Category Archives: fairy tales

Mr. Fox, Bluebeard, The Robber Bridegroom, and the Anti-Tale (or) A Sort of Response to Katherine Langrish

illustration of Bluebeard

Illustration of a cloven-footed an decidedly

A few days ago author Katherine Langrish published a guest post on The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond about Bluebeard, Mr. Fox, Harald Silkenhair and the anti-tale. During the week preceding her post, I had been considering writing about the tale of Mr. Fox. When I saw Katherine’s post, I knew it was time. Mr. Fox is probably my all-time favourite of all fairy and folk tales. If you haven’t read Mr. Fox, I strongly recommend you do so now.

I have always read Mr. Fox a kind of anti-tale, an English folktale that riffs on The Robber Bridegroom in order to comment on Bluebeard. Despite its categorisation by folklorists as a variation of The Robber Bridegroom, Mr. Fox appears to be quite old (in fact, it is referenced in Much Ado About Nothing[1]).

I am not certain that Mr. Fox was intended to be told or read as an anti-tale, or that it neatly fits the anti-tale category. It is only in context – specifically, in the context of contemporary Western society, in which Bluebeard is far better-known – that Mr. Fox takes on the appearance of an anti-tale. But what an anti-tale it is.

Lady Mary, the heroine of Mr. Fox, shares the pluck of The Robber Bridegroom’s female protagonist. However, instead of being pressured into agreeing to marry a creepy and dislikable man, Lady Mary actively chooses Mr. Fox from among her many suitors. Mr. Fox presents himself as a genteel nobleman who lives in a large castle in the countryside. Mr. Fox’s class affect and ostensible wealth indicate that he is more Bluebeard than Robber Bridegroom. Mr. Fox’s ghastly actions assume contemporary significance in part because of his veneer of upper class charm (more on this in a moment).

Unlike the bride in Bluebeard, Lady Mary choose to visit Mr. Fox’s castle before the wedding. He has suggested she visit many times, and she is curious. Thus, she does so.

The castle itself is an odd an empty place. The first arch Lady Mary passes under is etched with the words “Be Bold, Be Bold.” The words on the next arch: “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold.” And on the third? “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.”

The repetition of those particular phrases thrills me every time I read them. It fills the reader with anticipation: we know there must be something to dread beyond that arch.

Lady Mary is bold. Her heart’s blood does not run cold, not in the least! Full of curiosity, she ignores the warnings and proceeds up a stair, at the top of which she finds a room full of rather ghastly corpses (as Langrish writes, this is Bluebeard’s Bloody Chamber).

Suddenly Lady Mary hears a noise. It must be Mr. Fox returning home! She hides in a place where she cannot be discovered, but from which she may see and hear. It is from this location that she spies Mr. Fox, dragging the corpse of a young lady who is dressed as a bride. Mr. Fox notices a ring on the dead woman’s finger and tries to yank it off. When that fails he produces a knife and severs the finger from its hand. The finger flies through the air and lands in Lady Mary’s lap.

Now, in the face of this horror, does Lady Mary’s blood run cold? Oh no, dear reader, no. Even though we are collectively holding our breath in dread, Lady Mary keeps her head and remains still and hidden while Mr. Fox searches the room. When he cannot find the finger, he leaves. Lady Mary slips the dead finger into her pocket and departs the castle.

The next day Mr. Fox visits Lady Mary and her family. As they sit dining, she relates a “dream” she had in which she visited Mr. Fox’s castle. She tells first of the series of arches she encountered, and the cautioning words she found there. Each time she relates one of the phrases (“Be Bold…”) Mr. Fox responds, “But it is not so, nor it was not so.”

When Lady Mary describes the portion of her dream in which she discovers the Bloody Chamber, Mr. Fox responds, “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” and he goes on repeating this until the very end of Lady Mary’s anecdote, when she relates how Mr. Fox chopped off a dead woman’s finger.

After the final “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” Lady Mary pulls from her pocket the finger, still adorned with its ring, and throws it on the table, crying out, “But it is so, and it was so. Here’s finger and ring I have to show!”

The story concludes, “At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.”

Note that it is Lady Mary’s curiosity that not only allows her to live, but leads to Mr. Fox’s punishment for his ill deeds. She stands in stark opposition to Bluebeard bride, a woman who is ever imperilled and chastised for her curiosity. Bluebeard’s bride is first punished for her interest in an unusual man (who is, of course, later revealed to be a murderer) and then, rather paradoxically, almost murdered for violating her nasty husband’s interdictions.

