Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No, Really, Grammar Is Exciting - #29

STORY: "The Fairy Helena" by Ruth Manning-Sanders

FROM: THE GLASS MAN AND THE GOLDEN BIRD: Hungarian Folk and Fairy Tales (Roy Publishers, Inc., 1968) – illus. Victor G. Ambrus

BASICALLY: A zany, if unfocused, folktale starring a guy who accidentally lets a demon out of jail, runs away because he's afraid he'll get in trouble, almost starves, gets rescued by the (kindly?) demon and given a life of ease. He enjoys the company of the demon's ten daughters, but discovers that each night they turn into birds and visit a fairy. In secret, he tags along, falls in love with the fairy, gets in trouble with her and almost killed, but is helped out again by the demon. He wins her in the end and of course yaddas yaddaly ever yadda.

There was a lad called John, who went to be a soldier. And one night they put him to stand guard outside a prison.

   So there is our John, standing in the moonlight with his gun over his shoulder, and the keys of the prison in his pocket. Not a sound did he hear until midnight; and then there came such a moaning and a groaning from inside the prison as made John's hair stand on end.

Did you see it? The strange thing that just happened in those two little opening paragraphs? We started out in a distant past tense—there was, who went, they put. We switched to present—there is. Then we flopped back to past, but not so distant—did he hear, there came, made.

It's dizzying. And the story just keeps on in that vein. 

"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" moaned a voice. 
"I can't do that!" shouts John.
Accidental tense-switching is an all-too-common affliction at early stages in the writing process. Maybe we haven't yet settled on the voice for a piece, the particular vista from which our POV character is taking it all in, and we slip back and forth between happening-in-the-now present tense and the-perspective-of-time past as we drum up the action. Once we figure out what's what, we go back and marshal our verbs into formation.

I don't think that's what's happening here. There is no apparent attempt at marshaling. Instead, the tense-switching runs headlong through the whole story, but for me, it irritates from the get-go. The story's trying to sound like an oral tale—there's casual diction ("by that time he had put a goodish bit of distance between him and the town") and idiomatic syntax ("'What's fretting me indeed!' cries John. 'It's yourself is doing that!'")—and so maybe the heedless flip-flopping between past and present tenses is meant in that vein. As if the tale's more authentic because it's not the sort of thing you see written down very often. Which is kind of true.

And so, even though I think the tense-switching in this story doesn't quite succeed, I find
myself intrigued by it. When I look at what it does to the action in the tale, I can see that it actually controls time in a really weird way. That's because past tense and present tense aren't just opposites of one another. When you read, 
But every evening at supper time those girls would suddenly go from the table and run upstairs; and John didn't get another sight of them till next morning, 
you're looking backwards as though through a telescope. You're seeing all the action, but you're not next to it. There's a certain amount of distance. But with, 
So what does he do but tiptoe upstairs and put his eye to the keyhole of the girls' room, 
you're not only seeing events unfold in the now, you're actually right next to the events, your nose right up against the keyhole with John's. You don't have that telescoping distance, but you also can't see the bigger picture. See what I mean? Whether you use past tense or present tense isn't just about time; it's also about tightness and specificity of focus.
There has got to be a way to play with tense more smoothly than it's managed in "The Fairy Helena." After all, we're actually very accustomed to these movements back and forth—the majority of stories and novels are narrated in the past tense, while characters are always going around speaking in the present. And it's not that uncommon to see tense shifts used to articulate different sections of a piece—like maybe switching to present tense to indicate that we're in a dream. So it's just a tiny step more to imagine how one might try to shift tenses between sentences to show different realities for different characters, or to distinguish a supernatural being from a human, or to make someone seem magical and strange in a way that other characters are not.

This is a fun fairy tale with a bizarrely passive protagonist and a bafflingly helpful demon, but what I like best about it is how it's got me thinking and makes me want to try things. Inspiration comes from the oddest corners, sometimes.