Hel Gurney, one of the performers in Bed Time Tales, talks about why they write...
I have always been fascinated by fairytales. I grew up with them, and never really grew out of them. This Saturday, I’ll be performing work from my poetry and storytelling project Red Hoods and Glass Slippers – a journey through multiple interlacing fairytales, where every action leaves ripples in the world.
The world of fairytales is one of mirroring and transformation: not just in terms of the magic that can feature in the plots, but of how fairytales interact with each other. Many of the stories we think of as ‘classic’ or ‘canonical’ fairytales are more like snapshots: each one a single preserved moment in the life of a story that has been passed down generations and changed with every telling. Fairytales mirror each other: every single character archetype and plot structure in a ‘classic’ tale can be found in others –there’s an entire categorisation system (the ATU index) dedicating to tracing them.
And fairytales transform: they are stories with lessons, and the lesson depends on the teller and their culture. Red Riding Hood is a story about what today we would call ‘stranger danger’ – but what is its lesson? In early versions, where she tricks her way out and deals with the wolf herself, it’s a lesson about being cunning and resourceful. When the story shifts to her being rescued by a huntsman, it becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of disobedience. And today, the symbolism of the story – a red cloak, a hairy male predator, an innocent girl who has been given instructions on how to stay ‘safe’ – has taken hold to the extent that it’s increasingly hard to find a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that isn’t on some level a Freudian fable about sexual awakening and/or sexual violence.
This rich vein of symbolism in fairytales is one reason they stick with us. These are not just stories about fairies and witches and woods. These are stories about sex, love, death, hunger. These are stories about inheritance and abuse and loss and bravery and kindness and victory. Their familiar patterns offer us comfort and catharsis; their sketched-out characters enact morality plays and rites of passage. Fairytales are powerful. At their best, they teach us how to be human. And so it should be no surprise that as we change, so too do our stories and the lessons they carry.
When I reimagine fairytales, I want to take the mythic weight that lurks behind the deceptive simplicity and bring it to the fore. I want to tell stories about what it means to be human, to love and suffer and want and lose. I want to expose the dark power dynamics underlying so many ‘happy endings’, and make space for tenderness in stories of pain and hardship. I want to investigate the motives behind – and personal cost of – the familiar stories we often take for granted. (What does it feel like to wake from a hundred-year sleep, in a changed world? Why doesn’t Cinderella just leave her stepmother’s home? What kind of person finds a girl in a coffin and kisses her?) I want to tell the fairytales I wish I could have read when I was younger, because someone out there is still wishing for them.
Red Hoods is ultimately an invitation to see fairytales differently – to place yourself in the shoes of characters both familiar and strange, and experience these old stories through new eyes. I hope you’ll join me.
Hel Robin Gurney is a poet, performer, fiction and non-fiction writer, and escaped academic. Nominated for the Rhysling Poetry Award and published in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic, Hel has also exhibited multimedia poetry pieces at Somerset House and Trans Pride Brighton.