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Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

The title of this book of essays comes from the German word for fairy tales, Wundermärchen, literally “wonder tales,” that is, tales of fantasy. Author Emily Urquhart has a doctorate in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland and thus is well-versed in this literary genre. But the word “ordinary” in her title is revealing: she is attempting to show the depth to which fairy tales and folklore arise from people’s actual lives.

Folk tales permeate human history and civilization across the globe. Urquhart describes their function: “Telling, reading, hearing imagining, writing—together these acts are a collaboration carried out across geographies and through centuries, between the dead and the living, between intimates and strangers between people who live and breathe and those who live only on the page, and, also, between you and me.”

Folk tales are not just casual entertainment. As Urquhart puts it: “For every malady of the human psyche, there is a folk tale.” Thus, folk tales are humanity’s way of trying to deal with the common suffering we all share. The truth of this is borne out by the fact that so many of these stories have similar versions across the world, in vastly different cultures.

Rather than take a distanced, scholarly approach, Urquhart uses her own often emotional personal experiences to illustrate how fairy tales reflect the struggle to deal with life’s challenges.

The book alternates between her presentation of the vocabulary and function of folk tales and stories from her own life. The interplay between her academic voice and her personal voice creates a sense of intimacy both with her and her subject matter. And it is often moving, as she delves through various events in her life seeking an explanation for what she is going through. These include a brush with death in a foreign country, an ectopic pregnancy, two other difficult pregnancies, and her father’s dementia.

In the course of this Urquhart has a lot to say about memories, or specifically, how we remember, for this is another function of folk tales. Many moments are quickly forgotten, but others remain fixed in our minds. The book begins with a memory of an apparition in her bedroom. Later in the book, she talks about hallucinations, in her case seeing her dead brother fleetingly wandering the streets of Toronto. Such unexplainable occurrences are frequent topics of folk tales, as it turns out, a way of grappling with the unknown.

This is a fascinating book that opens up new avenues for each of us to perceive the world and ourselves.

Ordinary Wonder Tales is published by Biblioasis.


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