. The fact that hostile forces take the form of antagonists which are either hardly present or rarely identifiable with a responsible agent reinforces the idea that they ultimately are nothing more than that “undefinable stuff of existence” (Degrees 7) that transcends the individual and cannot be eliminated. In “Gode’s Story,” the sailor’s own arrogance and a set of unfortunate coincidences cause the failure of his relationship with the miller’s daughter. In “Dragons’ Breath,” the giant worms are utterly undefeatable and, above all, supremely inattentive to the destruction they bring about, which is simply a side-effect of their indifferent movements (“It was not clear that the worms exactly saw the human beings. The human beings were not on their scale, as small creatures that inhabit our scalps, or burrow in the salad leaves we eat are not visible to us, and we take no account of them” [Djinn 84]). Similarly, the calamity that triggers the quest of the Eldest Princess is neither explained nor resolved, since the sky does remain green. In “The Djinn,” Gillian’s enemy is nothing less than death, in the form of the ageing process. “The Glass Coffin” contains the only example of an antagonist in the proper sense, and yet the wizard is defeated in such a quick and undramatic manner that one is bound to wonder whether the harsh predicaments of the two siblings might not be the result of broader adverse circumstances rather than of the will of one single person.

24Other patterns regulating plot development such as the intervention of helpers or events repeating in triplets will be considered in the next section, as Byatt retains them while also introducing creative variations. In fact, whether these patterns are creatively negotiated, subverted or maintained is less important than the heightened sense of interconnectedness they evoke (Tiffin 8-12). In this sense, fairy tales constitute a corpus, a storytelling tradition that presents itself as a transcendent reality to the writer Byatt, in which she as individual-author can only operate in terms of “degrees of freedom.” Far from being perceived as limiting, however, the task of navigating through these constraints is for Byatt a source of pleasure, as it allows her to actively participate in a rich tradition that depends on and yet transcends the individual storyteller:

The pleasure in writing it was in handling the old, worn, counters of the characterless persons, the Fate of the consecutive events, including the helpless commentary of the writer on the unavoidable grip of the story, and a sense that I was myself partaking in the continuity of the tales by retelling them in a new context in a way old and new. (On Histories 131)

25To put it otherwise, the principle is reasserted that “the tale is always stronger than the teller” (“Fairy Stories”). The highly intertextual nature of this cultural form (Maack; Mundler) thus gains an ethical dimension, as it becomes the vessel and expression of the interconnectedness that allows separateness without falling into the solipsism that Byatt fears (Passions 178).

26Thus, to argue that Byatt’s purpose is to subvert the fairy tale form is problematic because it would be tantamount to depriving her tales of their power, which she seeks to harness rather than to undermine. On the one hand, by continuously staging the irreducible contradictions and limitations impinging on human life, fairy tales teach, not to meekly accept those, but to acknowledge that all humans are bound to face a number of them and, therefore, must elaborate adequate coping strategies. It may be said that, for Byatt, they act as a powerful reminder of Murdoch’s warning that “the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulty of knowing it” (Murdoch 293). On the other hand, one has to agree that Byatt’s own fairy tales also envision ways in which, through knowledge, one can hope to mould some of these limitations into possibilities. This is something “Dragons’ Breath,” “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “The Djinn” all deal with by means of their representation of ways of handling boredom, coming out of disadvantaged situations, and managing wish-fulfilment respectively. Still, for this to be possible, one has to bend the rules of the game while still accepting to play it. The fundamental ambivalence of Byatt’s fairy stories—compared to other postmodern retellings and original tales—resides in this tension between admitting inescapable limits and imagining new ways of negotiating them.

