The Merry Spinster, Defamiliarization, and Fairy Tales

Daniel Mallory Ortberg's The Merry Spinster is a collection of retold fairy tales and children's stories that play with reality, both twisting and shedding new light on it.

First, a little bit about fairy tales—many of them come from an oral tradition, meaning they were originally passed from teller to teller, growing and shrinking and changing as they went. For this reason, they invite retelling and can become a conversation about the strangeness of the world we all share.

This is both good and bad for fairy tale writers. With so many versions already in existence, how do we make ours new?

Well, one of the tools Ortberg uses is defamiliarization. We're made to look at what we already know in a new way—one that is strange and compelling. It can illuminate aspects of our world that we might not otherwise notice.

"The Daughter Cells" is a retelling of "The Little Mermaid," in which we look at the above-water world through the eyes (or the equivalent of eyes, really) of a sea creature.

"You mean if someone has something, and I should like to use it, and they don't want me to," she said to her grandmother, "all they have to do is put it behind their front door, and keep it there, and there's nothing I can do about it?"

In this excerpt, the "little mermaid" is asking her grandmother about the world on land and is mystified by the idea that "front doors" are used to enforce possession of objects. Because the character knows a different way of organizing the world, she looks at capitalism as very strange indeed. This makes two things happen for the reader: 1) We learn that property is more communal under the sea. 2) Our own understanding of ownership becomes enigmatic and illogical when someone unfamiliar tries to comprehend it.

I love the two-at-once-ness of the view. Any time a story forces simultaneous trains of thought, it opens up a bigger brain space, which creates a sense of depth in the story.

Then it gets more fun.

"You can't have understood it properly," the girl said.

"Front doors," her grandmother repeated, "they're absolutely mad for them, and their fish are covered in soft scales, and roost in stiff pods of kelp that don't move in the slightest, and scream at one another from their nests all day long, for everything that lives there hates quiet. All day long a hot coal rakes its way across the roof of the world, and all night they freeze as little white maggots peep out all over the sky to watch them."

Of course we know what chickens are. But what kind of world are these characters from to see them as soft-scaled fish? The absurdity is fresh and humorous. We know exactly how noisy our world is—how quiet then must this other world be? And sun as hot coal—well that makes sense, but it's a bit more negative than we generally understand it. We know what stars are, but describing them as maggots is new. What we've been trained to see as beautiful becomes disgusting. None of these images are more ridiculous, really, than the metaphors we traditionally use and so we can see them as true even in their oddness.

The increasing strangeness with which the familiar is described helps to ease us into this peculiar view of our world. It tells us more, really, about the describers than the described. Defamiliarization is a deep dive (I intend all of my puns!) into an alternate perspective. We're learning about the world of the creature—and the mind of the creature—rather than the world of the human, but only by deduction.

This strangeness, it is important to note, is mediated to us by a narrator who is aware of both ways of living: "There are, you may know, kingdoms underneath the sea as well as above it, with all manners of governance, as it happens." Without this guide, we might be lost. Having only an unfamiliar view might make it too difficult for the reader.

So back to that main character. What happens when we come to understand the character as someone we can't understand? Do we identify with her?

I should note that traditional fairy tale form allows a little bit more remove than is common in other forms of fiction. Characters are distilled to their essence—that's the point—rather than rounded and complicated and muddied. They are often intentionally flat and we rarely get much interiority. So when they act—especially when they act unexpectedly—we get to guess about their fears, desires, and motivations. Often the characters use intuitive logic, which is, counter-intuitively, anything but intuitive to a contemporary reader—and also anything but logical. Fairy tales use "magical logic"—it follows different rules, but it also hints at a roiling interiority that we don't get access to.

I really like intuitive logic. But I also like when contemporary writers get inside it, figure out what might be going on in a flat character's head, and make it something else.

Ortberg's defamiliarization offers us a way to understand—or perhaps forgive—the little mermaid's later actions. (Spoiler: It's bloody.) Flatness is no longer in operation. When we see the way the character views the world, when we're really inside her head, we can follow the reasoning she uses to make her decisions and better empathize with her.

All objects belong to everybody and the people on land—the ones she later meets and who are very unlike her in their thinking—they are objects, too, and thus just as subject to her whims as any other thing.

We can follow the thinking that leads her to casual acts of violence. Our sympathy for her brutality is terrifying, maybe more so than if her motives were mysterious. When we're taught to think like her, it takes us down a frightening mental pathway. If she could do this, and if I can understand it, then what could I do?

There's an idea that empathizing with people who do horrible things is good because it leads us to forgive. I'm not sure about that; I'm not always sure we should forgive. I like the theory that empathizing will help us stave off similar urges in ourselves, that we'll see that we could also be cruel or violent, under certain circumstances, and take precautions against it.

Defamiliarization, in this case, makes us familiar with something we should never be familiar with. And because it happens in that seeing-the-world-two-ways-at-once sense, opening up that depth-creating channel in our brains, and making us sit with paradox, we can be both horrified and sympathetic. We get it—and that's the scariest part.