Lady Mary stands as a kind of anti-tale heroine, the foil to Bluebeard’s meek and helpless bride. Though Mr. Fox is centuries old, its repetition in the contemporary West, as related to but not of the Bluebeard fairy tale, lends it the appearance and function of the anti-tale. Not only is Lady Mary rewarded for her curiosity and her lack of dependance upon male characters (or anyone else, for that matter), her actions drive the story. Her male relatives and friends don’t protect some wilting heroine; instead, they chop Mr. Fox to pieces, “not Lady Mary’s rescuers, but her agents” (to quote Langrish).

Mr. Fox also has parallels with the contemporary English class system. There are many members of the English Upper Class who are so only because of a certain title or affect, but who lack wealth. Mr. Fox has the manner and castle of an upper class Englishman, but the reader gleans from his preoccupation with the ring (and from use of the motif of the chopped appendage, which also appears in The Robber Bridegroom) that Mr. Fox is after money (again, contrast Mr. Fox’s motivations to Bluebeard’s; Bluebeard kills out of sexual and psychological motivation, whereas Mr. Fox murders for money). He may be nobility, and have a castle, but he is poor, and has turned to monstrous deeds to support himself.

Moreover, Mr. Fox is identified with an animal who the English know will resort to theft and murder in order to survive. This is in stark contrast to Bluebeard, whose name and appearance are necessary to the story. The blue beard in question is the kind of signifier that might titillate an audience accustomed to Orientalist aesthetics. Thus Bluebeard is Other. Mr. Fox, on the other hand, is decidedly English, thus sharing the identity of traditional tellers and listeners.

Mr. Fox scuttles the ideology of Bluebeard better than the latter’s anti-tale variations. It is perhaps more challenging than Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” an anti-tale version of Bluebeard, or even Fitcher’s Bird, another of those stories that hover between being tale and anti-.

Neil Gaiman has written an anti-tale of Mr. Fox called The White Road, in which Mr. Fox is falsely accused put to death for crimes he did not commit, and Lady Mary is a lying polymorph whose secret shape is the fox[2]. If one interprets Lady Mary as a kind of anti-tale unto itself (or at least, a temporary anti-tale, that become anti- simply because of the time in which it is told), it is rather difficult to see what is so anti- about Gaiman’s version of the tale. One of the many things John Pazdziora and I discussed during the fairy tale conference last weekend was the need for an anti-tale to challenge not only the story it reinterprets but also the dominant ideologies of the time in which it is penned. Mr. Fox strikes me as more surprisingly, fresh and challenging than The White Road. But I may, as always, be wrong.

This has gone far afield from Katherine’s original post. One thing I can say for certain, is that I found her description of her characters intriguing and am now quite desperate to read her books. I am profoundly frustrated that my library lacks a copy of West of the Moon.

[1] Click here and read the second footnote to find out more about the reference to Mr. Fox in Much Ado About Nothing. I must admit a mild skepticism. It seems just as possible that the reference in Much Ado About Nothing is to a different piece of folklore whose motif or refrain Mr. Fox recycled to good affect.

[2] The Lady Mary in Gaiman’s The White Road bears stronger resemblance to the shapeshifting Japanese kitsune than to the British fox.

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All About Anti-Tales (and a Conference Announcement, and a Bit of Snow White)

anti-tales conference posterLast year I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Glasgow titled Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment. I also had the fortune of presenting a paper titled “‘Her Life’s No Fairy Tale’: Cinematic Reimaginings of Little Red Riding Hood as Wolf and Monster.” I also met a number of fine people, including the clever and gracious conference hosts Catriona McAra and David Calvin. There are two brief but engaging summaries of the conference, available here (Fairy Tale Cupboard) and here (Sussex Folklore Centre newsletter).

Next month I am attending the Myths and Fairy Tales in Film and Literature post-1900 conference at the University of York. I have the good luck of being placed on a panel with Catrionaand John Patrick Pazdziora (the latter gave a vivid presentation about James Thurber at the Anti-Tales conference). Catriona’s paper is titled “Surrealism and the (Anti-)Fairy tale,” John’s “‘A Story Short’: Towards a Critical Theory of Anti-tale.” I am very much looking forward to hearing their presentations, though I’m nervous about giving a paper alongside people whose work I admire!

