This is an essay that I wrote for my final paper in my senior seminar, a class that I was required to take in order to get my bachelor's degree in English. It is a take on my opinions and analysis of how fairy tales surround themselves with the theme of rejecting reality. It specifically uses the short story, "The Thing in the Forest" by A.S. Byatt, a tale about two little British girls evacuated during WWII who wander into a forest and claim to see something, something that they cannot describe fully or even admit existence to even into their adulthood.
The Rejection of Reality in Fairy Tales - The Thing in the Forest
The majority directive of a fairy tale is to appeal to an adult world. Masking turmoil and fears with fantastical creatures, witches, and the unexplainable in order to give an entertainment factor, these stories expose to the older population a series of tragic truths, while maintaining a gilded environment of imagination. It is within the world of A.S. Byatt, where the fairy tale is explained and exposed for what it is; hiding reality behind a child-like imagination of naivety and adventure, only to be haunted with the encased memories years later. In, The Thing in the Forest, two young girls are forced to evacuate a world of war, and never escape it, but merely reject their realities only to fight confronting it years later.
Fairy tales have existed in many cultures for hundreds, and even thousands, of years. The purpose of these stories is to provide a sort of utopian outlook upon particular events, or even give explanations of certain happenings. A true and specific aim of a fairy tale not only gives a romanticized interpretation of a world, but also masks dangers and negative actions with giants, witches, warlocks, fairies, princesses and princes, and magic; hiding around every turn of a page lies an opening for the mind of the reader, like a window, that enables him or her to create a world where escape is always possible. The characters, however, may not escape in the way that would be expected from a fairy tale. Having their original roots traced back to an adult sphere, many believe “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history” (Tolkien 11). The fairy tale provides any type of reprieve from real world problems, though, replacing realistic issues with archetypes, where the reader is able to deny the authenticity he or she would normally face. There are those who will admit, “Fantasy is a natural human activity…” (Tolkien 18), regardless of age or story content, because the brain, however developed it is, and without taking age into account, will create a story or replacement for an event or situation to appeal to his or her personal needs of escape.
Interpretations of fairy tales such as this have been argued to be negative towards societies, by promoting the ignorance of authenticity in the world and replacing troubles with imaginative substitutions. These exchanges of one for the other are thought to encourage a less serious mindset, and also favor the unrealistic. Logical thought is not required to enjoy a fairy tale, but it is pushed in a three dimensional society of cars, death, work, and money. Sometimes, however, rejecting the surrounding realities and qualms of a predictable existence are beneficial to accepting truths. It is argued that fairy tales “have often been considered subversive, or, to put it more positively, they have provided the critical measure of how far we are from taking history into our own hands…” Negative comparisons such as this are being pressed in order to “dismiss” fairy tales, claiming they are “amusing but not to be taken seriously” (Zipes 3). In truth, however, the fairy tale is crucial to reality, and is as serious as what is going on in the world around the reader. The entertainment value allows for a more enjoyable experience, but the gravity of the context can be as serious and as real as war and murder.
Within these tales, symbolism and settings are crucial to provide the proper amount of disguise and mysticism for the reader, while hiding true meanings within it that can be found with some simple investigation. Metaphorical and anthropomorphic representations of events, people, emotions, settings, etc. entertain and simultaneously carry along a hidden fear or truth that is being narrated through the eyes of someone on a magical, twisted adventure. These eyes are usually that of children, because they are naturally considered to be in one of the most innocent forms of life. Within fairy tales, especially ones such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella, a manipulative and overpowering witch curses at a young age or even from birth the pure, innocent maiden. Sometimes it is at the expense of something the parents have done, sometimes it is because the young girl attempts or encounters an impure being or action; the innocence of these young women are compromised, forcing them into a sort of purgatory in order to protect them from further temptations or tainted experiences until their true love finds them and breaks whatever curse or spell has been bestowed. In other cases, such as Little Red Riding Hood, the girl is placed into danger where she is being preyed upon, and she must do battle towards the villain in order to manipulate her own way out of his trickery and maintain her purity.
