Friday, March 23, 2012

Three Myths about Fairy Tales

With apologies to the real meaning of the word “myth,” three common notions about fairy tales should be put aside:

  1. fairy tales are for children
  2. fairy tales are for women (or girls)
  3. fairy tales must be turned upside down to be meaningful to people today

Myth #1 is easy to overthrow, in theory. It was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s points in “On Fairy Stories.” He asks, Why shouldn’t a grown man read fairy stories, not for scholarly reasons, but for enjoyment? Why not, indeed? I’m forty and never have I enjoyed them more than now—or got more from them. Tolkien explains why: the stories weren’t written especially for children, and aren’t especially enjoyable to them. More recently than Tolkien, Terri Windling and the folks at Endicott Studio have done a lot of work to dispel this myth, too, pointing out (as Tolkien did) the damages done to fairy stories when they are censored “for kids.” Then again, prominent scholars of fairy tales (like Maria Tatar) don’t shy away from associating fairy tales with “children’s literature." And there’s Disney, and the ongoing production of book adaptations for children. If you write a fairy tale, you still have to go out of your way to tell people it’s for adults. And then you’re into a whole new category of difficulty …

This brings us to myth #2, the idea that fairy tales are for girls and women. I have a theory about this (as about most things): Disney fairy tales usually end with a young woman becoming stunningly beautiful and marrying “prince charming,” the man of her dreams. This is about as common in actual fairy tales as fairy godmothers, and less common (for instance) than guns. In fairy tales, including Grimm’s “Cinderella,” even if the girl is magically beautiful (among other things), she rarely “falls in love” in the modern sense. By today’s film and print standards, fairy tale romances are perfunctory. The girl goes and marries some prince—she rises up in the world, she marries upward. End of story. He maybe puts her on a horse in front of him, and they’re man and wife. Her romantic attachment to the prince or woodsman or whoever is slim to missing. And most fairy tales have nothing to do with becoming beautiful or marrying a prince. It’s a sub-set of a much larger genre. (See “The Juniper Tree” and “The King of the Golden Mountain” for nice counter-examples.)

Because women are generally seen as the guardians of the romantic ideal of “true love” (pardon the stereotype, which is not my view!), and because fairy tales are wrongly thought to be about finding true love, people seem to assume that fairy tales are for women. (This is obviously wrong on all three fronts.) So you start out by giving girls fairy tale character bedroom sets (the boys get, I don’t know, dinosaurs). You create Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street. Snow White lunch boxes. Cinderella barrettes. Etc. And then people grow up assuming the two go together—girls and fairy tales. And now we have “adult” versions of fairy tales, by which people often mean erotic stories geared for women.

How do you tell people that a fairy tale is meant for adults now, in the old sense of “adult”?

Which brings us to myth #3: the idea that fairy tales have to be turned upside down for today’s readers. I want to blame this on Shrek, and at the same time point out that Shrek isn’t really as subversive as people seem to think. Shrek appears to make fun of fairy tales. The fairy tale that probably takes the biggest hit is “Beauty and the Beast” (which, according to Heidi Anne Heiner, was invented by a French woman in the 18th century. In Andrew Lang’s edition, the story plays heavily on the theme of appearances versus reality. Loyalty to family and loved ones is also strong in the tale. Romance is an important side-show.)

But how does Shrek subvert the fairy tale? In one small, incidental detail: the heroine does not become more beautiful, but more ugly. And yet she does it for true love (not a common fairy tale theme, but often confused with one), and she and her unorthodox husband live more or less happily ever after. Or so we can assume at this stage of the saga. But really, what traditional folktale-loving audience would want to see Lord Farquaad get Fiona in the end? That downfall of the evil king is textbook fairytale stuff. Textbook. Traditional. No subversion at all there.

I suppose I should also bring in Wicked (which subverts another literary tale) and other examples. Such retellings have set off a fever of revisionist inversions. But the point I want to make about myth #3 is that the fairy tales and folk tales are themselves already often about everyday people struggling against unforeseen forces, against people (sometimes governments or rulers) more powerful than themselves, and sometimes winning through trickery and at other times through luck (or nature-magic). Yes, there are real bad guys (like Lord Farquaad, but less banal in their wickedness). And no, the witch and the wolf are not the heroes. And if you like stories where the traditional bad guy turns out to be the real good guy, more power to you. Enjoy. Nor would I say that traditional fairy tales are always or even mostly subversive of traditional values. Far from it. But then, neither are most real people, driving on the right side of the road and paying taxes, mowing their lawns and dressing like the people around them. That said, the stories don’t support the status quo in any straightforward way.

The fairy tales and folk tales that I’m most familiar with are more often about everyday people facing strange and—let’s face it—evil things, and doing (or trying to do) the right thing, whatever “right” is in their context. Usually showing loyalty to their own. I could be wrong (it’s common enough), but I think that still connects with people today—even adult men.



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