My paper, “Red as Blood: the Persistent Theme of Female Competition in (Re)Tellings of Snow White,” follows both on my previous reflections on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and my curiosity about literary anti-tales versions of the story, which I learned more about from Jessica Tiffin, who gave a paper titled “Blood on the Snow: Inverting ‘Snow White’ in the Vampire Tales of Neil Gaiman and Tanith Lee” at the Anti-Tales conference. My paper explores anti-tale versions of Snow White, and their explorations of inter-generational female competition and jealousy.

The conference promises to be a real treat, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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Utopia Deferred: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Having been awoken from a recurring dream of a bizarre Wonderland, a young girl asks her father whether she is going mad. Her father assures her that she is, but, smiling gently, tells her that “all the best people are.” This is an auspicious beginning to Tim Burton’s new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), which celebrates eclecticism, imagination, courage, and rebellion, drawing on the familiar and ever-evocative characters of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books (and also Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland) to reinforce a message that is, up to the penultimate scene, utopian. In the final scene, the film inexplicably belies its previous message and replaces it with empty rhetoric.

Alice enters Wonderland.

19-year-old Alice enters Tim Burton's Underland.

That Burton decided to focus on many of the more utopian aspects of the story—frequently repeating the idea that one may “believe six impossible things before breakfast” and that “all the best people” are mad, the film glories the untamed imagination and fully recognizes its potential to cause social upheaval and positive, humane change. Indeed, in the end none of the film’s characters are slain save the Jabberwocky (though the audience is denied the thrilling “SNICKER SNACK” that traditionally accompanies the Vorpal Sword’s fatal blows). Even the cruel Red Queen is spared; she is, however, banned from the kingdom, and chained forever to her equally unpleasant steward, the treacherous Knave of Hearts (played by a delightfully creepy Crispin Glover). The White Queen transforms the entire kingdom into a peaceful, human, and equal place—a mad utopia, but a utopia nonetheless.

The ending, however, belies the rest of the film—Alice chooses to go home instead of remaining in Wonderland. She spurns her loathsome suitor’s offer of marriage but decides to follow her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneurial explorer, expanding business into new lands and distant countries (specifically China). In the end, the film suggests, the most important thing is not humane change but potential for exploration and boundless personal and financial gain. Through its rather heavy-handed use of a visual caterpillar (The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, to be exact) transformed into a butterfly in the final scene of the film (the butterfly soars over Alice’s shoulder as she strides confidently toward the bow of a ship that will take her to China), the film suggests that Alice’s real destiny, in fact her happiness, self-expression, and true freedom, are inextricably bound to explorations via venture capitalism. Indeed, her imagination seems more contained, more limited than ever—it has been “domesticated.”* Of course, the domestication of the imagination is par for the course with Disney—and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, after all, a Disney film.

By borrowing the penultimate act of The Wizard of Oz (in Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland Alice is given Jabberwocky blood which allows her to be transported home, if she so chooses), Burton reasserts the utopian implication of Frank L. Baum’s novel and of the various Oz films—that home, the real world, can be improved, and made better. However, Burton’s Alice hopes not for improvement of overall conditions, but only for the limited improvement of her own personal life. As Jack Zipes writes in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tales, Baum lost faith in the utopian American dream over time; in the final Oz books, Dorothy decides to remain in Oz forever, having no use for the vast, unresolved social and economic inequalities of her original home in America.

Alice in her armor.

That Burton’s Alice is blind, even indifferent to greater social concerns. Although her adventurous actions would have been unusual, even subversive for a woman in Victorian England, viewed in a contemporary context her decision to use her imagination in order to succeed in business perfectly corroborates the myth that iconoclasm, risk-taking and hard work create not just success but also joy. Moreover, the film equates the genuine social parity and happiness achieved in Wonderland with the boundless expansion of business and personal wealth—implying that the latter (personal wealth/gain) creates and support the former (social equality), despite the fact that inequality—especially economic inequality—is entrenched in American society. We need utopian stories to help suggest fresh ways of addressing social imbalance. As Jack Zipes says, “I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after — extraordinary hope.” That’s why the conclusion to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland upsets me so deeply—it lacks the extraordinary hope present in the rest of the film.

A quick look at recent fan fiction based on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reveals that large portion of the fan fiction written about the story either change the ending so that Alice remains in Wonderland or send her back to Wonderland after she becomes discontent with her drab life in the real world. Perhaps we’re all holding on to that extraordinary hope after all.

*The “domestication of imagination” is a phrase that Jack Zipes uses many times over in his books.