Variations Within Repetition: Constraints as Sources of Creativity

27The fact that breaking prohibitions should not automatically ensure a positive outcome supports my underlying argument that, in some cases, limitations may be there for a reason. However, taking a step further from this general consideration, it is true that in Byatt’s fairy tales prohibitions may be selectively broken: as the Eldest Princess knows well, the deliberate decision to act against the prohibition of leaving the main Road frees her from a pattern in which she knows she is doomed to fail. And yet, while she breaks the prohibition, her ultimate success is achieved thanks to her skilful compliance with other forms of constraint that conventionally regulate the unfolding of the plot. This sustained ambivalence is respected and even reaffirmed if we look at Byatt’s management of limitations within a creative dynamic of variations within repetition.

28The first condition for constraints to function as sources of creativity is that they are recognised (Tiffin 2-3). In “The Glass Coffin,” the tailor is able to read the situation he is in when presented with three gifts by his host in the forest because of his familiarity with stories, and yet his choice to embark on the adventure is due to the curiosity triggered by the unfamiliar variation offered by the third gift, the glass key: “I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be” (Djinn 7). The constraint is creative because it becomes a means to achieve self-reflexivity and then prompts imagination to try out different pathways. Similarly, the old woman tells the Eldest Princess that:

“You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. . . . There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodman, but insisted on finding out for themselves. And maybe they would have been wise, and maybe they would have been foolish: that is their story.” (66)

29This passage interestingly combines the constraints that weigh on giving shape, and thus recognisability, to experience, and the creativity that can be unleashed by wisely breaking them. Importantly, however, it adds an ambivalent note as the success of the enterprise seems to be almost independent from the choice and more dependent on the fact that it is made with intelligence and in the light of one’s contingent situation.

30Infinity and unlimitedness not only are unattainable conditions, but they also conceal the major danger of formlessness. As Byatt’s characters and stories skilfully demonstrate, laws and limits can be negotiated but, by delimiting and discriminating, constraints also create the preconditions for any power to exist. In “The Djinn,” the delight experienced by Gillian, a narratologist, in the geometry of tennis clearly mirrors her own and Byatt’s pleasure in the geometries of fairy tales, and geometry is form, shape, and, inherently, constraint. Wanning Harries observes that it is no accident that, in Gillian’s audience in Toronto, are also Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, two narrative theorists who have devoted significant attention to narrative framing, another preeminent strategy of plot shaping (84). The deep connection not only between form and experience but also between constraints and power is directly addressed when Gillian first asks the djinn whether there are limits to what she can wish for, and the djinn replies that even the preternatural with which he works cannot evade the ultimate limit human lives are subject to, that is their mortality (Djinn 201). Wishing wisely consists less in defeating human limitations and more in negotiating them to one’s advantage, or at least trying to avoid falling victim to the unexpected chain of events triggered by one’s own wishes (160).

31This sense in which constraints are more fruitful when negotiated than broken is effectively captured by an understanding of storytelling as based on combinatorial principles. Byatt refers explicitly to the idea as she praises Calvino’s work on storytelling intended as an “art derived from the formal exploration of ‘the possibilities of permutation and transmutation implicit in language’” (On Histories 139; see Calvino’s “Cibernetica”). However, while the focus of Calvino’s reflection is more theoretical in nature—in Il castello dei destini incrociati and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore he explores the possibility to apply the systematic exhaustion of sets of finite permutations to the production of literary works—, Byatt plays in particular with creative substitutions, which she identifies as an “essential part of human thought” (Passions 179). Writing about “Sugar,” Campbell also observes that “in its arranging and reshuffling of materials the mind expresses its freedom, making room for contingency even as it admits determinism” (“Confecting” 120). Byatt’s combinatorial operation, therefore, appears to be more on the side of the creative exploitation of traditional constraints as carriers of expectations and less on that of an orthodox application of the structuralist formalisation exemplified by Proppian functions.