From a symbolic standpoint, the young girl will go as far as to prick her finger, releasing something as minuscule as a single drop of blood. This shows the fragility of a young woman’s purity, and how even the smallest event can curse her for a lifetime. In Little Red Riding Hood, she is wearing a red cloak, symbolizing her introduction into puberty and womanhood. This “on the sleeve” sort of showing makes her more vulnerable to larger dangers, like the wolf, which are after her for her newly fertility and virginity. In Byatt’s, The Thing in the Forest, the crimson symbolism is introduced early on in the story, and is revisited throughout. The two protagonists, Penny and Primrose, are on an almost forced journey towards adulthood, after being separated from their mothers. Their imaginations save them from the tortures and terrors of a world in turmoil, preserving their innocence for as long as they can.
Unlike many fairy tales, Byatt’s narrator is not only a storyteller, but also an adult bestowing a sort of disclaimer to the reader before the narrative actually begins. It starts stating that these two girls, Penny and Primrose, “saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.” While incredibly vague, this introduction sets the reader up to have no real expectations, and still maintains a hold on the reader, in order to discover what this “thing” just might be. The narrator also makes a distinction between the adult mind and the mind of a child, “How do you say to your child, I am sending you away, because enemy bombs are falling out of the sky, but I myself am staying here…” When the girls are sent away, they try to determine whether or not they are on some “sort of holiday or a sort of punishment” (35), and they simply just accepted that the other was enjoyable to be around. It is suspicious to any adult reader how the children do not spend any real amount of time dwelling on the separation factor from their mothers, and rather find solace within each other immediately. They spend more time commenting on the cleanliness of the train, how they are suspicious of the other children, and how they fear the children will form gangs and be disruptive. Both Penny and Primrose share a rare form of maturity, almost accepting that they have to depart for a reason, and will be all right and independent among a sea of rowdy and disruptive other beings. Both “did not think on it, but somewhere inside them the idea sprouted – that the erasure was because of them, because they were not meant to know where they were going…like Hansel and Gretel…” (36).
The two friends continue on to wish that, rather than being reunited with their own respective families, they would each be adopted to the same family. The bond children can create and their abilities to drown out truly terrible situations are fascinating in this story. The girls agree that they are not orphans as long as they remain by each other’s side; they both have completely disregarded that they were just taken away from home, and forced to live a life less desired, because they simply made a friend. These two, in the matter of a train ride, affirmed a friendship that most adults work years for, showing that the child’s mind is like a sponge, and it is also capable of drowning out pains.
When they enter the place they are forced to live, Penny and Primrose describe the house as having “a double flight of imposing stairs to its front door, and carved griffins and unicorns on it balustrade.” The reader is immediately given the visual of a grand and “imposing” building, with magical creatures bestowed on and carved into it. This type of place could be a castle to children; a wondrous and cavernous creation meant for them to explore and enjoy. However, these young girls are ripped back into reality with “long makeshift dormitories where once servants slept.” They also had “camp beds (military issue) and gray shoddy blankets” (36). This bouncing back and forth between a fantasy world and the harsh realities that the young girls have to face reminds the reader that escape from the real world is only temporary, and leaves and impression where they can return to what they wish their experiences were. Penny and Primrose have a constant belief that validates they don’t entirely understand the severity of the situation in which they are placed. There’s a constant pushing and pulling between fantasy and reality – the girls rejecting the reality, and then the smallest of things hurling them back into what they are facing outside of their homes.
