Laura True-Teller and Other Fairy Tales

by Ray Davis

1. “Poet: A Lying Word”

On an electronic discussion board a successful writer of fairy tales once claimed that no poet was capable of giving up poetry-writing.

Now, although like anything it gets easier with practice, giving up is rarely as difficult as it seems. With proper assistance one can even leave off growing older. And a number of poets have, unassisted, successfully left off the writing of poetry. Upon that same electronic discussion board, I named two who’d done so in explicitly deliberate fashions: Arthur Rimbaud and Laura Riding.

The successful writer of fairy tales answered me that “they could not have been true poets.”

Setting Rimbaud aside for the nonce, I find this a very pretty story for three reasons.

  1. Because Laura Riding is an immeasurably (and not just because she wrote free verse) more important poet than anyone I’ve encountered on an electronic discussion board.
  2. Because Laura Riding, despite her lack of name recognition on electronic discussion boards, also happens to have written my favorite twentieth century fairy tales.
  3. Because of that easy pairing of the little words “true” and “poet,” which really is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

2. “I cannot tell you, in fact, what I am really like.”

Laura Riding has been the source of many stories.

  1. In one, she exemplifies the fate of the “difficult” woman writer: her works are ignored in favor of personality-sniping gossip and her most productive ideas are ignored in favor of a man who stole and distorted them.
  2. Another story is supplied by the gossip. That one’s easy to find in biographies and so on, so I won’t bother repeating it.
  3. In the story she spent the last fifty years of her life telling, mostly under the name Laura (Riding) Jackson, she’s a researcher who sacrificed all hope of fame to her single-minded dedication to truth.

    I like the way she tells this story and I like the way it explains the shift she made in 1938 away from the normal literary work of fiction and poetry to renegade collaborative philosophizing. Sadly, I don’t much like reading the post-1938 work itself: near-contentless prose that seems choked by the steel wool used to polish it.

    Oh, dear; oh, well; after all, I don’t own her; I just own her books....

  4. But my favorites are those collected in Progress of Stories (first edition 1935; second, 1982), in which she pays homage and uniquely close attention to her favorite teller of stories, Hans Christian Andersen.

3. Two Fairy Tales about Hans Christian Andersen

  1. References to dozens of Andersen’s fairy tales are crammed into the waveringly realistic narrative of “The Story-Pig” but, stripped to its simplest terms, Riding’s story describes a long-delayed promise of transcendence which is partially fulfilled (and thereby indefinitely delayed) one magical night.
    1. The totality of the characters’ lives is not transcended. Only their best aspects are.
    2. Now, if the best (including the yearning for transcendence itself) has been sublimated, then the best is by definition lost.
    3. And so the net result of all this glorious effort is to leave the world much diminished: “That so beautiful picture of the view from the hotel in moonlight” is found turned to the wall and “unmistakably faded, as if someone had scrubbed it hard with soap and water to wash away the surface and get through to a better picture underneath, and failed...”
  2. Riding positioned “A Crown for Hans Andersen” proud and isolate at the pinnacle of her progress of stories, probably because it’s the least conventionally fictive narrative in the book.

    What it calls “our story” is an interpretation of literary and intellectual history beginning from as acerbic a view of the realistic novel as Andersen himself held, travelling through centuries of more-or-less comfortable disillusionment, and ending

    "where the book begins to be not a story-book. Our wish was to get at least as far as that. Was not that your wish?"

4. “We are not so many as we were, but we are still quite a lot.”

As the mainstream of nineteenth century fiction labored toward ever more transparent surface, the fairy tale became an outlet for acknowledgment of the fiction-teller.

  1. For popularizing folklorists, the implied teller was a native informant: a German granny for the Grimms, an Irish Catholic gardener for Yeats.
  2. For literary fairy tale writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde, the implied teller was a queasily maintained conglomeration of the writer and the reader, who in turn was assumed to be performing to an actively involved audience of children.
    “When father or mother reads aloud, I am there standing in the room, but I have my white stick in my mouth and am invisible.”
    - “Luck Can be Found in a Stick,” Andersen, 1871

This warm knot of controlled collaboration may be the very thing that attracted Andersen to the fairy tale form by all accounts, he was a lonely man and it’s certainly what attracted Riding, who appeals in all her work to a shared essence of mind.