32I have already commented on how the tailor in “The Glass Coffin” recognises his adventure because it is framed as a choice within a triplet of objects—leather purse, cooking pot, and glass key. The glass key creatively replaces another more recognisable object and thus captures the tailor’s attention; it stands out because it unexpectedly occupies the position whose significance is produced by sets of constraints. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” provides another case in which Byatt plays with swapping and permutations of functions: the old woman in the forest is a benign figure while the charming Woodcutter is a violent and abusive husband, and murderer. And yet, rather than mocking classic fairy tales for forcing the idea of marriage as the only prospect of happy-ever-after, Byatt’s purpose here seems to stress how it is only by becoming aware of the multiple patterns and stories we are all enmeshed in that one can acquire the capability of recognising danger and seeing through appearances. The conclusion of the story reaffirms Byatt’s fascination for the combinatorial structure of fairy tales even more strongly. After the Eldest Princess reaches the Last House and realises that her true passion and destiny is to be herself a storyteller, the story takes a further metanarrative twist as the old woman observes that: “‘you can’t have the story of the eldest, without the stories of the next two, so I will tell you those stories, or possible stories, for many things may and do happen, stories change themselves, and these stories are not histories and have not happened’” (Djinn 67-68).

33Then, she proceeds with briefly telling the story of the second Princess, who dutifully and successfully completes the Quest the Eldest Princess had set out to accomplish, and even that of the third Princess. The latter, finding herself without Quest, meets another old woman who offers her three gifts, reproducing a situation very much alike that of the little tailor of “The Glass Coffin”: like the tailor, the Princess chooses the item that enshrines the promise of an adventure, thus potentially setting off a new story. This type of operation demonstrates that the allure of the counterfactual potential hidden behind any choice is indeed something that Byatt and Calvino share in their interest in the combinatorial nature of storytelling.

34This multiplication of endings also adds, again, a fundamental ambivalence to the narrative. By forestalling narrative closure, Byatt refrains from drawing an explicit moral of the kind that not only would kill the mystery (“Fairy Stories”), but would also force her to take a stance on an issue that deserves to remain open for questioning. The multiplication of stories amounts to a multiplication of messages that defeats the identification of a clear moral, particularly in relation to strict alignment with a feminist agenda. The second Princess, who complies with the rules of the Quest, is also successful and her success entails reverting the sky to its original blue, thus seemingly undermining the idea proposed by the old woman in the Eldest Princess’s storyline that the skies are equally beautiful even if they are green, as change is inevitable and good.

35Change, in fact, is explicitly praised; and yet in the collection it is not presented univocally as the best choice. In “Dragons’ Breath,” for instance, before discovering the mysterious beasts the inhabitants of the village “could see well enough that large changes were taking place” (Djinn 79), and yet here change brings nothing but destruction—apart from teaching the young protagonists appreciation for uneventful times. By highlighting the changeability of stories themselves, Byatt endorses a view of narratives, as well as individuals, as irreducibly embedded in their context, by which they are produced but also with which they are bound to be in dialogue. In this sense, her suspicious stance towards activist adaptations may stem from the fact that they champion the subversion of patterns that are deemed good or bad, empowering or disempowering per se—a position that Byatt cannot maintain.

36One last example of how constraints function as sources of creativity for Byatt is provided by her reliance on traditional structural patterns to ensure narrative drive while she embroiders other ideas in her stories. In the Eldest Princess’s story, Byatt respects the conventional tripartition of Quest adventures but introduces an unusual selection of animal helpers—a Scorpion, a Toad, and a Cockroach. On the one hand, her choice reinvigorates the rules of courtesy and of distrust of appearances that govern fairy tales; on the other, it re-evaluates animals usually feared or despised but without uncoupling their nature from their deceivingly unpleasant reputation. With a brilliant postmodern twist, the animals serve to oppose the anthropocentric perspective of the Princess and overtly defend their own alterity:

The Princess looked at the Scorpion. Under the dust it was a glistening blue-black, with long arms, fine legs and complex segments like a jet necklace. Its claws made a crescent before its head. It was not possible to meet its eye, which was disconcerting.
    “I think you are very handsome.”
    “Of course I am. I am quick and elegant and versatile and delightfully intricate. I am surprised, however, that you can see it.” (52)

  • 14 While toads (though only as transfiguration of humans) belong to the fairy tale tradition, scorpion (...)

