Stardust – Our December read
Stardust is a faerie story, but this does not mean it is for children. It comes from a tradition which is a reaction against urbanisation and mechanisation in Victorian England. Although it is a coming of age story, it is also a story about wonder. The fairy story was the genre that led, through Tolkein, to the modern fantasy story, and yet Gaiman fights valiantly against the pressure to include the tropes of fantasy in this work.
Tristran, in a conventional fantasy, would earn the girl (who would have a title, but perhaps not a name) by smiting the forces of evil. In this case, he’d probably grab his weapon and shove it into the witch, an action which Angela Carter had some thoughts on, back in the day. Fantasy, as a genre, is sadly held back by television, by the need to fit things into a sort of steady groove that doesn’t throw the audience off, although some of the best tellers of modern faerie stories manage to break with this, and they do it by going back to the source material, and focusing on the key ingredients of faerie stories, which I’d argue are liminality and wonder.
Liminality is the idea that faeries are creatures of borders. They are drawn to people on the verge of things, travelling from one life stage to another, or from one place to another, or both. These themes are obvious for Tristran, and if you think about it, for Yvain as well, in the book. I’d just like to note the new writers of Doctor Who here, who have said that they are working on a faerie tale, and you see that they have some of the same elements. A crack at the end of the world, and a miraculous man who appears before a wedding are both obvious faerie tropes. I think some of the charm of the new series of Who is that it, like Stardust, has gone back to first principles on faerie tales.
The other element is wonder. Wonder is hard for televised fantasy to do, because spectacle and wonder are different things. When a CGI mammoth crushes a man in Lord of the Rings, I’d argue that’s not wonderful in the slightest. Also, audiences are less open to wonder than when faerie stories were repopularisied in Victorian times. Victorians wanted wonder: they craved to be taken in, and fooled, and made to feel sad, or happy or swept away by stories. The failure to do this was seen as a great flaw in a writer. Many modern readers, though, seem to take a hard and analytical line, in which their inability to be moved, their jadedness, is a sign that they are proper adults reading proper books. Wonder is a hard sell in modern stories, because to feel wonder at a story is to surrender your agency as reader to the author, and let him take you on a trip of his choosing.
I enjoy Stardust, in all its forms, and hope you’ll find this selection for our monthly read as charming as I do.