Before bed each night I’ve started reading a selection from The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. I seem to always like titles starting with The Oxford Book of—I could probably get some enjoyment out of The Oxford Book of Mushrooms or even The Oxford book of Tax Accounting—I think it simply comes down to stellar editing. Anyway, I can tell already that I’m going to like this volume a lot as I found the second story in the collection, which I’ve just finished, quite delightful: it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop,” in which an inventive witch decides to animate, via the smoke of a bewitched pipe, a scarecrow she’s just assembled and send it off to romance the town justice’s daughter, Polly. Explaining Hawthorne’s motivation for the story, Tom Quirk (how cool a name is that?) in his book Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination says that “in the grotesque figure of Feathertop he purposely fashioned a fit emblem to represent his distaste for the contrived characters of popular fiction.” (p. 72) This meta-level idea is interesting, but I think one can safely take his depreciating depiction of the character’s “illusory magnificence” as a comment about superficial and conventional values in general. The witch herself, when deciding on what to do with her creation muses: “What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?” She is not talking about other enchanted scarecrows here!
The outcome of the tale seems to me a warning against trying to breathe life into an inherently lifeless persona, as there is something inherently grotesque in doing so. But grotesque or not, I have some sympathy for the character, who, after all, did not ask to be created, and who finally makes a stand for authenticity when he destroys himself after seeing his true reflection in a well-polished mirror at Polly’s mansion. Am I the only one to feel this way about poor Feathertop? I’d say not: certainly Feathertop’s creator has “motherly affection” for him, and maybe Hawthorne has a little affection for him too:
“To say the truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft, there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape, bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin–a funny kind of expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself to be a jest at mankind.”
I probably feel for the ungainly Feathertop because I myself have written a story about a strange creature that is living within an illusory world. Don’t we all wonder sometimes if we are not somehow living in the same condition, metaphysically speaking?
Leaving aside whatever the message of the tale might be, style-wise, the comedic tone of “Feathertop” is appealing, and I enjoy the presence of the narrator, who seems apologetic and incredulous about the story he’s telling: “Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother’s knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.”
I also relish the details of the story: the invisible servant “Dickon” who fills and lights the enchanted pipe, the animated “party of demons” that dance around the bowl of said pipe, the eponymous rooster feather in the scarecrow’s hat and the faded embroidery on his waistcoat. Fun!
Plot-wise, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Polly’s father, Master Gookin, knows what Feathertop really is, but is beholden somehow to the witch who created him, and therefore too frightened to alert his gullible daughter about what she’s getting into:
“Gladly would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life, had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.”
It is left to our imaginations what this pledge may have been, which I think is a clever move on Hawthorne’s part; it would, however, be an interesting exercise to write another version of the story starring Master Gookin and his mysterious “pledge.” Hmm . . .