Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.
A.S. Byatt, in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, has written five fairy stories that teach these same lessons, but at the same time, break with every convention. Four of the stories are short (and two of them should be familiar to anyone who’s read Possession, as they are to be found embedded in that novel), and the fifth, the title story, is novella-length. All five are intricate delights, little gems of craftsmanship that owe as much to modern feminism and narratology as they do to ancient folk and fairy tales. They lead you to look into the depths even as you enjoy the surface.
“The Glass Coffin,” one of the stories Christabel writes in Possession, is a wonderful story that begins so gently you may think you’ve heard it as a child: “There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be traveling through a forest…” There is a glass coffin, as in Snow White, and the rescue of a sleeping princess. But the ending is not the ending you may be expecting, and the ability to be a craftsman and to walk in the great forest turn out to be more important than princely charms. “Gode’s Story,” the other tale that’s found in Possession, is darker and more disturbing, a tale of a haunting and the curse of pride, the death of the spirit and a dreadful dance.
“Dragon’s Breath” is the story of a village, perhaps not long ago — one gets the sense it’s in Eastern Europe — and its destruction by dragons. Not noble, winged dragons, but worms: bringers of death and decay, who leave nothing but ashes and foulness behind. The survivors of the slow worms’ passage are left with nothing but a sense of wonder at their own survival.
“The Story of the Eldest Princess” is probably my favorite of these tales. There’s a crisis in the princess’s kingdom, and she, being the oldest of three sisters, sets out on a quest to solve the problem. Not far into her journey, she comes to the realization that, as the eldest, as in all fairy tales of this kind, she is doomed to fail: it’s the youngest who always succeeds. Why not leave the path, strike out on her own? She does, and her adventures from there are fascinating and moving. She must be brave and kind and wise, she must understand her own desires, and she must take apart the frame of the story she thought she was in. It’s a gorgeous piece of reflection on storytelling, as well as a great piece of storytelling in and of itself.
The final novella takes place in the modern day. It’s about Gillian Perholt, who is not a storyteller but a scholar, a narratologist, “a being of a second order,” who is irrelevant, and therefore happy. She travels to Ankara to a conference on “Stories of Women’s Lives,” and confronts the misogyny inherent in classics both Western (Patient Griselda, from the Canterbury Tales) and Eastern (Scheherezade.) So when she is presented with a djinn of her own, she knows better than to rush into her wishes. She wants choices, possibilities, happiness. How to do that within the structure of the story she’s been given? The final result is both profoundly satisfying and beautifully, delicately written, stories layering on top of others to create a work of art similar to the titular nightingale’s eye, çesm-i bülbül, a form of glass with twists of color weaving through it to please the eye and contain the djinn.