That Fairy-Tale Feel: A Folkloric Approach to Meredith Ann Pierce's The Darkangel
By Marie Brennan
31 July 2006
Fairy tales often appear to be one of the ancestor genres to fantasy, and readers, reviewers, and even sometimes critics often draw connections between the two. How much water that argument holds is open to debate; Maria Nikolajeva argues in "Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern" that the commercial fantasy genre is, in most cases, not much like fairy tales at all. Some works, though, show an obvious connection: fairy tales are a perennial source for retellings and adaptations.
Between those intentional fairy tale retellings and the kind of fantasy Nikolajeva discusses, there's a middle ground of texts whose nature is less distinct. Works like Meredith Ann Pierce's The Darkangel simply feel like fairy tales, even when they don't retell a particular story. How justified is that comparison, and what inspires it? The Darkangel evokes more than one genre, including the gothic and (in certain places) science fiction, so what quality are we pointing to when we say it echoes the feel of a fairy tale? Answering that question means first determining what a fairy tale is—a question which has occupied folklorists for centuries. By looking to that body of scholarship, we can begin to tease out how a novel like The Darkangel might relate to this other genre.
One of the most well-known works of folktale (or fairy-tale) scholarship is the Tale-Type Index, assembled by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, and recently updated by Hans-Jörg Uther. The Tale-Type Index groups texts as variant renditions of particular plots. By looking at it, we can see that The Darkangel bears a relationship to a tale-type most commonly known in the West as "Beauty and the Beast," but this comparison only gets us so far; that type is an extremely broad one, known in many diverse forms around the world. The Darkangel is not so closely related to any particular variant that we could call it a retelling. Stith Thompson's Motif Index might be more useful; it's an organized listing of plot elements and objects that commonly appear in folktales. We would certainly recognize details from The Darkangel if we perused it. But since many of the motifs in the index occur throughout fantasy, their presence doesn't move us much closer to understanding why this novel, more than many of its neighbors on the shelves, has a distinctly fairy-tale feel.
Vladamir Propp's book The Morphology of the Folktale shows much more promise. In that influential work, Propp analyzed Russian folktales and boiled their plots down to a series of what he called "functions," which might be story events and/or character roles, such as the donor figure. Propp's breakthrough was to show that, though no folktale has all of the functions, those functions it does have will inevitably occur in a particular order. The story might skip over a broad swath of them, or loop around to repeat a particular series as an episode in the broader tale, but on the whole, the functions form a coherent "grammar" of folktale plot, which is at least partially the means by which we identify the genre as distinct from others.
Analyzing The Darkangel according to Propp's scheme might be productive, but it can be a tedious process. Instead, I would like to point out the shortcoming of such an effort, which is that Propp's analysis is fairly culturally specific. He built his list by analyzing Russian folktales, and for those texts, it works brilliantly. Its effectiveness, however, diminishes the farther one gets from Russia. There are cross-cultural morphologies, but they are of necessity so broad and generic that they don't have much practical use. Propp's work has also been critiqued on gender lines, for a failure to address female heroines (like that of The Darkangel) very effectively.
By contrast, Max Luthi's work The European Folktale: Form and Nature offers an approach that is far less culturally bounded. He bases his analysis on stories from all over Europe, giving us as close to a description of the "Western" tradition as we're likely to get. And Luthi's focus in this case is not the plot or components of a folktale, but rather the style in which those elements are rendered. What happens when we apply his ideas to The Darkangel?
Luthi gives a number of descriptors for the folktale style, including one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation and universal interconnection, sublimation and all-inclusiveness. We can take these in the order he presents them, and test them one by one against Pierce's writing. The Darkangel is the first novel of a trilogy, but I'll be analyzing it independently. Like many first parts of trilogies, it stands on its own very well, and to analyze all three books would complicate the picture prematurely.
