Lafcadio Hearn: The Influence and Beauty of Fairy Tales
As the preeminent icon of Western Culture, the U.S. gravitates towards its European heritage for mythical influences. Even our Near East influences tend to the European fringe—Rome, Greece. And while some of our traditions do extend to Asia Minor, I’d argue that until very recently the average American would not recognize the influence of the Orient on our literary tradition, especially the influence of the Asian fairy tales. Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of short fiction, Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan, reads like a collection of fairy tales, with the style of a Grimm’s story applied to old Japanese fables. What interests me is the influence of Lafcadio Hearn’s stories on American culture, as well as the potential for Hearn’s stories to influence future American fiction. There is also a lyrical beauty; Hearn is capable of such remarkable prose that this must be examined also.
As I read the short story “Yuki-Onna,” I remembered a story so similar that I realized more modern author’s must have been influenced by Lafcadio Hearn’s. In “Yuki-Onna” two Japanese woodcutters, the elder craftsman and his young apprentice, find during a snowy night that they are unable to cross a river, so they decide to stay in a hut abandoned by the ferryman. During the night, a woman comes, killing the old man, and when the young man, Minokichi espies her, she warns him that should he ever tell anyone, she would come back and kill him as well, and makes him swear to this silence. Later Minokichi meets a beautiful girl who becomes his wife, and she bears him ten children, and the two live for years in happiness. Then one night Minokichi sees her beauty and is reminded of that night. When his wife asks, he tells her of the night years ago, after which she flies into a rage and transforms into that mystical woman from so long ago, and scolds him: he shouldn’t have told. Again, however, she spares his life, but only because of their children, and warns that he better care for the children otherwise she’ll return to finish the job.
Nearly an identical story appears in the 1988 movie “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie,” a film featuring a wraparound story and three standalone tales. It is this third standalone story that most closely resembles Hearn’s, where an artist and his friend are attacked by a gargoyle late one night in an alley in New York, the friend is killed and the artist is sworn to secrecy. Later he meets a woman and she brings him success in the art world and two children, and years later he tells her of the gargoyle attack, after which she says he shouldn’t have told, she turns into the gargoyle and kills him.
As I read the other stories in the collection, I found inspiration for short fiction in much the same way, and began to see the influence of Hearn’s fiction. “Rokuro-Kubi” is the story of a samurai priest who stumbles across the mythical creatures whose heads are separated from their body in the night and if they can’t find their heads by dawn, they are destroyed. But most familiar is “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi,” the tale of a blind musician whose music is so powerful he is summoned to the court of ghosts to sing their woeful tale for them.
As there is an adaptability to these stories that could bring something very old to the light of the American public, there is potential in these fairy tales to inspire a modern author. But Hearn is more than just a muse, but a writer quite capable of crafting the finest of literary phrases. This is best seen in the opening passages of “Horai”—
“Blue vision of depth lost in height—sea and sky interblending through luminous haze. The day is of spring, and the hour morning.
“Only sky and sea—one azure enormity…In the fore, ripples are catching a silvery light, and threads of foam are swirling. But a little farther off no motion is visible, nor anything save color: dim warm blue of water widening away to melt into blue of air. Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space—infinite concavity hollowing before you, and hugely arching above you—the color deepening with the height. But far in the midway-blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons—some shadowing of splendor strange and old, illumined by sunshine soft as memory.” (115)
Hearn goes on to say he’s describing a screen print of a mythical painting, but the lyricism of the language involved in this one passage overwhelms every other story in the collection.
It is only after completing the work that the reader can begin to understand the duality Hearn is delivering to the public. He introduces a new collection of fairy tales as imitable as those produced by the Brothers Grimm, and unveils his lyrical writing ability at just the right time to elevate his authorship beyond the mere re-canter of myth, to a collection as beautiful as the culture he found so captivating.