Being forced to grow up reflects from the forest itself to the food the girls eat. Their meals are bland and unappealing to small children. Penny and Primrose are given “porridge made with water, and a dab of the red jam, heavy cups of strong tea.” The jam isn’t simply jam. It is the jam. The crimson reminders that flood the lives of these girls are constant reminders that they are not allowed to be children anymore. They cannot go completely into a shrouded disbelief of the reality around them, because of the incessant reminders that they should be adults. Penny and Primrose, however, find outlets throughout the great house and the play yard to keep them entertained by the promise of imagination and adventure. They enter the forest, described by the narrator, “…beyond the gate were trees…” These simple “trees” were actually “a forest, the little girls said to themselves” (37). The mindset of the children is to see not only trees, but instead a forest that is appealing and adventurous, giving them another outlet into a world without the reality of bland food and absent parents.
Penny and Primrose attempt to venture into this unknown forest, compelling and dark, however they are stopped and bothered by a young girl who tries to join them. This young girl, Alys,
…was barely out of nappies (diapers). She was quite extraordinarily pretty, pink and white, with large pale-blue eyes, and sparse little golden curls all over her head and neck, through which her pink skin could be seen…she had not quite managed to wash the tearstains from her dimpled cheeks. (37)
The narrator’s description of Alys is the most detailed, even out of Penny and Primrose. She is the epitome of innocence, a beacon of youth and purity, reaching out to assist these girls in their forest adventure. Alys “had made several attempts to attach herself to Penny and Primrose. They did not want her” (37). Penny and Primrose are rejecting the innocence around them, and refusing to allow it to attach to them as they go forward into the forest. Although Alys keeps positive and reassuring when she is insisting to venture with the girls, her “smile [is] becoming more of a mask” (38). By this statement, the narrator shows the persuasion of Alys, trying to bring the girls back to innocence and purity, and to keep them from the dark dangers ahead of them. After the girls run into the forest, and disappear behind the brush, Alys is forgotten completely, until Penny and Primrose reunite as adults.
This fighting back and forth, this chaos, is reflecting not only in the other writings of A.S. Byatt, but also in her own writing techniques. She is a living expression based off of a combination of “purposeful disorder” within her own writing studio. She has “tunnels and towers of books all over the floor” and keeps “objects in the room” as a “metaphor in [her] mind” (Where I Work). Byatt has a combination of bright clutter, encompassing her in an attic studio, furnished with a window that allows her to gaze upon her own imagination and focus on her tasks ahead. Her real life motives can be seen with The Thing in the Forest, by using a narrator who tells the reader that this is a story about the minds of children and what they presumably witness in a dense forest, while simultaneously incorporating the innocence presented with children.
Primrose signals to Penny to run into the forest. By running, the girls are literally running head first into their own maturation. The only issue with this is that, although the girls yearn for this older wisdom and life, they are still very young. Going head on into the trees is also symbolic of Penny and Primrose in terms of living in a time of war; they are both ripped from their homes, and the right to be a child is taken away. When taken away, both girls “knew where they were going, nor how long the journey might take” (35). However, they go on this type of morbid adventure, and are thrown into the unknown. Neither Penny nor Primrose experience any real separation issues as long as they are together. And, similar to the train ride, they do not know where the forest is going to take them, how far they will venture, or how long their trip will take. Regardless of this uncertainty, these girls run headlong into something they do not know the repercussions of, because they still have the mentality of children. Coupled with forcible maturation, Penny and Primrose define the traumas of war; their imagination of the terrible is materialized and magnified at such a strange state in their lives, that they do not know how to cope with it further on.
The virginal meandering into the forest has Primrose touching “the warm skin of the nearest saplings, taking off her gloves to feel the cracks and knots.” Everything around them was “inviting and mysterious,” new and unknown. The girls explored with their senses, hearing “small sounds. The chatter and repeated lilt and alarm of invisible birds, high up, further in.” This almost sexual experience, of heightening senses while “[admiring] from a safe distance the stiff upright fruiting rods” is simply another step into the adventures of adulthood. Penny and Primrose are enjoying this new world by experiencing it while being careful, making “their own narrow passages” (38) and discovering the unknown. The entrance to this forest is the prime of adulthood, the finding of self. It is the still innocent and bright world, speckled with periods of darkness and overwhelmed with discovery. Both of the girls enjoy this time, but as they are compelled to move further on, they discover more and more terror; the Thing approaches them.