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Female Competition, Snow White, and Monster-in-Law

Despite being almost universally panned by critics (the film has a 14% rating on rottentomatoes.com), the 2005 comedy (often inexplicably described and marketed as a romantic comedy) Monster-in-Law still succeeded domestically and internationally, grossing $23 million during its opening weekend (source: boxofficemojo.com). I believe that the film’s undeniable financial success is directly related to its repetition of plot devices and motifs that have concerned people for centuries: namely, fierce, even violent competition between younger women and their older counterparts—often stepmothers (and what is a mother-in-law but a chosen stepmother?). And what story epitomizes this struggle more than the famous tale of Snow White?

Viola and Charlie face off.

In his book Why Fairy Tales Stick, Jack Zipes asserts that the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—a story about a stepmother so jealous of her young and beautiful stepdaughter that the older woman tries to murder the younger multiple times—has permeated our cultural.* Zipes believes that Snow White has spread like an epidemic (i.e. he thinks the tale is a meme) and reminds readers that the original literary fairy tale is “the subject of numerous valid and sometimes insipid interpretations” (Zipes, 134). He goes on to say that not only does the tale underscore rivalry amongst women which feminist critics suggest “results from a patriarchal culture that pits woman against woman for the favor of a male” (Ibid) but also goes on to suggest that basic reproductive imperatives drive some female competition, writing that, “if we assume that females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive, we can see how relevant the message of ‘Snow White’ is and how it raises important moral issues for culture” (135)**. Moreover, Zipes goes on to suggest that the older queen considers Snow White dangerous “because she [Snow White] foreshadows what will happen to the queen in a patriarchal society when she will no longer be beautiful and fertile” (Ibid), i.e. the queen will be rejected, stripped of resources, and possibly killed.

The Wicked Queen (Stepmother) has poisoned Snow White.

Monster-in-Law (2005, directed by Robert Luketic) opens with a brief reference to magic—a daily horoscope (which is implied to have some inherent value, wisdom, or predictive ability) leads Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) to find her very own “perfect” lover, a brain surgeon (har) named Kevin (Michael Vartan). Their courtship is shown only briefly on the screen, just long enough to insist that both characters are adorably loving and kindhearted (and also bland as hell). The next scene turns to Kevin’s mother, Viola (Jane Fonda), a high-powered TV personality who interviews A-list stars, important politicians, and high-profile religious figures—until she is suddenly replaced by a younger presenter. Viola promptly has a nervous breakdown which lasts several months. However, the viewer doesn’t see this—the film skips straight over Viola’s potentially grim mental problems to her release from a wealthy private psychiatric care facility. She seems relaxed, even happy—grateful, she says, to still have her relationship with her son, which she values far more than her job. Simultaneously, she is portrayed as overbearing—smothering her frustrated (but, notably, passive) son with an excess of daily phone calls.

Viola’s calm is soon shattered when she finds out her precious son has taken a girlfriend. The oblivious Kevin sets up a lunch date so that his mother can meet Charlie. From the very first, things are strained—as soon as Kevin and Charlie park in her driveway, Viola begins spying on them from a window, remarking of Charlie’s summer dress “Oh, so we’re playing dress up,” in a tone that would be sinister, were it not for the pale surroundings and cartoony music. In this scene Viola is dressed in a business woman’s pantsuit; in the following scene, when she greets Michael and Charlie, Viola appears in full summer regalia, including a hat, bright red lipstick, dress with a full skirt and petticoat, and pert white cardigan. Viola greets Kevin with an incestuous kiss on the mouth (Kevin looks shocked and wipes her lipstick off his lips with bemused dismay) and pretends not to notice Charlie until Kevin pointedly introduces the two. Viola manages to keep her cool and play nice (as does the unsuspecting Charlie), until, seeing (or assuming) that the two women are able to get along, Kevin decides to propose to Charlie. This sends Viola off into her mansion, where she has a very telling episode: trying to access her new postfeminist therapy coping skills, Viola sits on the floor of a posh living room decorated in cream. The camera gives us a long shot, plenty of distance to take in a supposedly humorous scene: as slapstick, playful music and predatory bird calls play in the background (the latter are a poorly-conceived attempt to invoke ritual or the occult) Viola waves a white feather and begs some non-specific entity to rid her of her “bad karma,” and, more tellingly, her “wickedness.”

"Wicked" Viola "playing dress-up" to rival Charlie.

