I love Alice Hoffman’s prose. Recently I finished reading Green Heart, which is two novels combined: Green Angel and Green Witch. To my great shame, I had only ever read Green Angel. It is a complete novel unto itself, a complete story, but stories never really end and so for all of these years I had no idea what happened to Green after the events of the first book. I sometimes hesitate to re-read a beloved book (sometimes, but not often) — especially one that has moved me as Hoffman’s books always do — because I fear the original impact might be diminished after the passing of years. Memory, too, plays a funny game and I might recall a character in ways that character was never written. For example, I dearly loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but I’m not sure I’ll read it again (though I will certainly watch it), because since finishing the book I have read several feminist criticisms of it, some well-founded, which may cause me to spend more time picking out flaws than engaging with the story itself. As a reader (I am a very simple reader), I want story. Later, when I have my writer’s hat on, I’ll find the flaws. There aren’t any in Green Heart to find.
The story is as follows:
A two-fold tale of grief and hope, loss and love, told as only Alice Hoffman can. When her family is lost in a terrible disaster, 15-year-old Green is haunted by loss and the past. Struggling to survive in a place where nothing seems to grow and ashes are everywhere, Green retreats into the ruined realm of her garden. But in destroying her feelings, she also begins to destroy herself. It is only through a series of mysterious encounters that Green relearns the lessons of love and begins to heal as she tells her own story. As she heals, Green lives every day with feelings of loss. Her family is gone, the boy she loves is missing, and the world she once knew has been transformed by tragedy. In order to rediscover the truth about love, hope, and magic, she must venture away from her home, collecting the stories of a group of women who have been branded witches for their mysterious powers. Only through their stories will Green find her own heart’s desire.
It sounds simple enough. Here we have the promise of a good plot, and if you’re like me, the words magic and witches in that synopsis hook you immediately. But the two words they didn’t use are fairy tale, and that is of course what this story is. We find magic, transformation, animal helpers, and witches, all earthed in Green’s garden. We read scores of stories told inside this one story about a young girl whose darkest forest grows inside herself. All of that is fine, is perfect, but what makes this story so profound is Hoffman’s prose.
“Then I understood the path my mother had spoken of for me. Every white page looked like a garden, in which anything might grow.”
I don’t want to reduce the beauty of the story to a mere reading of its prose, however. The above two sentences, read alone and out of context, do not convey their entire meaning, or allow you to see the place they hold in the development of Green, the character. But they do highlight what is often best about fairy tales, and that is their simplicity. Their brutal, stark honesty. You may say ah, but Hoffman is writing like this because this is a YA book. No. I do not believe for one minute that has anything to do with it. Here is an excerpt from The Story Sisters, an adult book:
“She went down to the marsh, where the tall reeds grew, where the river began. I ran to keep up. She slipped into the water, all gray and murky. She waited for me to follow. I didn’t think twice. I took off my boots. The water was cold. I went under fast.”
“I went under fast.” And with that simple sentence, the reader is pulled under and into the story that unfolds. How many different ways are there to say “I went under”? Hundreds. How many of them will actually serve to pull the reader under? I don’t know. I do know a long-winded and flowery sentence here, at this very point, would not have pulled me under, not in this story. In others, maybe. In a fairy tale, a succinct sentence like this one works as a trap. Not only are Hansel and Gretel trapped in the witch’s house, we are too:
“I’ve got them now; they sha’n’t escape me.”
This is all very alchemical, in that a thing boiled down to its purest essence often has the most power. This alchemy is part of what makes a fairy tale sing. This has something to do with celerity, which Phillip Pullman talks about in The challenge of retelling Grimms’ fairy tales:
Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.
And that is what Hoffman does in Green Heart. She moves us swiftly through dreamlike states (through fire and ash, and gardens and woods, through the heart of one young girl) and does not waste one single word in doing so, nor do we find any extraneous word. Every word that is there, needs to be there. This is true mastery of a craft, but that alone does not a fairy tale make.
There is currently a wealth of retold fairy tales out there. Here is a list of 118(!) retold fairy tales, which proves — if nothing else — that the fairy tale tradition is alive and thriving. I have certainly not read every one of these, so take my forthcoming generalised question with a grain of salt. I wonder how many of these stories actually are fairy tales? What I mean to say is that just because you’re telling the story of Red Riding Hood, for example, does not mean you have written a fairy tale. I do not want to get too close to the definition of “fairy tale” as that is something that is and should be open for eternal debate. So rather than define the thing itself, I would prefer to attempt to describe its impact. I suggest that what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale has to do with the way in which it is read and absorbed, by the way in which it transports the reader through a specifically mythic landscape (any landscape, yours or mine), and by the way it opens and concludes. A healthy part of this is the heroine’s (or hero’s) journey, which takes place in an unreal or surreal setting. Most often, it is the setting we are introduced to first.
Once upon a time… in all cases, the time itself is the setting. Once upon is not our time, it is a time “beyond the fields we know,” and even if the story itself is actually taking place in our time, that time has been separated from ours in that it becomes, through the agency of “once upon,” a time that lies sideways to our own. There can be deep woods, or there can be skyscrapers, or both, but the entrance to the fairy tale is found right there in the beginning, when we are transported into the landscape of a time that is not our time. It is, in fact, timeless.
The key to the fairy tale is magic. It is not a system of magic — it is not the kind of magic in which the heroine or hero casts a circle, or reads from an old grimoire, or conjures helpers out of thin air. Magic is just there, like the sound of a million insects is just there, always there, whether we can hear it or not. Helpers do appear. Outcomes are affected, but these are not always matters of will. This kind of magic is the kind that does not need human intervention to move it. Rather, it moves us. It is a serendipitous magic, the magic of the happy accident, which isn’t an accident at all but more of a synchronicity, in that the helpers always appear when they are needed, as though they have been conjured out of the landscape (or even by the landscape) itself. This is precisely the case in Green Heart, which includes a mysterious white dog, doves, and a hawk, among others. These animals appear at precisely the moment they are needed. Green doesn’t call them to herself, they are moved to find her by way of the magic that infuses even a broken and burned land.
These are wondrous animals in every sense. For one thing, they have somehow survived the destruction of the land. For another, they have all been affected by that destruction, just as Green has. As they are Green’s helpers, so she helps them, which is often a common theme in the fairy tale. The helpers do not show up, help out, and then depart. There is a necessary give and take, and in many cases the heroine must offer them help before they can help her. This is the magic of as above, so below. Or, as within, so without. This inter-relatedness, the idea that as one helps another, one helps themselves, is critical for the telling of a fairy tale, because it is this which, in part, suffuses a fairy tale with wonder.