Material wonders : nature, matter and new materiality in contemporary fairy-tale fiction

Greenhough, Amy (2020) Material wonders : nature, matter and new materiality in contemporary fairy-tale fiction. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


In fairy tales the material world is rich with wonder. The flowers, waterfalls, tables, keys and shapeshifting bodies all exist outside the accepted ‘laws’ of reality, capable of transforming, speaking and participating in an enlivened vision of existence that invites a sense of the wondrous. While Western dualistic philosophy has traditionally denigrated matter, bodies and nature for their supposed opposition to language, thought and culture, in the fairy tale, materiality, nature and nonhumanity are not fixed, inert and passive, but alive and full of possibility. Though materiality has always played an important and active role in folk and fairy tale, in much of the contemporary scholarship on the fairy tale genre, the focus has been on postmodernism in its attempts to highlight the constructedness of nature and matter as fictions. This thesis suggests that in the quest to undermine the concept of ‘nature’ as a fixed reality, the potential for the fairy tale to enable radical and positive reimaginings of nature/culture, matter/thought boundaries has been overlooked in critical discussion. In an echo of contemporary theory’s move away from purely discursive understandings of existence, this thesis uses a new, vital materialist lens – with a Deleuzian emphasis – to examine the ways in which contemporary authors have used the fairy tale suspension of reality to depict nature and matter as fluid and active, and how these depictions can lead to radical re-conceptualisations of the boundaries between accepted dualities of nature/culture, mind/body, matter/language. This thesis argues that drawing from the fairy-tale traditions of anthropomorphism, metamorphosis and the vitality of material potential, the fairy-tale inspired fictions of Angela Carter, Graham Swift, Philip Pullman and A. S. Byatt offer alternate, fluid and processual depictions of life that deny the fixity of dualistic visions of matter and nature and refute the idea of materiality as mere discourse. By reading through the materialities of wood, water, metal and earth, this study considers how examining contemporary fairy tale using new materialist theory can highlight the fairy tale’s capacity to dismantle dualistic thought and reimagine nature, matter and bodies as enlivened and full of wonder.

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