This verbal reference to the queens, stepmothers, and ogres of fairy tales (the word “wickedness” is rarely used in quotidian speech) is the first in a chain of events that demonstrate just how much Monster-in-Law borrows (unconsciously, I think) from Snow White. Not only is Viola “wicked” by her own admission and an “old slut” (in the world of her assistant Rub [Wanda Sykes]***)—words that have strong fairy tale connotation (Perrault revealed the sinister meanings behind “slut” in his version of Little Red Riding Hood—in which the younger woman not only replaces the older woman [her grandmother] but also drinks the older woman’s blood and eats her flesh); additionally, Charlie is an orphan just like Snow White and Cinderella, who are portrayed in most versions of their tales as partial or full orphans (the biological mother is always dead, and the father is either dead or indifferent). Charlie lacks a surrogate family, although she does of two friends, one of whom plays the token gay friend—a stock character typical to at least the past decade of romcoms (not that Monster-in-Law is a real romcom). Moreover, the love interest and son of the story, Kevin, is largely absent from the film itself; as one reviewer notes, Kevin is not so much a character as a plot device (the only thing the audience knows about him is that he is wealthy and has a prestigious occupation). This is also true of the prince in Snow White and similar tales, who do nothing more (and have no more personal characteristics) than help to create a resolution in the tale.

Throughout the film, Viola psychologically and physically abuse Charlie—she even beats Charlie in two scenes, one in which she pretends to be asleep and having a nightmare, and the other in which the two women slap each other repeatedly. Viola even halfheartedly tries to poison Charlie by feeding her nuts (which Charlie is allergic to)—the fact Ruby persuades Viola to retract this attempt to maim or kill her future daughter-in-law does not detract from the stark symbolism. This is not a film about minor rivalry—the themes of older-versus-younger-woman are deadly serious, despite their comic treatment.

In the last third of the film, Charlie becomes aware of Viola’s desperate attempts to sabotage her impending marriage; at this point, Charlie takes agency and begins to attack Viola with psychological and some physical force (for example, she drugs Viola with sleeping pills—a type of temporary poisoning). One might initially mistake Charlie’s agency as a new theme; however, as Zipes reports that in newer versions of Snow White, “many writers indicate that the competition has become much fiercer and that younger women are initiating the rivalry and eliminating older women and even their mothers before the latter take initiative” (136). This becomes clear when, upon Viola’s pretended collapse in a restaurant, Charlie responds to other diners’ cries of “Is she dead!” with a muttered, “It couldn’t be that easy.” Behind the humor of the films lies a darker truth about resentment and violence amongst some women.

The film’s resolution comes in the form of Viola’s mother-in-law, a woman as cruel and demeaning to Viola as Viola is to Charlie. It is at this point that I hoped Charlie and Viola would reconcile, realizing that their competition for Kevin’s attention was unnecessary, and that they could create a unique yet fulfilling family unit by cooperating and supporting one another, rather than vying for Kevin’s love. Instead, Charlie reinforces the old lessons of Snow White (the wickedness of the older woman) by declaring that Viola has “won” and that she will call off the wedding; with Ruby’s input, Viola realizes that she only wants Kevin to be happy (but what does she, Viola want?) and hence ensures that Charlie and Kevin go through with it. In the process, Charlie insists that Viola limit her access to Charlie (phone calls are to be made only once a day) but that Viola be an active participant in her future grandchildren’s lives. Thus the film suggests that the conflict of participation for male attention can be diffused by the creation of more offspring, thereby furthering both Charlie and Viola’s need for attention, love, participation in a caring family dynamic, and the direct continuation of their genetic lines.

The Wicked Queen admires herself in the mirror: a little self-interest at work (illustrated by W. C. Drupsteen).

This clearly differs significantly from most versions of Snow White, in which the stepmother disappears or is killed or, in the nastiest versions, is publicly executed by dancing to her death in red-hot iron shoes. However, while the tentative cooperation of Charlie and Viola signal an end to the film, they fail to directly answer the fundamental anxiety raised in so many relationships between younger and older women. As Zipes writes, “the morality of [contemporary interpretation of] the tale has less to do with the punishment [of the stepmother] than with posing the dilemma that most women feel even today. How do you fulfill natural inclinations and attract a partner (either for reproduction or sexual gratification) without killing off the competition that may undermine your self-interest?” (Ibid)

Put another way, how can women relate to each other in a way that is both honest and expressive of self-interest and also inclusive? Monster-in-Law attempts to answer this question both in a postfeminist manner (“if it’s what the man wants then it is what I want”) and also in a potentially more radical way (Charlie trying to create a family unit in which the needs of both women are acknowledged and met). However, it is myopic to assume that traditional relationships and family can peacefully and satisfactorily resolve the social and, potentially biologically (although also, therefore, potentially mutable) sources of tension between older and younger women. It is time for film and fiction to create new endings.

