ICFA 2021: Fairy Tales and Ecological Thinking

March 23, 2021

Last week we wrote a bit about the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), our favorite conference and one of the typical highlights of our year. While we tragically could not be in Orlando for this year’s conference, it DID happen virtually! It wasn’t quite the same, but, still, we loved hearing from scholars and friends online, listening to papers and panels, chatting via Discord, and Zooming in for fairy-tale happy hour. The theme of this year’s (digital) conference was “Climate Change and the Anthropocene,” an important topic that led to many intriguing conversations.

We were panelists on Theodora Goss’ excellent panel, “Dark Forests of the Imagination: Fairy Tales and Ecological Thinking,” where we discussed the role of nature and the forest in everything from the Grimms’ disturbing tale “All Kinds of Fur” to international wonder tales with non-foresty settings to Disney’s problematic Pocahontas (1995) and bold Frozen II (2019) – and still the time went by far too quickly!

While the event was not recorded, everyone on the panel prepared a few remarks to start things off, and we thought it might be fun to share our brief opening statements with you! We’d love to continue this crucial conversation, so anything you might want to contribute to the discussion would be very welcome in the comments here or in our Facebook group too!

The “Dark Forests of the Imagination: Fairy Tales and Ecological Thinking” Panel – ICFA 2021:

In fairy tales, the dark forest can be a site of danger and potential destruction: it is where Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf, and Hansel and Gretel find the witch’s cottage. However, just as often, it is a place of safety, where the protagonist can take refuge from wicked stepmothers or fathers who want to marry their own daughters. The fairy tales we have heard, read, or watched as children teach us how to think about and relate to the natural world, but what lessons exactly are they teaching? In this panel, we will discuss the ways in which fairy tales condition us to relate to the wilderness and its non-human inhabitants. In the midst of our climate crisis, can stories in which protagonists marry bears or learn the language of snakes help us see beyond industrial and economic progress to a future in which ecological considerations are given equal, if not greater, priority? Can fairy tales, as currently written or as they might be rewritten, help us save the natural world we share with real snakes, bears, and wolves.

Sara –

“When I was first invited to take part in this panel, I was delighted but also not at all sure what to talk about. I’ve been studying fairy tales for pretty much my entire adult life (and reading them my entire life), but for the last six or seven years, my primary work on the genre has been the ways in which it intersects with disability – how fairy tales portray disability, how they interact with societal and personal conceptions of the body and mind, and how fairy-tale narratives can trap us in old patterns or open us up to new possibilities.

There’s an article written by Derek Newman-Stille that I’ve come back to again and again in my own work – it’s called “Where Blindness Is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” and a paper version of it that they presented at ICFA many years ago is actually how I learned about disability studies.

In it, they write ‘disability studies theorists often situate realism as most appropriate for discussing social change because it portrays the real world, but science fiction and speculative fiction offer a similar opportunity because these genres depict possible worlds and opportunities for changes that a society could make’ (Newman-Stille 44.)

I love the piece, and this quote, because it always reminds me of the usefulness, validity, and power of speculative literature, which overlaps heavily with fairy tales. And for me, it’s been a useful starting point for thinking through fairy tales and the environment.

To borrow shamelessly from Newman-Stille, what if ‘environmental theorists often situate realism as most appropriate for discussing social change because it portrays the real world…but fairy tales offer a similar opportunity because this genre depicts possible worlds and opportunities for changes that a society could make?’

We all know that stories are powerful – otherwise we wouldn’t be here at this conference right now. And, if the crash course that Brittany and I have done in marketing and business copy over the last few years has taught us anything, it’s that stories are what truly engages people, what makes them care.

And fairy tales are, frequently, bound up inextricably with the natural world. Sometimes, it’s very heavy-handed, as in John Ruskin’s fairy tale “The King of the Golden River,” in which the Treasure Valley is destroyed by wind and flood caused by human folly and eventually restored through kindness and conscientiousness.

Fairy tales forests are also sites of great danger, like Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” or places of escape and refuge like the Grimms’ “All Kinds of Fur.”

As I re-read fairy tale after fairy tale in preparation for this panel, I began to see the fairy-tale forest and the natural world as sites of liminality and transformation. They are places of potential, places where the status quo shifts, people and animals and beasts transform, and magic can happen.

If you get lost in the woods, you might get turned into a bird or be eaten by Baba Yaga. You might best a witch, or become a witch. But the outcome usually – though not always – hinges on how you behave in the woods. Are you kind to bears and dwarves? Then you might make it through ok – and richer than before.”

Brittany –

“To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done a great deal of work considering the ecological perspective on fairy-tale studies, but when Dora proposed the panel, my interest was peeked! I’m excited to talk through a few of the key issues with everyone today.

Due to my background, my initial thoughts were of course about fairy-tales and the Gothic aesthetic. One of the earliest key connections that I discovered in my work on this area is the nearly ubiquitous presence of the dark forest in both fairy tales and a huge variety of Gothic literature staples – Ann Radcliffe comes to mind in particular as an author always deeply concerned with the depiction of nature and how nature can effect story. To quote the introduction to the first issue of Gothic Nature: New Directions in EcoHorror and EcoGothic, “[n]ature is consistently constructed in [Gothic] stories as Other, excessive, unpredictable, disruptive, chaotic, enticing, supernaturally powerful, and, perhaps most disturbingly, alive.” You might say the same thing about how nature appears in fairy tales. Many Gothic tales also, of course, are largely about monstrous nature – consider the perils of messing with the natural world in stories like Frankenstein, “Rappuccini’s Daughter,” or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This connection leads me, of course, to focus more on the… scary side of nature as it is depicted in fairy tales. Or, rather than scary, the unknowable side of nature, nature’s power, nature’s indifference to us. I feel like fairy tales do give us warnings about these kinds of things in a similar way to Gothic literature – don’t wander off the path in the forest, there are wolves, and the woods won’t protect you… birds don’t care if you get home or not and will eat your breadcrumbs… even apples can be poisoned. There is a power in nature that fairy tales very seldom forget. These are not stories of mankind’s industry triumphing. If anything, they are stories about mankind surviving, about mankind learning to live in a world that is NOT built entirely around humanity and its desires.

Ultimately, I think that that can be a good thing – I think there is an important power in the kind of ecological de-centering that fairy tales can do. They can help us to move outside the tiny box of human society and start thinking about the creatures and places beyond us that we share our world with. And – this is going to be a bit corny, forgive me – I think that’s a bit of important magic right there.”

Here are just a few of the other questions we tackled:

“What are these tales telling us about the relationship between the human and natural? Human beings often communicate with animals, turn into animals, are disguised as animals. Can we learn something from these tales and their depictions of animals? Where do we see this relationship explored in a particularly interesting way?”

“How does this relationship with the natural world get transformed in literary fairy tales?”

“What sorts of messages are [children] getting from […] retold fairy tales? Do we want to think about fairy tales as potentially bearers of ecological messages to young readers?”

“Are fairy tales an important part of an environmental agenda? We know that we need scientists to help us solve the climate crisis. But what about writers and scholars – do they also have a part to play?”

We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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