37And when the Princess meets the Toad: “‘But she must not suppose I shall turn into a handsome Prince, or any such nonsense. I am a handsome Toad, or would be, if I had not been hacked at. A handsome Toad is what I shall remain’” (55). Byatt creatively uses a variation of a traditional motif to weave in her own commentary, but her criticism addresses old-fashioned views without undermining constraints typical of the genre: in fact, she exploits the positive light ascribed to animal helpers in fairy tales to add an ethical dimension to her story.14

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Towards the Hybridisation of Genres

38If a trajectory of some kind is to be found in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye collection, it arguably traces the path to acknowledging realism and fairy tales as complementary rather than juxtaposed forms, and to the recognition of the everlasting presence of fairy tale patterns in our modern storytelling practices. The last story, “The Djinn,” which is almost a novella, is the most striking because marvellous and realist elements are beautifully blended within the same tale. Not a trajectory from fairy tale to novel, but from a stylisation to a hybridisation of genres.

39In the process of characterisation, which I have shown to be an important dimension in Byatt’s reuse of fairy tales, this progressive shift towards realism is particularly evident. While Byatt remains fundamentally faithful to the opacity typical of fairy tales, representation of the individuality of characters moves from a bare minimum in “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story” (where, however, the system of characters is not as clear-cut) to a relative maximum in “The Djinn,” in which the protagonist is given a name and a backstory that enriches her character with past experience and psychological motives. The attribution of names is indeed telling: character flatness is pronounced in the first stories in which there is a princess, a little tailor, and a sailor; the Eldest princess, although unnamed, is importantly distinguished from her siblings through her being the first-born, which is the main trigger for the whole plot. Interestingly, the most novel-like names are those of the three children in “Dragons’ Breath,” which are untied from their function. Indeed, if Gillian Perholt’s characterisation is more realistic, her name, pronounced “Djil-yan Peri-han” by the djinn, is a striking instance of “linguistic boundary-crossing” which connects together the fairy tale tradition (Perholt/Perrault) and the hybrid nature of the character, whose magic echoes in the words djinn and peri (a Persian elf) (Campbell, “Forever” 141).

40However, Campbell’s alternative view of The Djinn collection as a progressive, composite tale of female liberation—from a partial freedom in “The Glass Coffin” to the mature freedom of “The Djinn”—is not as convincing as the rest of her analysis (“Forever” 144-45). The process of re-negotiation of conventions and expectations is undoubtedly more prominent in the eponymous story, and the degree of self-awareness also varies significantly. Yet, the freedom granted to the woman in the first story and to Gillian Perholt is, I would argue, analogous.

41Again, reading Byatt’s fairy stories as feminist revisions that question the genre’s traditional ideology amounts to disregarding her own critical comments as well as interpreting the texts in a way that seems somewhat forced. It leads one to argue that “the ‘system of rewards’ in the classic tale—summarised by Marcia K. Lieberman as ‘being beautiful, being chosen, and getting rich’—is displaced” (“Forever” 144), when, in fact, it is not: Byatt’s tale acknowledges that human desires for beauty, for being chosen and for comfortable economic stability are still there and still legitimate. What it does emphasise is that these objectives cannot be pursued in an ethical and static void: as moral beings we are enmeshed in a reality that transcends us and are situated in a world that is difficult. In order to fulfil these desires without crushing others or getting crushed, we have to embark upon the complex journey of understanding such reality, with its patterns and its contingencies, thus developing that resourcefulness and creativity also pinpointed by Campbell. A position of compromise may be reached in conceding that, indeed, Byatt’s fairy tales (together with her work at large) can be regarded as examples of feminist narratives, in the sense that they are deeply concerned with women’s experience and related sociocultural issues. On the other hand, to argue that these fairy tales are feminist primarily because they subvert certain generic conventions is to run the risk of oversimplifying fairy tales and feminist fairy-tale scholarship alike, while also failing to do justice to textual accuracy and to Byatt’s individual relationship with the genre.

