Fairy tales for cynics

Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of many books, including "The Left Hand of Darkness," the series of novels known as "The Earthsea Cycle" and, most recently, a young adult novel, "Voices."

SUSANNA CLARKE keeps her immensely lively imagination on a tight rein. This hyper-control may be the key to her popular success, for it allows her always to share a wink or a shrug with the reader -- as if to say, “We really needn’t take this seriously, you know.” Like her novel “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” this new volume of tales is resolutely sophisticated. The charm of distance is provided by the formality of the manner and language, frequently a pastiche of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, complete with spellings such as “scizzars” and “cloaths.” It is to this literarily conceived long-ago England that the stories of “The Ladies of Grace Adieu: And Other Stories” make their escape; the realm of Faerie itself, though it borders upon and breaks through into daily life, is kept at a distance. We never get there, or only for a moment -- and the moment has no consequences.

The mild wit and dry, often slightly cynical tone may also reassure readers and reviewers afraid of being accused of believing in fairies. Clarke’s wizards and magicians take singularly little pleasure in their powers; her fairies, even when tall, robust and manly, are rather joyless creatures. A fairy should, of course, be fey. An immensely long life might well lead to lack of affect: For a thinking, emotional being, would not immortality be a pathology? Late in her own life, British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner contemplated that question, and the cruel, vain, impulsive, incurious, beautiful fairies of her unforgettable “Kingdoms of Elfin” may be the ancestors of Clarke’s even colder breed.

John Uskglass, the Raven King, a splendidly suggestive name, is spoken of as possessing the greatest of the powers of the magic realm, but when we meet him in the final story of the book, he is a dim figure, easily outwitted by a simple-minded peasant. Now, the tale of the little fellow getting the best of the bigwig is a rightly beloved one, but you have to set your king firmly on a throne before you topple him, and I’m not sure Clarke has done that.


Those who dislike fantasy dismiss it as inconsequential: Inconsequentiality is in fact fatal to it. Explanation is irrelevant, but coherence, inner consistency, is essential to the flight of imagination. Gabriel Garcia Marquez does not explain where the man with enormous wings flew from; Jorge Luis Borges does not explain the mysterious appearance of the Aleph; J.R.R.Tolkien does not explain the existence of Middle Earth: They simply tell, and the narrative is both explanation and justification, because it is strictly consequential. The imaginary act has inevitable consequences; the fantastic threat is carried out; the uncanny cause has its ineluctable effect. A fantasy lacking consequence, like a spell spoken wrong, is mere nonsense. Clarke’s tales flirt with or even embrace inconsequentiality, perhaps deliberately. To some, of course, this may be a charm.

“Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” is a charming story. Characters, setting and plot are all vivid and amusing, and the building of the much-needed bridge is magically funny. After the bridge is built (in a single night, in Lincolnshire), the two principal characters -- Tom, the fairy, and David, a Jewish physician -- ride across it and find themselves in Italy. David looks back “across the bridge to Thoresby and England. It was as if a very dirty piece of glass had been interposed between one place and the other. ‘But will that happen to everyone who crosses the bridge?’ ” he asks. And the fairy bridge builder answers, “Who cares?”

Not the author, evidently. Years later, the fairy’s son rides across the bridge and vanishes. But what about the other years and the other people? The people of Thoresby use the bridge; where does it take them? The omission of explanation here is ruinous, because consequentiality has been ignored. A bridge has been built, but it goes nowhere. So with the tale. It dies away into a tying-up of irrelevant loose ends and -- a favorite ploy of the author -- footnotes.

Not all the tales are so self-destructive. “Antickes and Frets,” for example, is a neat bit of fancy-work on the grim web woven by fate for Mary Queen of Scots. Told of magic worked by embroidery, Mary in her captivity undertakes to assassinate Queen Elizabeth by sending her a skirt embroidered with little pink flowers, and sure enough the pink pustules of the pox break out on Elizabeth’s skin. Then the magic is turned upon Mary herself, and the tale takes another turn. The metaphor of stitching the future into place is a striking one, well used.

These are all elegant, entertaining stories, and many readers will be untroubled by the airy incoherences found in “The Ladies of Grace Adieu.” Or else, they may simply say, with Tom Brightwind, “Who cares?” *