*This is not to say that the eponymous Seven Dwarfs lack either appeal or memetic quality–indeed, they recur in nearly every telling and interpretation of the tale and are compelling (if often mysterious) characters in their own right(s).

**I’m  not convinced that we really can assume that “females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive.” There’s an inherent assumption that all people share certain biological and genetic motivations related to reproduction; but this doesn’t allow for genetic anomaly, or for the potential for social environments to alter beliefs, behaviors, and imperatives. I think it would be accurate to say that this is a biological feature in enough women’s lives–not just domestically but internationally–that creates the moral tensions that create continued interest in the Snow White tale (and by association, Monster-in-Law).

***There are several disappointingly tokenized characters in Monster-in-Law–primarily Ruby (Wanda Sykes), who has once again been typecast as the Sassy Black Sidekick, and Remy (Adam Scott), the Affluent Gay Best Friend Who Appears To Have No Interests Or Needs That Do Not Pertain To His Straight Female Friend.

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Transcending compensation.

Some thoughts from Jack Zipes to keep you pacified (compensated! Hah!) until the next post:

“Folk tales were often censored and outlawed during the early phase of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power because of their fantastic components which encouraged imaginative play and free exploration were hostile to capitalist rationalization and the Protestant ethos. Once the bourgeoisie’s power was firmly established, the tales were no longer considered immoral and dangerous, but their publication and distribution for children were actually encouraged toward the end of the the nineteenth century. The tales took on a compensatory function for children and adults alike who experienced nothing but the frustration of their imaginations in society. Within the framework of a capitalist socioeconomic system the tales became a safety valve for adults and children and acted to pacify the discontents. Like other forms of fantastic literature – and it is significant that science fiction rises also at the end of the nineteenth century – the tales no longer served their original purpose of clarifying social and natural phenomena but became forms of refuge and escape in that they made up for what people could not realize in society. This does not mean that the radical content of the imaginative symbols in folk tales and other forms of fantastic literature had been completely distilled. As Herbert Marcuse has suggested, ‘the truth[sic] value of imagination relates not only to the past but also to the future: the forms of freedom and happiness which it invokes claim to deliver the historical reality. In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of phantasy.’ Still, the question remains as to how to make the artistic forms conceived by the imagination operative in society. In other words, how can the imagination and imaginative literature transcend compensation?”

Breaking the Magic Spell (1979), Jack Zipes, pg. 174

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“Fear of Fairytales” and the Myth of a Blithe Childhood

We draw many modern symbols (tropes, perhaps) from folk and fairy tales. Look, for example, at horror films: they’re rife with werewolves, zombies, and vampires, all of which come either from folk tales or from subsequent adaptations that have gained an increasingly large audience over time (for example, Dracula – not the original vampire tale, but probably the best-known). Horror aside, children and adults alike are familiar with the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella, stories that were initially transmitted through oral retellings, and were eventually recorded by Charles Perrault in the 17th Century and, later and more famously, the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century. There are novels whose plots have also spread memetically1, such as the story of Frankenstein, and invented fairy tales like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Many of these stories seem to have a universal quality, as in the case of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the basic structure of which (girl or children in the woods, grandmother eaten, wolf plays villain) can be found not only in Europe but across the world. (The best example of this is the Chinese tale Lon Po Po2.)

Even when the folk and fairy tales that survive and rivet audiences end happily, they usually contain dark elements: Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten by a wolf (who is either simply menacing or a frightening rapist3, depending on the version of the tale), Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents, Cinderella is abused by her step-family, Anderson’s little mermaid is mute, perpetually feels she is walking on knives, and commits self-sacrificial suicide at the end of the story, and Doctor Frankenstein’s rejected creation becomes internally as well as externally monstrous and eventually kills the Doctor’s beloveds. The disturbing elements of the stories help them stick, because they describe some of the most painful, scary and inexplicable experiences in human existence: death, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, unrequited love.