42This is not to deny the claim, also shared by Byatt, that “women want to be free in their own story in a multiplicity of flexible, self-directed plots” (qtd. in “Forever” 145). What I hope I have demonstrated here is that Byatt’s fairy stories start from this view of freedom as an objective and an assumption at the same time, but they use the fairy tale genre to reflect on the irreducible limitations one has to negotiate (or ultimately, accept) and on the indispensable skills and knowledge one has to develop in order to fully achieve such freedom.

43Fairy tales capture something very real about the world and about human experience: the reality of the co-existence of beauty and danger, of pleasure and violence, even death; our embeddedness in social networks and our need to learn to relate to a community; the contrasting forces exerted by context on the one hand, and willpower on the other. Critical readings are a matter of emphasising certain elements over others. The one offered here does not seek to replace previous ones, but rather attempts to balance out a view of Byatt’s fairy tales which so far has mainly focused on the extent to which they depart from and revise the conventions of the genre. In doing so, it hopes to contribute to a finer-grained understanding of Byatt’s operation of reuse, illuminating its ambivalence as well as the profound fascination for the fairy tale genre that animates it.

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1 While “Cold” and the story of the man in the ice told by Nils Isaksen in “Crocodile Tears” (Elementals) may be regarded as fairy tales, the ascription to the genre of others such as “A Lamia in the Cévennes” (Elementals), “A Stone Woman,” or “The Thing in the Forest” (Black Book) might be more debatable. Elizabeth Wanning Harries (74, 91), for instance, does associate them with this genre, including possibly also “The Pink Ribbon” (Black Book), but she distinguishes them from ghost stories like “The July Ghost” (Sugar) or more recent short fiction verging on the fantastic and the legendary (including Ragnarok). I am grateful to Naomi Rokotnitz for drawing my attention to this issue during our conversation on “A Stone Woman.”

2 Among others, see Alban, Martínez Alfaro, Campbell (“Hunger”), Fiander, Franken.

3 The practice of embedding stories within stories will almost become Byatt’s distinctive mark: it will be later replicated in the novella “Morpho Eugenia” (1992), in Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) with extracts from the fictional novels of Jude Mason’s Babble Tower and Agatha Mund’s Flight North, as well as in The Children’s Book (2009). See also Wanning Harries (81-85) for a discussion of the significance of framing strategies and fairy tales.

4 According to Franken’s bibliography, the only short stories that appeared before 1990 are “Daniel” (1976), “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” (1983), “The Changeling” (1985), Sugar (1987), and “Precipice Encurled” (1987).

5 See “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction” in On Histories and Campbell (“Confecting” 119-20).

6 See Coyne and, particularly, Franken for an exhaustive examination of Byatt’s conflicted relationship with the Leavisite tradition, and her ambivalent stance on post-structuralist and feminist theories.

7 For a discussion of the self-reflexive nature of Byatt’s narrative, see Gibson and Gitzen.

8 Although Byatt’s stance towards feminist theories is not unproblematic (Franken), it should be emphasised that the passage to which I refer here specifically addresses feminist rewritings rather than feminist theories. For a useful overview of the debates and developments in feminist fairy-tale scholarship (as part of which the seminal Lurie-Lieberman debate in the early 1970s includes a consideration of the point raised by Byatt), see especially Haase and the whole Marvels & Tales special issue 14.1, “Fairy Tale Liberation—Thirty Years Later.”

9 Byatt’s comment in her interview with Dusinberre aptly captures the reasons of her resistance against facile associations with feminist fiction and criticism: “What frightens me . . . is that I’m going to have my interest in literature taken away by women who see literature as a source of interest in women. I don’t need that. I am interested in women anyway. Literature has always been my way out, my escape from the limits of being female” (“Interview” 190).

