Reading Like a Writer: "Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child" and Fairy Tale Language
Joy Williams's beautiful short story, "Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child," is a modern fairy tale in which Baba Iaga has a pelican child and the child is killed by John James Audubon.
It's modern because it was written in contemporary times and because it incorporates modern elements, such as Audubon, ornithology, and the murder of "specimens." It's a fairy tale because it stars the fascinating Baba Iaga of Russian folklore. It's also a fairy tale because animals talk and because magic is employed.
But there's more to its fairy-ness than that. Something about the language just feels like fairy tale and I'd like to figure out why.
One sentence particularly intrigues me: "Baba Iaga was usually very careful, though sometimes she was not."
It's an odd sentence to find in a story. Most of the time, narrators tell facts that are more certain. Otherwise why tell them? If Baba Iaga is not always careful, why mention it at all?
The oddness, I think, is key, because it reveals a voice that is both deliberate and arbitrary. The voice is going to tell you what it's going to tell you, proving itself to have a personality, even as it pretends to be objective. This quirk of the narrator makes us notice it. It feels like the storyteller is present and therefore evokes oral tradition, which is, of course, where fairy tales originate.
But I'm pretty sure the sentence does more than establish an idiosyncratic voice.
By contradicting itself, it first seems to cancel out the information it gives and becomes a sentence that tells nothing—Baba Iaga neither is nor isn't careful.
But then I realize the opposite is happening. The two characteristics don't negate each other but are simultaneously true of Baba Iaga. She is both careful and not careful. The sentence is not vague but ambiguous. The ambiguity—the being both things even though they are opposites—is a mild sort of paradox. And magic loves paradox. Magic loves to do or be two things at once.
The contradiction also tells us something important about the character. She is not ruled by a narrow or consistent way of being. Baba Iaga might do anything and her actions can surprise us.
This feels right for a fairy tale and especially right for Baba Iaga. We don't get a long deliberation on the reasons for her actions. We don't see her thought process or watch her agonize over every decision. She just acts.
This quality in fairy tale characters is often called flatness, but I think it shows a different kind of depth. We don't explore the mental process of the character, but the unexpectedness of her actions proves that something stirs beneath the part of her that we see. Her willfulness proves her personhood to me. Something is spurring her actions and the mystery of it makes her alive.
By establishing a willful character, the sentence is also linked to the plot. After all, the inconsistency described is what allows Audubon access to the pelican child. In the beginning of the story, Baba Iaga is very cautious and yet, suddenly and without warning, she is not cautious at all.
A fairy tale doesn't need to have a moral, but some common ones are "Be careful what you wish for" and "Choose your words carefully." And so another way the sentence conjures fairy tale is just by mention of carefulness. To anyone who knows fairy tale logic, Baba Iaga's sometimes-careless behavior is immediately alarming.
But it's not just carefulness that's important in fairy tales; it's carefulness with words. In many tales, the plot hinges on a character who misspeaks or one who tricks another into saying a wrong thing. Wishes are interpreted with painful literalism. Magic words must be spoken exactly.
Therefore, precision in language is itself a characteristic of fairy tales and can explain more about why the sentence feels right.
"Baba Iaga was usually very careful, though sometimes she was not."
First, the sentence refuses to use contractions, insisting on "was not" instead of "wasn't" and demanding precision in enunciation. It's also precise because of the way the second clause qualifies the first, reminding of legal language as it makes sure all contingencies are taken into account. And it is much more precise to say that a person is sometimes careful and sometimes not than it is to average the extremes and say she is a medium-careful person.
It's this reverence for language that lends itself to the double speak common in fairy tales—riddles and seeming contradictions that are paradoxically true. This sentence is a rather weak example of paradox, but there's at least a hint of that magic.
And then again, maybe every fairy tale does have a lesson. If so, that lesson would be this one, suggested in "Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child," and emphasized by the sentence I've analyzed: "Be careful! The world is a dangerous place."
When were you last enchanted by a modern fairy tale? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Once Upon a Time: Writing the Modern Fairy Tale" starting this April at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.