The implied presence of a speaker and a listener lets the fairy tale, like the poem and the essay, wander freely from first person plural to first singular, to third to second person and back again. But, unlike poem and essay, the fairy tale’s primary interest is storytelling.

And so, being always an alarmingly direct sort of writer, where one might expect Laura Riding to write an essay about narratology, she instead wrote fairy tales.

5. “And that is just as well, for children shouldn’t know everything.”

Using the habitually uncontested tone in which people say that they don’t like Jerry Lewis or that the Beatles are their favorite rock-and-roll band, somebody once told me, “I only read nonfiction books and the news. I don’t have time to waste on things that aren’t true.”

Most of the nonfiction and all of the journals that the person had on hand seemed more dangerously mendacious to me than the fiction on my shelves...

  1. but then the history of fiction begins with hoaxes...
  2. and maybe my acquaintance’s instincts were right; maybe it’s time for the awkward category of fiction to sink back into the vast maternal body of hoax. If humans need to be fooled by narrative (and I think we do), why not be straightforwardly deceitful? Why should you, like the fiction writers, announce “This will be a lie” before you tell one?
  3. Unless your conscience bothers you.
  4. Because fiction attracts the conscience-pricked. Those high-Medieval and early-Renaissance protofictional hoaxes were themselves obsessed with lies, wallowing in variations on the authors’ sins: fake guidebooks to con games, fake travel tales of imposters, romances of double and triple dealing, cracked-pated old gentlemen taken in by the most ridiculous pseudohistories....
  5. For my favorite storytellers, the most intriguing deceit is self-deceit.
  6. And fiction provides the most secure position from which to examine self-deceit’s workings, because fiction’s foundational admission of guilt heads off the usual challenge after a misinterpretation has been refuted: “What is it then?”

    If Mme. Bovary isn’t a glamorous star-crossed lover and Humbert Humbert isn’t the sensitive victim of a sexy man-eater, what are they?

    “They are just what we showed you,” say the fiction writers.

But you don’t see biographers getting away with such an answer.

Similarly, when forced to write non-fictionally, Nabokov asserts that Humbert is merely a dangerous sociopath and Flaubert asserts that Mme. Bovary is merely a deluded dope: paltry critical formulae which hold as much truth and almost as little point as what biographers typically give us of the authors themselves.

Because “finally,” when we’ve diligently unwrapped all the fresh or moldy strips of not-quite-true story from around a human being, what’s left?

In the post-poetic post-fictional phase of her career, Laura (Riding) Jackson withdrew in quest of the Mummy’s dust and the Invisible Man’s dental work. And so they called her mad! Mad! (She does come off a little Claude Raines-ish at times, I have to admit.)

Most of us, bewildered but doggedly sane, are driven only so far as to demonstrate that the linen exists and can be lifted. Once in a while, we may even guiltily suspect that a new layer might make us more comfortable.

6. “You insist on knowing, do you? Well, why don’t you know? Does anyone stop you?”

Those susceptible to Laura Riding’s fairy tales will fall prey to a peculiar frisson that’s almost as physiologically definitional as the chill of horror or the stirabout of pornography. A rift and connection appear between the categories of “artifact” and “human being.” Storytelling reveals itself as a limited construction, albeit inhabited, like a skyscraper with glass elevators.

One might trace the technique’s origins from the always-equivocal moralizing of Han Christian Andersen, or from the appallingly common collapse of our most sacred intellectual soufflés in the noisy heat of discourse, or simply from impatience with the fiddle-faddle of everyday life.

An example:

Riding’s story “Reality as Port Huntlady” at first seems to accompany a disgruntled Wittgenstein while he beats a path between the holiday cottages of P. G. Wodehouse, Ronald Firbank, and Mrs. Hemoglobin. Nothing special, right? But on the twelfth page, an authorial aside balloons to monstrous proportions:

“Exactly what this business was has no important bearing on our story. We must treat of it briefly, as we have treated of the cats briefly, in order not to return to the matter again, if possible. Such matters do not carry the story along; on the contrary, they retard the story. They represent rather the weight of the story in words, or the time that the material of the story took to shape itself into a single pathetic impression by which it may be related to other stories, forming with them such a baggage of half-truths as we may carry about with us like an intimate and therefore virtuous vice something to think about with a perverse possessiveness that cannot, however, lead to much outward confusion, being in its very privacy so unambitious. You know how it is with some half-essential patent article you buy, perhaps a fountain-pen, or a bottle of ink, or a dictionary: you speak of ‘my’ dictionary, and so on, and it is all rather shadowy.”