Many contemporary versions of these same popular fairy tales have been neutered, ostensibly in order to spare children the very fear that makes the stories memorable. The alteration of fairy tales is the topic of a recent Boston Globe article titled “Fear of Fairy Tales”, which appeared with the tag line: “The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: the scary parts.” The article’s author, Joanna Weiss, asserts that fairy tales have been heavily revised in order to increase their commercial value, because selling a vague and cheerful “pretty lady” doll is considerably easier than selling a instead a bruised, timid, or soon-to-be devoured one. According to Weiss, this type of marketing appeals to the “lowest common denominator” and hence, sells more easily. However, the tone of and content of the article change when the topic of Weiss’s own daughter arises. Weiss writes that she has told a less frightening version of the Little Red Riding Hood story to her four-year-old daughter, one “in which Granny isn’t eaten by the wolf, but is conveniently out of the house when Red Riding Hood pops in.”

That statement raises a larger question: why do adults change the fairy tales in the first place? Although the commercial appear of the neutered fairy tale is undeniable, it is unrelated to the hesitance of adults to expose their children in any way to In “Fear of Fairy Tales” Weiss briefly sites David Bickham 4, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health as stating that “kids are already exposed to plenty of violence.” Subsequently, Weiss moves on to write about the Disney Princess brand. However, I remain stuck on the idea that children somehow can’t handle a disturbing fairytale. After all, as Weiss writes that researchers have found that “some of these metaphors [mostly the sex-related ones]…will fly over the youngest kids’ heads.” (Many adults worry that the “youngest kids” are those more deeply and negatively impacted by violent media.) Weiss also paraphrases then quotes Jack Zipes: “he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he says, ‘really relate to us, because we’re telling tales that they experience in their homes.’” If children are genuinely able to filter out many of the perturbing metaphors and retain only those aspects of the stories that have parallels in their own lives, then why the panic over the fact that fairy tales sometimes also contain sexual metaphors5 and some violence, particularly when the violence mirrors the actual, real-life experience of children.

Adults have their own neutered fairy tale about what childhood is like, as common alterations to the classic fairytales demonstrate. This fantasy about childhood relates not only to what adults think of kids, but also to adults’ deep longings about their own lives and the nature of the world. The Disney Princess line extends not just to children around the world, but also to adults as well. Weiss writes, “To little girls, these fairy tale heroines are pretty ladies, nothing more. And perhaps to adults, too. Disney has introduced a line of Disney Princess costume wedding gowns, designed, [Kathy] Franklin [Disney’s vice president] says, ‘for women who have always dreamed of their wedding as the day they’re a princess.’”

This marketing suggests something bigger about American culture (the root of the Disney Princess brand): that adults have their own specific ideas what childhood should and can be and also whether – or more accurately, how – it can be reclaimed. Both childhood and adulthood are marked by the acquisition of material goods. Sometimes the accumulation of objects accompanies internal maturity (or the lack thereof), but many times it is irrelevant. Nonetheless, society continues to associate maturity primarily with material gain. So it follows that many adults seem to hold the infinite, nonsensical hope that creating an external living environment that looks like a fairy tale will cause the promises of that tale – happiness, safety, a lack of poverty, sickness, even the evasion of old age and death – to come true. It’s one of many reasons for the American obsession with gross wealth (although obviously those who are materially deprived have other and more pressing reasons to value easy access to money and possessions). If you wear Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” dress the caption beside it must come true: “With a single kiss, Sleeping Beauty’s dream comes true. She finds her prince, falls in love and discovers that she’s already a real princess.” Never mind the desperation, jealousy, and violence present in the original version of the story.

As adults strive to fulfill their childhood fantasies, both literally and vicariously, through media6 – fantastical wishes built on fiction, which are never replaced when adulthood turns out to be a disappointment – they also try to bury their fears. Simultaneously, we adults forget that our current fears are just twisted, or inflated versions of the same fears we had as kids, the fears that the scary parts of fairy tales let us know were real and mattered; the fears that fairy tales told us that we were not alone in experiencing and not too pathetic to cope with (even if coping simply meant bravely facing something like the eventual inevitability of death). There were things moving in the dark beyond our eyes, and we knew that. As children fairy tales helped us put names and faces to the scary part of the world, the part adults often refused to own up to because they believed that if they admitted the world was frightening that it would become too terrible, incomprehensible or tragic to manage.