This Thing is described in such a way that it not only incorporates all things horrible, but it also symbolizes what could be a painful adulthood that is riddled with turmoil and decay. The portrait that is painted for the reader is a creature that was made of and stank of “rank meat, and decaying vegetations” that was also made of “man-made materials, bits of wire netting, foul dishcloths, wire-wool full of pan scrubbings, rusty nuts and bolts.” The Thing is the material values that men holds dear, the labors of industrialization, encompassed in death and decay, “bending and crushing whatever lay in its path.” Another peculiar trait of this thing is that “it allowed itself to be sliced through” when it encountered an obstacle that it could not completely destroy while on its journey. This creature “certainly could not see clearly” (39) as it rampaged dauntlessly through the forest.
The blind and unrelenting rampage is the war and turmoil that adults face everyday. They, like other adults, create and kill at the same time – building industries and bombs while destroying the vegetation around it. All of this is done at the expense of other lives. The Thing is war; something done for impure reasons for the sake of gaining something that will only be altered or destroyed further in the future after the goal is attained. As the Thing leaves, a single line is given stating, “Its end was flat and blunt, almost transparent, like some earthworms” (39). The end of the Thing, or the adult life, ends alone in its own line. Death is expected to be blunt and flat, being transparent only because it is open to so much interpretation by all who encounter is. Every person experiences death and separation, however in times of war it comes quicker, and it stands alone from all other descriptions. Death is indescribable, and something even children see, even though their interpretation may be skewed from other beliefs or viewpoints.
It is now that the reader begins to question the expected audience of this fairy tale. For it isn’t necessarily a simple story of magic, but rather one of a questionable creature that is not well known but causes havoc towards others. While the adult reader would pull this from the child, “Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-storie…” (Tolkien). By refusing to allow or believe children are capable of taking in such stories,
“this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large” (Tolkien 11).
Tolkien is stating that every human being has a unique way in which he or she copes, or rather thinks within situations, regardless of age. As a group existing in the same world, he sees everyone’s unique processes as normal and expected, meaning that everyone has the right to be exposed to fairy tales. The sad reality of growing up, as “the little girls became women” (40), forced them to not only separate physically, but also differ completely when they grew up.
After the war, Penny and Primrose “lived in amputated or unreal families – ” something completely different from the bond they had together at the great house, and in the forest. Penny became a child psychologist, and Primrose became a storyteller. For the childhood shared, “the house…was handed over to the nation, which turned it into a living museum.” Along with their memories being given to the state, “the ballroom and intimate drawing rooms were fenced off with crimson twisted ropes” (40). The things that the girls grew up around before being put into foster care, and the rooms that they lived and played in were now shielded with the crimson of a more mature and adult-like overtaking, being shown to the world as something historic and factual rather than the seen in the magic light of the children’s eyes.
When the girls finally reunite, they begin to question each other about what was actually seen that day in the forest, and if they truly had been confronted by a creature capable of causing such terror as the Thing. Penny, the psychologist, affirms to Primrose that the Thing existed, and this is because she understands the working of a child’s mind – capable of seeing things and creating elaborate explanations for situations they cannot readily explain. Primrose, the storyteller, is trapped in the world of fantasy and stories, unsure of what is real to a child and what is explainable and rational to an adult.
One event that the girls agree on it that the Thing did, in fact, capture the little girl Alys from the beginning. Primrose says, “‘It did finish her off, that little one, didn’t it? She got into its path, did she? And when it had gone by – she wasn’t anywhere’” (42). Alys, the shining beam of innocence whose impression on the girls was not only negative but also lasting, was taken down by the Thing, and never asked about or even thought about. Like the fading innocence of children as they mature, Alys unnoticed and quickly, disappeared from Penny and Primrose’s life, like their innocence disappeared from one experience within the forest.