We begin with "one-dimensionality." Luthi indicates two qualities with this term. The first is that, while the wondrous creatures and otherworldly beings of legends exist at home, in familiar locales, their counterparts in folktales exist in distant locations. The hero encounters a talking bear while on his quest, not in his backyard. The second characteristic Luthi classes under "one-dimensionality" is a lack of fear or curiosity when the numinous appears: instead of marveling or cowering, the way a hero in a legend would, the hero of a folktale takes such events in stride. As Luthi points out, "He is even calmed when a wild beast begins to speak, for a wild beast frightens him—it could tear him apart—while he finds nothing uncanny about an animal who speaks" (7). Together, these two qualities mean that a folktale expresses spiritual distance through spatial distance. Instead of being nearby and spiritually strange, otherworldly things are physically distant and spiritually unremarkable.
Aeriel, the main character of The Darkangel, begins the novel in the familiar village where she's lived as a slave for most of her life. Strangeness begins when she and her mistress Eoduin climb the steeps of Terrain, the nearby mountain. It seems to be a journey of at least several hours (though the peculiar cycles of day and night in the novel interfere with that calculation). On the mountainside, they encounter the darkangel (also called an icarus). He's a vampiric man with twelve black wings, who carries Eoduin off to be his bride. Later Aeriel returns to the mountain in hopes of killing him, and is in turn carried off, this time to be the tiring-woman for Eoduin and the darkangel's twelve other brides.
Aeriel therefore goes far away from the village, and in fact never returns to it. From the initial encounter in the mountains, she goes to the darkangel's castle, where she meets gargoyles, the duarough Talb, and the wraiths who are the remnants of the icarus's brides, after he drank their blood and put their souls into the necklace he wears. From the castle, she later journeys to the desert in search of the legendary starhorse, and encounters other strange beings there. This would seem to more or less fit Luthi's criterion of distance.
What about the lack of wonder? Pierce gives at least one explicit denial of that quality, when Aeriel goes to the desert and encounters the Pendarlon, a lyon who, like the starhorse, is the guardian of his land. "Only now did she begin to wonder that she was not dead, that the lyon had rescued her from the vampyre, and that he spoke with a human manner and voice" (147). But Aeriel gets over her supposed wonder immediately after that statement, accepting a talking lyon as a matter of course.
Aeriel does show some emotional reactions to the wonders she encounters, but only occasionally are they based on the strangeness of those wonders. She pities the wraiths, and is repulsed by their mindless, pathetic behavior; the fact that they're dead women is hardly mentioned. The duarough Talb startles her when he seems to come to life from stone, but a page later, he's a trusted friend. Only the darkangel seems to keep a numinous quality for long, and even then, his cold beauty and majestic manner, not his twelve wings and blood-drinking ways, are what entrance and disturb Aeriel.
Moving on, we come next to the quality of "depthlessness." Luthi means a great many things by this term. To begin with, again contrasting with legends, Luthi says that objects in folktales are less often utensils of daily life, and moreover they're "figures without depth, that even have a tendency toward linearity" (11). The most notable objects in The Darkangel are the necklace the icarus wears, with fourteen lead vials hanging from it; a golden spindle he gives to Aeriel, that spins its user's emotions; Aeriel's walking stick she receives from the desert people; the silver hoof of the starhorse, used as a cup; and the edge adamantine, the only blade that can harm the darkangel. The hoof, in its use as a cup, violates the principle of linearity and non-depth, but the shapes of the rest fit fairly well. Moreover, as Luthi says, "they do not bear the signs of active daily use" (12), and therefore lack depth in time.