“And so on” for four pages, until the narrative voice finally manages to talk itself into explaining “this business.”

“Breaking the fourth wall” doesn’t quite describe this. The fourth wall is a theatrical convention, as is breaking it, and theater is the art least likely to supply the effect. Instead I’ve found it in John Keats’s poetic fragment “This Living Hand” and Gascoigne’s “Lullaby”; in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and The Cameraman and in the conclusion of Lindsey Anderson’s Oh Lucky Man; and most often in sf, maybe because of sf’s originary tension between an assumedly shared “real world” and an individual work’s “imagined world.” Joanna Russ’s “The Second Inquisition,” Thomas Disch’s “The Squirrel Cage,” Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, John Crowley’s Engine Summer, and Karen Joy Fowler’s “Shimabara” all turn on telescoping collapses of story and storytelling.

But Riding is the only writer I know of to focus so consistently on the effect, or to express such a badgeringly moralistic attitude with it.

7. “‘I could have expressed that better,’ thought the critic, but he didn’t say it out loud and that was already something.”

Now, I’m not talking about some postmodernist “Aren’t I a cute little asshole?” brand of metanarrative playfulness. Playfulness has nothing to do with it: Riding undercuts her narrative with the inscrutable determination of a slasher supervillain.

No, it’s more like some blowhard once said about poetry: men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

He exaggerated, of course. Poetry is the most laughably overweening genre around, with cultural studies and journalism and hard science fiction closing from behind.

But recognition of (or, more often, blindness to) the limits of storytelling does seem to me critical to most real life or death or death-in-life decisions. Lives are destroyed and lives are made destructive by fallible narrative.

Here’s what the Magic of Storytelling means to me:

  1. Siblings feuding over the possessions of a dying parent
  2. Murder by an ex-lover in a corporate parking lot
  3. A friendship broken due to mismatched ethnic identities
  4. Gang rape of a drunken college student
  5. Drivers screaming obscenities while jockeying for position on a crowded highway
  6. The elimination of funds for public education
  7. Just about anything that might be called “motivated action,” really, if you look at it right.


I’m often accused of confusing aesthetics with ethics.

And it’s true that my most visceral response to bad art is childish indignation: “But that’s a lie!”

Luckily I have no more power to enforce my opinions now than when I was a child. And luckily I have much less desire to defend them.

8. “We learn to smile at what cannot, for all our delicacy, be put into so many words.”

It’s always salutary (and often painful) to realize that a previously unanticipated story can fit our position just as well as the one we’ve been using. It also makes a lovely pivot in a narrative structure. (Textbook example: John Garfield’s “Wuddaya gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.”)

Most authors then hasten to wrap the characters’ new interpretation around a reassuring conclusion.

And they have to move fast.

Such realizations call all storytelling into question. They prove that story is not essence, that story is a covering-up of essence, or, at best, a fashionable accentuation of some flattering aspect of essence.

If we truly seek the truth in story, we must always be excusing ourselves to repair to the closet; we must always be trying on other stories for the tightest possible comfortable fit.

“There’s more enterprise in walking naked,” wrote Yeats publicly, while privately attacking Riding’s poetry for its lack of seductive blarney.

Of course, green velveteen and black satin aren’t the only materials available to our brave little tailors. Yeats was never much for irony, but others have been drawn to the apparent security of pectoral-enhancing mirror-polished plate.

Andersen, for example, can’t resist donning that armor, despite his constant complaints of chafing.

Cavalier Riding, on the other hand, admits to no other skin. Her irony goes direct from surface to soul, thoroughly unalloyed and sound with no pause at the nerves, and her defense of ornamentation is as offensively ironic as Yeats’s defense of nudity is defensively self-indulgent:

“Concealing one’s uncertainty about what must in a little while be clear, finally, behind a screenwork of ambiguous courtesies [....] in the certainty, at least, that mere nakedness never advanced the course of truth as never the course of love.”

