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Adam Bede’s Fairy Tale

Adam Bede’s Fairy Tale

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May 31, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week, I mentioned that George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, contained fairy tale elements. Today, I want to explore some of those impressions a little bit more.

First of all, the novel’s young couple meet in private in a seemingly magical, secluded wood. The narrator even mentions that it is just the right place for nymphs and fairies. Our first introduction of this little meeting place comes in chapter XII, “In the Wood.” As the narrator follows the young soldier, Arthur Donnithorne, heir to the Chase property, we learn that this side of the Chase property is:

“…called the Fir-tree Grove, not because the firs were many, but because they were few. It was a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch – just the sort of wood most haunted by nymphs: you see their white sunlit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime; you hear their soft liquid laughter – but if you look with a too curious sacrilegious eye, they vanish behind the silvery beeches, they make you believe that their voice was only a running brooklet, perhaps they metamporphose themselves into a tawny squirrel that scampers away and mocks you from the topmost bough. It was not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss – paths which look as if they were made by the free-will of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.”

Furthermore, in this little wooded grove, Eliot changes verb tenses. She often uses present tense, which literally pulls the reader into the narrative, down the path, and around the silvery limbs. Present tense narration can create that eternal feeling which fairy tales are also fond of. We are spectators and visitors in this little grove, just like nymphs and fairies. For example, the narrator relates one of many such meetings in the Chase:

“She is at another gate now – that leading into Fir-tree Grove. She enters the wood, where it is already twilight, and at every step she takes, the fear at her heart becomes colder. If he should not come! Oh how dreary it was – the thought of going out at the other end of the wood, into the unsheltered road, without having seen him. She reaches the first turning towards the Hermitage, walking slowly – he is not there. She hates the leveret that runs across the path: she hates everything that is not what she longs for. She walks on, happy whenever she is coming to a bend in the road, for perhaps he is behind it. No. She is beginning to cry: her heart has swelled so, the tears stand in her eyes; she gives one great sob, while the corners of her mouth quiver, and the tears roll down.”

In trying to understand why Eliot uses this form, and why fairy tale narratives still resonate at all, I turned to historian, critic, and writer Marina Warner. In her book Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Warner explains that fairy tale is often a map which connects mythological times of the past with present realities. This is certainly true of the characters in Adam Bede. The Hayslope community largely lives in a past which is eroding. Napoleonic Wars wage around them, industry and technology have changed, and new-fangled religious movements are knocking on their door. With all of these forces threatening an old way of life, they stubbornly persist in reaffirming an archaic social order. Hayslope life, outdated at the least, seems almost mythic at times.

Eliot, then, knowingly and purposefully inserts a little fairy tale of hidden love. Though the lovers try to hide, it is found out in the end, which abruptly stops the romance and fairy tale. It’s important to note that the fairy tale can exist within the boundaries of the community, but not within sight of the community. In other words, reality enters with the community’s awakened eyes. Fir-tree Grove is enchanted and magical, even with the reader, but not with Hayslope citizens. As Warner explains, this realm exists outside of the real and even the religious.

Almost as important as place (such as Fir-tree Grove), fairy tales often include spells and magical items. In the case of Adam Bede, the lovers offer silly words, simple promises which can never actually leave their private escape. Though they are free to love and dream among the elms, in the real world that exists around the wood’s fenced borders and down the “unsheltered road,” the characters must live within the boundaries of their class as defined by the community. Their words are temporary spells. The baubles and trinkets and jewelry seem important only in the imagination. For all their imaginative powers, the trinkets and words effect no real change. The fairy tale ends and the trinkets and baubles are sold for desperate want of resources.

The way that Eliot uses fairy tale is unique, however. According to Warner, fairy tales typically link with a past that holds desirable traits. She writes: “This is partly a point about social history: people told stories before mass literacy; but it is also about desire: what is loved in stories is often an imagined link to a long, living lineage.” Fairy tales celebrate either folklore related to a community’s founding or the guiding morals, ethics, and principles behind a specific culture. In Adam Bede, however, the fairy tale narrative serves to show that the rural community is actually outdated. As it crumbles, the reader feels sympathy and pity for a variety of characters and for the community in general, but no one wants to maintain the status quo. One cannot say that the older community is definitively in the right.

George Eliot’s unique way of incorporating elements of fairy tale enhanced this novel for me. Next week, I’ll look into Marina Warner’s text a little bit more.

Again, thanks to Classical Pursuits, Nancy Carr, and the wonderful conversation partners for our discussions of Eliot’s Adam Bede.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Marex Resh

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