He also says that the characters of a folktale lack depth. This is most vivid in the case of injury. Though folktales often feature gruesome mutilations, no one's ever crippled, no one ever bleeds in anything other than a symbolic fashion, and no one ever says "ow." We find in The Darkangel that Aeriel's injured three times: once when she's fleeing to the desert and the icarus bites her, once when a pack of jackal-dogs cut her arm, and at the end, a special case I'll address in a moment. She shows brief pain when her arm is hurt, but the injury's temporary; the lyon's blood heals it not long after. The bite is more serious, and Aeriel spends several months recovering from it among the desert people—but it's hard to shake the suspicion that the time elapses for the purpose of the plot, so that Aeriel can learn important lessons from the desert people and the time when the darkangel will seek his last bride will come closer.
The final injury comes at the end of the novel. Aeriel has collected the materials she needs to kill the icarus, and he's chosen her as his final bride. She poisons him on their wedding night, and he's lying vulnerable at her feet. But when she should kill him, she chooses instead to save him. The darkangel was once mortal, but his heart has been gilded with lead; that must be remedied, for him to survive. Aeriel's solution to this problem is to cut her own heart out and put it in his chest.
Pierce's narrative supplies two faint reasons why we should accept this as possible. One is that Aeriel has just drunk a life-giving draught from the starhorse's hoof (the same draught that poisoned the unnatural icarus); it gives her strength. The other is that the edge adamantine is so sharp that it makes painless cuts which don't bleed at all. Neither one diminishes the fact that Aeriel, like a proper folktale heroine, just inflicted a mortal injury on herself without batting an eyelash. Surgery accomplished, she feels very tired and lies down to die. Talb, baffled at her bizarre solution, melts the lead off the darkangel's heart—which he thought was the obvious answer—and, to save her life, places the heart in Aeriel's chest. The entire scene, like many folktale scenes of dismemberment, makes far more sense in a symbolic light than a practical one.
Aeriel gets to have greater psychological depth than most folktale heroines, though perhaps not the full range of emotional and mental complexity we might expect from a longer novel, or one written for adults. She has a past, though in this novel it's mentioned only briefly. Like many folktale characters, however, she lacks a family, and other ties binding her to the social world of her village; the only real relationship she has there is with her mistress Eoduin, whose capture by the darkangel precipitates the plot. The relationships Aeriel forms with later characters are, as Luthi suggests, expressed through external connections: Talb gives her food, information, and magical gifts, the Pendarlon gives her assistance, the leader of the desert people gives her food and a walking stick that doubles as a weapon.
As for the dimension of time, it too exists in more of a symbolic sense than a practical one. The darkangel goes out every year to find a new bride, and when he has fourteen he'll come into the fullness of his power. The novel covers the span of time between the last two brides, and Aeriel's essentially the only character who changes in that time. And although one can, to some extent, see her changes as a process of maturation, in truth there's minimal difference between Aeriel's behavior at the beginning and at the end. The real changes are in the tools she has at her disposal, and in her appearance, which refines such that the icarus eventually considers her to be a worthy bride.
The third quality Luthi describes is classed as "abstract style," a somewhat generic and unhelpful term. As with depthlessness, Luthi means several things by this. One is that the folktale only mentions what is necessary, when it becomes necessary. For example, each object generally has only one attribute: in The Darkangel we have items such as the golden spindle or the leaden chain. Long descriptions are alien to the folktale, and though Pierce gives us more than a folktale would, her style is still restrained.
The materials of objects, Luthi says, are often metallic or mineral, and especially among metals, "the folktale prefers the precious and rare: gold, silver, copper" (27). This general pattern seems to hold in the novel, with the absence of copper and the addition of lead. Though not precious or rare, it's an exemplar of the other extreme, and a love for extremes is another quality Luthi attributes to folktales. For color, "the folktale prefers clear, ultrapure colors: gold, silver, red, white, black, and sometimes blue as well . . . the only blended color to appear is gray" (28). This is nearly true for the novel. Black, white, and silver are by far the most predominant colors, with grey often expressed by lead instead of iron as Luthi suggests. Blue is the most frequent after those, possibly for reasons of setting: the world of The Darkangel is actually our planet's moon, and the Earth, called Oceanus, appears blue in the sky.
There are two striking differences, however. The first is that red, so common in folktales, is almost completely unknown in the novel, used only for the eyes of the jackal-dogs that attack Aeriel and the Pendarlon in the desert, and by implication when blood appears. But blood is in one instance referred to as "rose" (Pierce 193), which leads to the other discrepancy: chromatic colors, in their rare appearances in the story, tend almost universally to be pastels, the blended shades Luthi says do not appear in folktales. Pierce may be using them to suggest the alien qualities of the setting; there are rose-colored lizards (6), and early on, examining the darkangel's black feather, one character says that "Birds are rose, or pale blue, or subtle green . . . There are no black birds" (26).
The majority of the chromatic elements occur away from the darkangel's castle, at the start of the novel or when Aeriel goes to the desert. This suggests that the castle itself is being constructed as a folkloric space, more so than its surrounding world. The other noteworthy point is that Aeriel's coloration changes in the desert: her skin, "a wan rose-tan" (2) at the beginning of the story, is burned pale by the sun (159), and her hair lightens as well. She moves from a chromatic appearance to one more in line with the monochromism of the fairy tale. And her eyes, which the icarus calls "fig-green" (42) when he first meets her, he later calls "emerald" (210). They keep the green color which Luthi says is extremely rare in folktales, but they go from an organic image to a mineral one, from a common substance to a precious one.
Returning to the plot, we find that events in The Darkangel occur with the precision of a folktale. Aeriel encounters all the necessary helpers; they're never omniscient, but they always know or have exactly what she needs, and show up exactly when she needs them. Her magical objects have specific uses, and go away once their use is over. The walking stick serves its purpose when Aeriel knocks a jackal out with it, but then she leaves it behind. The boat Talb made to take her to the desert transforms into a heron and flies away when she gets out, though it'll violate this rule in later books when it returns to her in different forms. As Luthi says, "everything 'clicks'" (31). Aeriel returns to the darkangel's castle with precisely enough time to finish her preparations to kill him; there's no last-instant rushing or twiddling of thumbs.
As Luthi moves through his analysis, he begins to circle back on his own points, approaching them again from different directions. This begins as he discusses "isolation and universal interconnection." The question of extremes, brought up in his discussion of abstract style, returns as a facet of isolation; extreme things are in a sense isolated. Characters are orphans, or youngest children; they're at the royal heights of society or they're utterly common. Aeriel, orphan and slave-girl, matches this description. Luthi's point in highlighting the way in which folktale characters are isolated is then to emphasize how that isolation allows them to immediately and without trouble enter into any relationship which the plot might require. Aeriel's easy friendships along the way might seem to support this.
Isolation does not, however, express itself as strongly in the plot of The Darkangel. Luthi claims that folktale characters fail to learn anything from one another—the third brother is successful at a task because he's the third brother, not because he learned from his siblings' mistakes—or to learn from their own experiences. The episodic structure of many folktales demonstrates this quality, with characters repeating their mistakes or going through a series of identical challenges. It's less true in the novel; Aeriel remembers her past experiences, and details introduced earlier may become relevant later. Pierce also gives us more background and temporal depth than a folktale would. A story Aeriel tells the icarus turns out to be the story of how he, as a little boy, was transformed into a darkangel; Talb has a past that relates to the icarus's. These interrelationships are unlike a folktale.
The issue of motivation also shows a blending of styles. Luthi indicates that folktale heroes are propelled into action not by their own desires—lacking interior depth, they have none—but by external forces and characters. Much of the plot of The Darkangel conforms to this. Events happen because the icarus carries Aeriel off, the wraiths ask her to kill him, the duarough sends her to the desert, the icarus chooses her as a bride. There are two pivotal decisions Aeriel makes for herself, though. She chooses to go for a second time to the steeps of Terrain; nothing forces her, and had she stayed home, the plot wouldn't have happened. Then, when she's defeated the darkangel, she chooses to save his life instead of killing him. Both of these actions are motivated by inner life: a desire to avenge Eoduin, and a love for those aspects of the icarus that are not evil.
