Shaun Tan, The Singing Bones: Bones and Snippets

For the last few days, I’ve been preoccupied by Shaun Tan’s illustrations for the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Tan created sculptures corresponding to 75 of the fairy tales, each photographed and presented alongside a snippet of the original narrative.

Shaun Tan, The Singing Bones
Shaun Tan, The Singing Bones

‘What matters above all else is the hard bones of the story’, Tan writes. The book title comes from ‘The Singing Bone’, a tale in which a jealous older brother kills the younger, and buries his bones under a bridge. Years later, a shepherd finds a little bone there, and carves it into a mouthpiece for his horn. When he tries to play it, it sings out the younger brother’s fate.

The sense is of a small hard thing, worn or worked, as Tan puts it, ‘into a comfortable shape’ which demands to be handled. Comfortable and comforting, familiar to the touch. But even as we touch it casually, unconsciously, it is confessing – narrating its dark history.

The fairytale is a singing bone, worn thin – down to its fundamentals – by retellings. Shaun Tan’s sculptures find the bone of the bone, the core within it. Tan has understood that – pared back as the fairytale already is – we still do not retain the whole narrative. It is the ‘bone of the story’ which haunts us: Mother Holle’s big teeth, the posture of searching in ‘The Stolen Pennies’, Rapunzel’s cascading hair. So Tan’s sculptures reduce Mother Holle to huge yellow teeth and a bun, against blue sky and flowers. Rapunzel fuses with her tower into a lean pensive column, with the tumbling yellow hair the vivid focus.

These tend to be postures of despair. Tan’s sculptures are often faceless, distorted, squeezed: by the exigencies of their horrifying stories, by the natural shapes of the soapstone from which they are carved. Gaiman writes, in the Foreword, how fairytale characters ‘are barely people. They have no existence before the story begins, and no life afterwards’. They emerge from darkness into the spotlight of the story and vanish as soon as it is over. Depending on the story, we are left with an impression of teeth, hair, blood, bone. In our world, these are the remnants of atrocity; they bear witness to what has been hidden. It’s no accident that Tan’s lighting explicitly presents the sculptures as museum-objects.

For Stevie Smith, these spotlighted moments – suddenly revealing the horror which was hidden or unspoken – define the way she thinks about fairytale. Smith slept with the Grimms’ Fairy Tales on her bedside table (illustrated, alas, not by Tan but by Richter), and it would take too long to describe all the ways she uses fairytale in her writing – but here she is, in her essay ‘The Ironing Board of Widow Twankey’, imagining how she might write a fairytale for stage performance:

I should like to see our fairy-play text broken up by such verses as the Cinderella one, after the Ugly Sister has cut her toe off so as to get the shoe on and is riding away with the prince, and the grass cries out, “Look behind, look behind, there’s blood upon the shoe. The shoe’s too small, the one behind, is not the bride for you.” […] Or the Talking Head story, where the dead horse’s head hangs on the wall, and passing underneath the goose-girl princess cries: “Fallada, Fallada, there thou are, hanging”, so the horse replies: “Child, child, there thou art ganging. Alas, alas, if thy mother knew it, Sadly, sadly, her heart would rue it.”

Smith focuses not on narratively key moments but on memorable ones. Again, these are moments of confession. The grass points out that the Ugly Sister’s shoe doesn’t fit; Fallada the horse bears witness to a truth which is being ignored. And they are bloody moments: the cut-off toe, the dead horse’s head. Dismembered objects map on to dismembered moments, flashing out in Smith’s mind. The ‘hard bone’ of the story, retained long after narrative detail is lost.

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