However, the adult version of childhood is not always an attempt to deny the difficulties of actual living or ignore real fears and dangers. There is also often a sweetness to the adult interpretation of the kid’s world that comes from a genuine desire to protect children from the pain that the adults faced while they were growing up. A good example of this sweet, albeit potentially ineffectual care is the practical suburban fairytale presented in “The Wizard of No”, a quirky anti-smoking educational video made in America in the mid 80s. The Wizard of No is a charming and magical oddball who helps the prepubescent protagonist of the film bolster his flagging self-esteem and say no to tobacco. If only self-esteem could be created with a pat on the back and an encouraging word, reified by a parade behind a strange but kindly man in a blue wizard hat! It’s such a lovely, cheerful fantasy, one that acknowledges the realities of peer pressure within a safe bubble of. If anything, “The Wizard of No” illustrates – in vivid colors, with blue capes and silver stars – the sort of world adults wish they could give to children and teenagers. It’s a world free of distracted or abusive parents, where there is no such thing as a lack of school funding or dearth of available jobs, where cruel peers, death and sex simply don’t exist. It’s unbelievably safe, demonstrating the way in which either adults recall childhood as a time of wonder or wish their childhood had been better, gentler. It also seems ineffective, although I wish it weren’t. If only bolstering a child’s self-esteem were as simple as putting on The Wizard of No for 19 minutes. But children know the actual world is different – more frightening and sometimes more wonderful. In the words of Robert Crumb (excerpted from “The R. Crumb Handbook”):

“Adults were hiding something from us. And that’s such a fascinating thing, the adult interpretation of the kid’s world. A world artificially sweetened for kids, full of things kids were supposed to like and want. We sat in front of the television Saturday mornings and looked at kids’ stuff. The shows tell kids that life could be fun and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverted, threatening, and sinister.”

As a kid I sensed the dangers of the world, often without being able to articulate them. The fairy tales that stuck with me most were not the nice, neutral Disney versions, but the more bizarre and sometimes violent tales – Hansel and Gretel, Anderson’s Snow Queen and Elfin Hill, the underappreciate story of Mr. Fox (a steady favorite from age 10 onward), and Lon Po Po (I didn’t come to appreciate Little Red Riding Hood until I encountered the Charles Perrault and Angela Carter versions of the tale).

The original fairy tales often warn kids and adults alike about the pains and foibles of being human. Adults should heed these lessons. The actual pains of life and adult misinterpretation of the ways in which children perceive such difficulties is far more likely to hurt children than sad or violent themes in fairy tales. In fact, those fairy tales may help children cope when adults are ineffectual or unavailable.

Long live the old stories.

1 Jack Zipes writes at length about the memetic nature of fairytales in his book “Why Fairy Tales Stick.”

2There is an excellent picture book version of Lon Po Po available written and edited by Ed Young.

3The original Charles Perrault version of Little Red Riding Hood is more or less an extended metaphor for rape.

4Bickham’s study, the results of which were published in 2004 in an article called “Is Television Viewing Associated With Social Isolation? Roles of Exposure Time, Viewing Context, and Violent Content”), found that “children who watch violent television programs — especially those who watch such shows alone — spend less time with friends than children who watch a lot of nonviolent programs. Although the federally funded study could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, researchers suspect one exists.” Bickham’s study itself concludes its abstract, “The more time that children spent viewing violent programs, the less time they spent with their friends. While this study cannot determine the direction of effects for this relationship, a cyclical process between violent media and peer integration best explains the findings. To optimize social development and mental health, children’s access to violent media should be limited.” I find the researcher’s “suspicions” a dubious foundation for assertions about the effect of violence on children. The children who spent less time watching violent television also had richer and more involved home lives; their parents tended to be better engaged and regularly demonstrated love and care.

5Admittedly, occasionally folk and fairy tales contain actual sex, as the obscure Peruvian tale of “The Snake’s Lover,” in which a woman is seduced and impregnated by a snake. However, few parents are likely to know of that tale much less read it to their children.

6 By “media” I mean films and books – particularly romantic comedies and action films – that insert the values and security of the sanitized fairy tale into a more adult context, e.g. the desire to be a hero or a treasured princess, both living in a world where they are immensely safe and ridiculously happy and successful in their endeavors. Various genres express these fantasies in different ways. As fantasies they aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but when they take the place of primary adult goals (and they seem to for so many people), they create a culture in which people are divorced from their true needs and the needs of children. Basic pain in life is considered too cruel, and attempts to minimize it become so great that real, pressing problems, personal and social, are often ignored.

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