With doubt encompassing them, and their absence from the experiences that shocked them many years prior leads Penny and Primrose to each venture towards the forest. Separately, each woman confronts the trees that are more overgrown and still suspiciously terrifying. Primrose followed “a red squirrel” (43) that was watching her. She “registered the red squirrel as disappointing” when it led her to “the center” (44) of the forest. Primrose finds the center of herself, the red squirrel her maturity and adulthood, and she is displeased with it. However, this occurrence inspires her to create art again.
Penny ventured into the forest, too, however her experience forced her to confront the very real Thing face to face, in an attempt to justify its existence. She “found the old trail quickly, her sharp eye picked up the trace of its detritus.” After reencountering the “ancient smell” of the Thing, Penny placed a stillness in herself to “look it in the face, she would see what it was” (48). Penny’s goal is to find peace within the traumas she experienced as a child, and to see up close what it was she was forced from.
Rejecting realities is something that any human can experience and admit to when confronted with a situation that is either traumatizing or too far complex to be comprehended rationally. In fairy tales, rejecting reality is commended and expected, because each mind is interpretive to whichever tale is confronted in order to tailor a story to fit the needs of the reader. Whether the individual is well-taught, or a young and innocent child, the tortures and fears of the very real world placed before them is dealt with accordingly.
Byatt, A.S. "A S Byatt - On Herself." A S Byatt - Home. Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <http://www.asbyatt.com/Onherself.aspx>.
Byatt, A.S. "The Thing in the Forest." New York. 35-49. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., Douglas A. Anderson, and Verlyn Flieger. Tolkien on Fairy-stories. London: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2002. Print.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on July 27, 2019:
When the dew is on the meadow and the moon is in the sky, you can hear the lonely piper piper plying on the pipes nearby.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on July 16, 2019:
Merrie we meet.
Just visiting for new content.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on April 05, 2019:
ERROR. auction is the precise spelling.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on April 02, 2019:
Merrie we meet.
The B&W photographs of the Cottingley fairies circa 1917 are to 'go under the hammer' atr uaction in York, England. They are set to fetch up to 70,000. No hoax !
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on March 26, 2019:
Some one nearby my house has been building 'fairy boughs' in the parks and gardens and making them looked 'lived in'.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 21, 2018:
Merrie we meet
This day marks the winter solstice here in 'olde London towne' or the shortest hours of daylight.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 08, 2018:
Merrie we meet.
Many blessings to all kindred spirits.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on April 27, 2018:
ERROR; For depthsm read 'depths'.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on April 25, 2018:
It would be fair to say that spending a few hours each day in the depthsm of a forest lowers stress levels somewhat.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on September 23, 2016:
If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise!
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 05, 2014:
The experiences of the two little girls Penny and Primrose were typical of all children evacuated to the countryside and even to Canada or Australia during the blitz. Just the actual movement of location would have been traumatic alone but coupled with strange events merging on the supernatural would be frightening. Nowhere was safe from the bombing. I can understand how the woods can be a spooky place and some buildings are so old they surely harbor dark secrets. Undoubtedly Penny and Primrose might have blossomed into mature adults with a fulfilling life.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on October 22, 2014:
Would have to agree that the Faery tale origins are shrouded in the mists of tyme. To illustrate my point, i have visited Hawaii twice but never heard of the Menahunie (or the Oceanic little people) till much later on. Our traditional Fae stems from Celtic folklore predating the Arthurian legends. The Kerrigans (or Les Corries) of Bretagne who were ruled by a Queen named Joanna is one aspect of the Fae in antiquity. Others have been immortalised by by 11th -16th century rhymers, bards and playwrights right up to the 19th-20th century children's storey tellers.
Mohamed on November 19, 2013: