Our Lacks, in the Shape of Fairy Tales


“You need not even have any conscious interest in fairy tales to appreciate their effect on you. Fairy tales work on all of us; they’re so ubiquitous.” 
— Kate Bernheimer, from
Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale

Let us all, in the space of this page, to think of ourselves as fairy-tale characters. Some of us surely do already, but let’s be patient for the rest, who need a moment to fall into fantasy. In these new forms — bodies defined by beauty but never any specific feature — we are defined, in the beginning of our journeys, by a sense of lack. Not to be confused with a want, our lacks are impossible to plumb, to give shape or meaning to, much less comprehend what might be placed inside as filling, as denouement.

As fairy-tale heroes (of all genders), we must strike out into the world and begin our journeys. We must leave the comforts of our homes and search for talismans that might help fill our lacks. I say, let us make fairy tales themselves our destinations, especially today, Tell a Fairy Tale Day, of all days. Because once we make these ancient stories our destination, and once we set out into our own personal fairy-tale worlds, we will find escape difficult. And that is exactly the purpose: to absorb us until we find our lacks filled, or at least satiated.

In the epigraph, Kate Bernheimer makes her position clear: if you are reading these lines, you are living among fairy tales. We are inundated with them. The matter at hand is whether or not they should have significance in our lives — why read them, today or any day, and why recognize their inevitable influence?

Because we are all fairy-tale characters, at least for a little while yet. As for myself, I will remain here endlessly, as I can remember, two years ago, the sheer depth of my own lack. I couldn’t plumb the depth of it, much less give it a name or describe what might be placed inside to make it whole. I was working a relatively stagnant but comfortable day job in a city that seemed to abandon me with every new day. A writing ‘career’ that was sputtering its way along, even though my words began to feel increasingly false, with little in the way of scaffolding. Of justification.

I think of myself then, trying to fill my lack, like a child still unable to make sense of a shape-sorting toy, confusing stars with squares, triangles with circles.

Let me tell you, then, about my own journey. I found a waypoint, or a vista, in the shape of the Sonoran Desert. This land, which stretches from southern Arizona to the southernmost tip of California and well into Mexico, contains a kind of wonder that someone born in the upper Midwest both struggles with and finds deeply fascinating: saguaro cacti that, at night, look like thin giants with their arms outstretched toward the sky; reptiles in dozens of shapes, some with poisons on their teeth; clusters of mountains on every far-off horizon; riverbeds that go dormant for months until, miles away, a monsoon begins to downpour, begins to revive. It is a land of fallacies and illogic, but within days of arriving, they become normalized. Thus, this land is a fairy-tale land.

Within this desert, within Tucson, Arizona, within the University of Arizona, there is an office that doubles as a zoetrope of all things fairy tales. That, the office of Kate Bernheimer, who teaches in the MFA program and continues to helm Fairy Tale Review, a pocket within the wider literary community that is unlike any other. One wall is a bookshelf that contains an immense collection of rare and relatively unknown collections of fairy tales. Opposite the bookshelf hangs the taxidermied head of a unicorn — albeit made out of cotton, lace, polyester fill. Alicorn made of whittled wood. On a nearby table, there is an Ouija board awaiting its séance.

In choosing work for this issue and ushering it through proofing, as I am the managing editor, I learned to invert the typical verbiage — what I once knew as traditional stories, the sort of Iowa-tinged realism, became mainstream, because there is no older or more prominent literary tradition than fairy tales and their siblings: folktales, myths. I read Bernheimer’s essay on fairy-tale form, quoted in the epigraph, again and again, each time coming to realize how normalized magic or flatness worked wonders on me. How they created a new means of understanding not only literature, but the world. In that same essay, she writes, “Every writer is like a topsy-turvy doll that on one side is Red Riding Hood and on the other side the Wolf, or on the one side is a Boy and on the other, a Raven and Coffin.”

Sometimes, lacks don’t take shape until we have stumbled into the destination itself. For me, fairy tales pointed light into my lack and then gave it shape: me, not yet knowing that I was part-boy, part-raven. A lack of a lack.

There is a very short Grimm fairy tale called, “The Golden Key,” in which a poor boy finds a golden key and assumes a lock is nearby. In fairy-tale logic, he is, of course, right: he scrapes at the ground a little and finds an iron casket there, waiting to be opened. The Maria Tatar translation of the story ends this way: “He tried the key, and it fit perfectly. Now he’s started turning it, and we’ll just have to wait until he finishes unlocking the casket and lifts the lid. Then we’ll know what kinds of wonderful things can be found in it.”

I find that story so delightful, full of the same promise that fairy tales have opened up to me since moving to the Sonoran Desert, to immersing myself within the fairy-tale land, and the fairy-tale work nestled within it. It seems an apt metaphor for those also in search, or those who have not yet found the joy in fairy tales.

I propose that fairy tales could help fill so many lacks in the world. They are already embedded within our consciousnesses, whether we write about them or not. We have all heard them, experienced them. There is a reason they have survived for so long: something about their logic and structure and narrative flatness appeals to us, even if we say we love a different genre of literature altogether. One doesn’t have to journey from Wisconsin to Arizona to reach this similar destination.

Today, and for all days, we hope that you latch, as I did, onto fairy tales. But first you must take that first step away from your home, or from your realm or comforts. Dig through your bookshelves, scramble online, to find a fairy tale to read: to yourself, or to another. Buy a copy of Fairy Tale Review and step into our Sonoran Desert of fairy-tale strangeness. Séance with us from a distance — our Ouija board is awaiting your eyes. Try fairy tales on, examine the shape of them, the sound on your tongue, the resonance in your ear. Remember that there is value in them. All our lacks in the shape of any number of different keys for just as many caskets. Fairy tales have already done their work on you — perhaps it is time for you to understand exactly how, and how deeply, and how wonderfully.

JOEL HANS is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Booth, Necessary Fiction, and others. He also helps edit Cartridge Lit, an online literary magazine devoted to literature inspired by video games. He has a website and tweets at @joelhans.

Essay originally published on 2/26/15