9. Anarchism Is Not Enough

“Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it,” as the poet sang.

Riding was drawn to origins. A half-dozen stories in the Progress describe the beginnings of worlds. Or the world’s end, which is pretty much the same thing.

Unlike previous origin stories in English, but like later ones from Joanna Russ and Eleanor Arnason, Riding’s feature goddesses, and goddesses who seem not to pay much attention to what they’re doing. (As the poet sang, “You may think she’s sort of flighty, but she’s good enough for me.”)

  1. The short-short “In the Beginning” posits the divine creator as “a little girl who could not think of anything important to do.”
  2. Miss Banquett of “Miss Banquett, or The Populating of Cosmania” becomes stranded on a desert island, which she proceeds to undesert out of pure (if evermore bemused) vanity.
  3. Long, black, sulky Frances Cat, the protagonist (and several other characters) of “A Fairy Tale for Older People,” sleeps, dreams, dies, and is reborn, all while reading a book in which she gradually assumes the role of author (and several other roles) “Oh, dear, what nonsense! Will the nonsense ever end?”
  4. “A Last Lesson in Geography” begins with the assertion that the earth is flat, and continues with a Nietzschean account of how the absurd belief that it’s round came to be, which drifts flat and roundabout into a tale of a noble barbarian’s quest, which brings him face to face with God herself. A most uncharacteristic moral is drawn: “I was sure that if we could go through a last lesson in geography with a smile on our faces the rest would be not at all hard to bear. I would make me very happy if I could feel that I had imparted a little of my optimism to you.”
  5. “Eve’s Side of It” is that she was created by Lilith: “Lilith made me, so far as I can make out, because she was irritated with herself....”
  6. And so on.
  7. And then there are the less grandiose creations of Venison Bride the authoress, from “Daisy and Venison,” who starts writing stories because she is “sitting around in comfortable positions in Sunday clothes with nothing to do,” who feels “like an animal writing about people,” who loses her hostess Daisy through overindulgence in literary ambition, who gives ambition up because “perhaps love was a more practical way of being worldly while living a retired, lazy life, than writing stories,” and who then simply decides to live long without disturbing her daily peace.
  8. And the adventurous Lotus, of “Three Times Round” (the world), who finally rests in Japan with “people who, like herself, did not quite know why they were there and had no immediate reason for going away. They did not talk to one another, but merely sat in the same room together telling themselves that they were in Japan.”

We start bored, we initiate story, and then we pause at the brink of story’s end.

Should we progress?

Or should we simply pause long enough to become bored again?

10. “Fairy tales are to be stupid and yet to be as wise as possible, being stupid.”

I agree with Riding that the single most important aspect of narrative to be drawn out is its fallibility. Pundits’ swoons to the contrary, we can certainly count on the narrative impulse being able to assert itself without our constantly cheering it on.

Where I part company is at Riding’s assumption that we have a tenable alternative to our shared suspension of intelligence, that there is any way to be wiser than fairy tales.

Narrative is unavoidable. When we try to avoid it, we freeze or else vacillate so quickly as to disappear altogether.

Laura (Riding) Jackson wanted her post-literary career to serve as a counterexample.

But that didn’t happen, did it?

Thank goodness her cold corpus lies there to warn us away from over-courage.

11. “Then there are fables. Fables are not fairy tales. A fable-man says, ‘We are where we are, and the important thing is not to commit ourselves one way or the other.”

We want to be approved of, and to tell the truth; to be loved, and to communicate.

But these are separate things.

Which is why they’re able to form a structure to house us and walls against which to anchor.

Close to the warmer, moister wall, we find a cloddish spider, its web full of debris and homely knots.

Near the opposite wall, one of those control-freak spiders raised on LSD winds and unwinds an invariant spiral.

While a spider suspicious of all walls contents itself with hooking a few thin strands on theirs. “I may not have much of a view, but when all’s webbed and strung,” it reflects, “all any of us can do is keep our threads repaired and hope for another fly.”

Copyright 2000 Ray Davis