10 “The Glass Coffin,” which was originally embedded in Possession and told by Christabel LaMotte, is based on the Grimm Brothers’ story “The Crystal Coffin”; the story is also classified as type 410 in the Aarne-Thompson index as a variant of “Sleeping Beauty,” while a further variant is “The Young Slave.” For further details about the original inspirations for the five stories, see Byatt, “Fairy Stories.”

11 More exactly, upon returning to her house Eva appears to rediscover and appreciate the craftsmanship, the “flowing competence” (Djinn 91) underlying the rugs production. Although this line is not pursued explicitly in this story, the art of weaving might be also associated to that of spinning stories: in “Arachne,” Byatt reiterates the link between weaving and storytelling when she writes that, in Ovid’s story, Athena’s and Arachne’s “tapestries are narratives, old tales, shaped in threads of light and shade, bright and dark, glittering and subtle” (Ovid 136). This idea resonates with the view upheld more generally in feminist fairy-tale scholarship and proposed particularly by Karen Rowe of storytelling as a semiotically female art: “through their association with the fates, fairies, and spinning, women are identified with the art and power of spinning tales” (qtd. in Haase 29).

12 Byatt herself describes the stories collected in The Djinn as “play[ing] quite consciously with a postmodern creation and recreation of old forms” (“Fairy Stories”), and Wanning Harries pinpoints “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” as a particularly good example of postmodern tale, due to its self-reflective nature and its being a story about what it means to tell stories (91).

13 By interweaving the myth of Melusine in the nineteenth-century plot of Victorian poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash, Byatt frames Ash’s pursuit of Christabel in terms of breaking into the secret of her secluded and protected life as artist and companion of painter Blanche Glover. The breaking of this prohibition—which parallels the fatal intrusion of Melusine’s husband Raymond into her chambers on the forbidden day—results in death, personal tragedy, and social ostracisation, and Byatt seems to leave it to the reader to judge whether this outcome is ultimately balanced out, either by the love that they yet shared in the past or by the future survival of Christabel’s art and her female genealogy. Additionally, it may be noted that this type of integration is an example of how Byatt had reused thematically traditional storytelling practices to structure her own contemporary narratives in a “spurious” way even before she started experimenting directly with writing stand-alone fairy tales and short stories.

14 While toads (though only as transfiguration of humans) belong to the fairy tale tradition, scorpions and cockroaches are less common, especially with a positive role. It is no accident that Byatt decides to use them, since “insects [may be seen] as the Not-human, in some sense the Other, and I believe that we ought to think about the non-human in order to be fully-human. Insects are the object of much anthropomorphising attention . . . I think we should be careful before we turn other creatures into images of ourselves” (On Histories 115).

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Marzia Beltrami, « Fairy-Tale Strategies Revisited: Constraints as Sources of Creativity and Ethical Reflection in A. S. Byatt’s Fairy Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 75-97.

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Marzia Beltrami, « Fairy-Tale Strategies Revisited: Constraints as Sources of Creativity and Ethical Reflection in A. S. Byatt’s Fairy Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL :

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Marzia Beltrami

Marzia Beltrami (MA Univ. of Milan; MPhil Univ. of Oxford; PhD Durham Univ.) is Mobilitas Pluss Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Tartu, where she is part of the Narrative, Culture, Cognition research group ( Her current project explores the ethical implications of literary representations of impossible bodies and minds in post-war Italian literature. In 2019-20, she was Visiting Research Fellow at the MHiC-Lab (Medical Humanities in Context) at Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her broader research interests include cognitive narratology and literary criticism, plot theory, narrative ethics and contemporary Italian literature. Her monograph Spatial Plots: Virtuality and the Embodied Mind in Baricco, Camilleri and Calvino (2021) was published by Legenda (

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