As Luthi reaches his final points, about sublimation and all-inclusiveness, he directly addresses the way that "folktale motifs are emptied of their usual substance" (73) or sublimated, calling it both an advantage and a disadvantage. "The folktale loses in concreteness and realism, in nuance and in fullness of content, and in ability to express the deeper dimension of human experience and relationships, but it gains in formal definition and clarity" (73). During the discussion of isolation, Luthi noted that the isolating qualities of the plot are "striking and objectionable" (39) to the modern reader. In these comments, we find the key to understanding the ways in which the novel does and does not map to the qualities of a folktale.
Reading Luthi's book, I found myself feeling at times that he was speaking negatively of folktales. I soon realized that reaction was based in my experience as a fantasy writer: the qualities Luthi attributes to folktales are the sorts of things likely to draw unfavorable responses from members of a critique group. The brief, unsupported statement that Aeriel wondered at a talking lyon is telling, not showing, and her behavior doesn't match its description; furthermore, for a young woman to take such odd things in stride isn't believable.
Modern fantasy partakes more of the characteristics Luthi attributes in passing to legends. Despite its fantastical content, it's realistic in style. Characters marvel at strange things, cry out when they get hurt, and (amnesiac heroes aside) have a past. They learn from their experiences, and the environments they move through are interconnected, with different elements impinging on each other. They suffer difficulties, and magical helpers don't always show up promptly with assistance. When we read stories that fail these standards, we often feel they're poorly written or facile. As a case in point, one review of The Darkangel on the Borders website complains that Aeriel is "flat and uninteresting," "unengaging," "with no backstory and no depth to her"—exactly like a fairy-tale heroine, as the reviewer points out.
Looking at folktales, we find that modern people often don't enjoy reading them. Tales that have gone through literary embellishment may provide the detail that we find interesting, but as a folklorist, I've seen others read transcriptions of oral texts, and they often find them unengaging. Modern fiction trains us to expect certain qualities, as we in turn with our expectations shape the qualities of modern fiction, and the style of today is not a folktale style.
Pierce's novel occupies a middle ground between the folktale style and modern fiction. Her description is simple rather than lush, and the objects in the story are few and iconic. Her characters spend relatively little time on introspection, and at suitably wondrous moments, such as when Aeriel gives the darkangel her heart, they abandon plausible human reactions of pain and fear. But Pierce leavens this with background on the setting and characters and interconnections of those details that help draw the reader in, and she allows her main character a few, pivotal decisions that come from within.
The question, of course, is why the novel's written this way. Clearly, using elements of a fiction style helps Pierce engage her readers, but what does she gain from the folktale style? Scholars have been arguing the purpose of folktales almost as long as they've been arguing the definition of them, with even less agreement, and most of their efforts have focused on the plot rather than the style. Bruno Bettelheim, for example, would tell us that the stories still speak to us today because they resolve the oedipal conflicts of children. Pierce's borrowing, though, focuses on style more than plot. We can only speculate, but I suspect that by echoing the style of folktales, whether deliberately or reflexively, Pierce evokes specific connections for us, drawing on the weight of tradition and the legitimacy we attach to the genre. By giving her work a fairy-tale feel, she attempts to persuade us that The Darkangel is more than just a novel, that it speaks with the modernized voice of the folkloric tradition.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Luthi, Max. The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Trans. John D. Niles. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982.
Nikolajeva, Maria. "Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern." Marvels & Tales 17(1): 2003.
Pierce, Meredith Ann. The Darkangel. San Diego: Magic Carpet Books, 1982.
Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. Laurence Scott. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.
Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2004.
"That Fairy-Tale Feel: A Folkloric Approach to Meredith Ann Pierce's The Darkangel," by Marie Brennan, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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