Angela Carter on the Tale vs the Story

By Xoic · Sep 1, 2023 ·
  1. Getting back to my posts concerning different kinds of stories, here's something I've posted on the board that I'd like to be able to find, so I'm putting it here in my online notebook (the first part is by yours truly):

    Fairy tales are not like regular stories because they're archetypal. They're about types rather than individuals. Even if an individual has a name in a fairy tale, they represent a type. The names are often strange, like 'Horsehair went to wash himself in the creek as he did every morning... '

    In fact, let me see if I can find that really cool little thing about tales (including fairy tales) that Angela Carter wrote in the afterward to her book Fireworks.

    Here we go:


    I STARTED TO write short pieces when I was living in a room too small to write a novel in. So the size of my room modified what I did inside it and it was the same with the pieces themselves. The limited trajectory of the short narrative concentrates its meaning. Sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve among the multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative. I found that, though the play of surfaces never ceased to fascinate me, I was not so much exploring them as making abstractions from them. I was writing, therefore, tales.

    Though it took me a long time to realize why I liked them, I’d always been fond of Poe, and Hoffman – Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious – mirrors; the externalized self; forsaken castles; haunted forests; forbidden sexual objects. Formally, the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience, and therefore the tale cannot betray its readers into a false knowledge of everyday experience.

    The Gothic tradition in which Poe writes grandly ignores the value systems of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane. Its great themes are incest and cannibalism. Character and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions. Its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact. Its only humour is black humour. It retains a singular moral function – that of provoking unease.

    The tale has relations with sub-literary forms of pornography, ballad and dream, and it has not been dealt with kindly by literati. And is it any wonder? Let us keep the unconscious in a suitcase, as Père Ubu did with his conscience, and flush it down the lavatory when it gets too troublesome.

    So I worked on tales. I was living in Japan; I came back to England in 1972. I found myself in a new country. It was like waking up, it was a rude awakening. We live in Gothic times. Now, to understand and to interpret is the main thing; but my method of investigation is changing.
    (Xoic again)—And keep in mind that fairy tales are far more compressed than the much more sprawling tales of Poe or Hoffman. Those exist somewhere between the far more 'typical' (or archetypal) fairy tales and short stories as we're familiar with them today, dealing with individuals in something approximating ordinary day-to-day life like the life we're familiar with.

    In fact it just occurred to me—I'd say the difference (between fairy tale and short story) is much like the difference between dream and story.


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