"Fairy stories are related to dreams, which are maybe most people's first experience of unreal narrative, and to myths. Realism is related to explanations and orderings -- the tale of the man in the bar who tells you the story of his life, the historian who explains the decisions of generals and the decline of economies. Great novels, I believe, always draw on both ways of telling, both ways of seeing. But because realism is agnostic and sceptical, human and reasonable, I have always felt it was what I ought to do. And yet my impulse to write came, and I know it, from years of reading myths and fairytales under the bedclothes, from the delights and freedoms and terrors of worlds and creatures that never existed."
"There has recently been a great variety of interest in fairy stories. The early psychoanalysts studied their relations to dreams and the unconscious, and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment provides one description of the use of these stories in a culture -- a description which is both exciting and limited. It is clear that an explanation of The Sleeping Beauty in terms of the adolescent girl's characteristic pre-sexual torpor is inspired and to the point -- but it isn't adequate, it doesn't do away with the enchantment of the thicket of roses, or even the mystery of the bead of blood on the pricked finger. Marina Warner has recently pointed out that the figure of the usurping stepmother was dreadfully real in medieval and Renaissance societies, where so many women died in childbirth, leaving children, but that does not explain away our terror of the hostile parent, or the witch. Modern feminists have used the 'irrationality' of fairy tales to explore female desires and dreams; they have also rewritten narratives to provide powerful heroines, sometimes arguing that all women in the original fairy tales were meek victims, which is simply not true. There are plenty of resourceful princesses and peasants and goddesses -- that is one of the pleasures of the other world. Salman Rushdie and others have used the fairy tale both to give an edge of satiric licence to a picture of particular societies, and to play with reality and fantasy as all societies have always done. The literary fairy tale is a wonderful, versatile hybrid form, which draws on primitive apprehensions and narrative motifs, and then uses them to think consciously about human beings and the world. Both German Romantic fairy tales and the self-conscious playful courtly stories of seventeenth-century French ladies, combine the new thought of the time with the ancient tug of forest and castle, demon and witch, vanishing and shape-shifting, loss and restoration."
" 'Never trust the teller, trust the tale,' said D.H.Lawrence, in a phrase which has been remembered because it accords with readers' deepest instincts. What I have always believed is that the human imagination, given any scene, any two people, any danger, any love, any fear, will start elaborating, inhabiting, touching, tasting, feeling. Fairy stories rely most simply and most powerfully on the imaginations of readers and hearers, who create and recreate worlds, old and known in part, new and unknown in part. Professional storytellers in Britain, a thriving profession, believe the oral is more powerful than the written, in this regard, and believe also that all great storytelling must retell old and shared stories, the tales of Grimm and the epic of Gilgamesh, that the new, individual insights of the literary fairytale do not have the power or the common wisdom to compel our assent. I don't believe that myself -- but I do believe that it is what is old in the new that compels assent for the new -- that the Forest and the Dragon call up worlds in which we can think about our own histories and life-stories. Making up worlds is as natural and as necessary to human beings as breathing and sleeping."
(You can read Byatt's whole essay here.)
The sleepy art above is by John D. Batten (English, 1860 - 1932), Honor Appleton (English, 1879-1951), William Heath Robinson (English, 1872-1944), John Duncan (Scottish, 1866-1945), Katerina Plotnikova (Russian, contemporary), Sir Edward Burne-Jones (English, 1883-1898), Lisbeth Zwerger (Austrian, contemporary), and Anna Brahms (Israeli/American, contemporary).