What is a fairy tale, anyway?
Issue of 2002-12-09
At the sand-logged, mildewy tail end of a beach vacation, four exhausted parents take two seven-year-olds to a rainy-day play, "The Fairy Tale Detective": the tales of the Three Bears and Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood, retold as though in a film noir, complete with raincoated detectives and lynx-eyed blondes. Puzzled looks from the seven-year-olds: the kids, the startled parents realize, just don't know the fairy tales, don't know the material or the usual spirit in which they're told. At last, one parent whispers, "It's a parody, a kind of joke—you know, like the Mr. Peabody stories on the 'Bullwinkle' videos." Instant enlightenment crosses their features; oh, that familiar thing, and, almost visibly, the work of interpretation—O.K., what's being kidded here? Although "Beauty and the Beast" and, perhaps, "The Little Mermaid" are part of the children's cultural baggage—or, rather, among their cultural parachutes; we are their cultural baggage—the tales exist for them only in highly sweetened, song-filled forms. A thought crosses at least one parental mind as he shepherds the children toward the exit and the fried clams: Is it possible that we have actually come to the end of fairy tales as an available, rather than an archival, entertainment? Fairy tales, however many times they are transformed, depend in some part for their effect on an air of sincerity, of urgent seriousness. For the not merely wise but wised-up children of this new century, other tales and other, more skittish ways of telling seem to have usurped the old stories and styles. Which means that the fairy tale could be headed for the place where all our good used-up things go, America's Island of Misfit Toys, the college English department.
Like a fairy godmother, along comes an encyclopedic book about fairy tales, prepared by a literature professor, which will test whether we must entomb or can yet enliven the genre. "The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales" (Norton; $35), edited by Maria Tatar, a professor at Harvard, is the latest in Norton's long line of annotated classics, a form that Martin Gardner invented and perfected, forty years ago, with "The Annotated Alice" and "The Annotated Snark": a familiar text with lots of glosses, explanations, and reflections. Annotating a classic is hard, since it involves both discreetly explaining the obvious and modestly explaining the unobvious, while being willing to stand on a soapbox in the margin now and then to give a speech. Charm and quarrelsomeness in equal parts are necessary. Tatar is well fit for all of it. Some of her notes are startling but true (of "The Little Match Girl" she writes, "The attribute 'little' before the name of a girl in a story for children often spells the character's doom"); others seem appropriately schoolmarmish ("In carrying out domestic chores, Snow White moves into a new developmental stage"); and others are nicely cheerleading ("Beauty compares favorably in every way with her two sisters").
More potent even than Tatar's annotations are her choices: a formidable scholar of the unschooled, she rummages through all possible tellings and retellings to finally choose the version of a familiar story that strikes her as in one way or another definitive. She includes old familiars ("Little Red . . .," "Jack and . . .," "Beauty and . . ."), mostly in their first printed forms, and the stranger classics ("The Juniper Tree," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"), and even throws in some duds—for the Folk have their "Mister Moonlight"s and "Revolution 9"s, too—like "Molly Whuppie." She also includes hundreds of illustrations by the great fairy-tale illustrators—many, of sad necessity, no more than postage-stamp size. (For Tatar, as for this viewer, Maxfield Parrish's dreamy northern lights carry away the laurels against Arthur Rackham's thorny linearities.)
Gardner, in his pioneering Nortons, had to fight the two-headed Jabberwock of the psychoanalytic and the psychedelic readings of "Alice." Tatar has her own battles to fight, with an alliterative two-headed creature made up of the snapping heads of Bruno Bettelheim and Bill Bennett. Tatar's notes throughout chide Bettelheim's Freudian, and extremely influential, "Uses of Enchantment" for loading the stories with the child-hating, punitive morality of turn-of-the-century Vienna. "Hansel and Gretel," for instance, is in Bettelheim's view a story about the "oral greed" of children. Hansel and Gretel enact their hostility toward a symbolic mother, who, because she is a child's provider, is also, in a neat Freudian flip, the withholder of nourishment. At the end of the story, the children have mastered their "oral anxieties." But surely H. and G. are not anxious about eating; they are anxious about being eaten. As Tatar points out, "Bettelheim suggests that the real source of evil in the story is nothing more than an alter ego of the children."
Matt's Notes: Bettelheim sometimes has something brilliant to say about fairy tales. This is not one of them. After reading his book I get the impression that he is just trying to put alternate slants on some of the stories just to see if there is another way of looking at it. This technique that he uses sometimes adds perspective and understanding to deeper truths conveyed in the fairy tale. His Cinderella's glass slipper is an analog of female organ is ridiculous and seems to me an attempt to shock readers or create dialog rather than any real understanding of the tale. Likewise "oral anxieties" are just as ridiculous. Some people think too much to the point they slip outside rational thought much like the movie "Beautiful Mind".
On her other sword arm, Tatar duels the tutting finger of Bennett, and his "Book of Virtues" brand, which, with its insistence that the great fairy tales teach timeless and universal cultural values, she writes, "endorses a kind of mindless reading that fails to interrogate the cultural values embedded in the stories written once upon a time." Fairy tales, she argues, rarely dramatize, much less endorse, the conservative Republican virtues of honesty and plain dealing and ascension from humble beginnings through hard work. Instead, they more often celebrate the triumphs of feckless sons who, through luck, cunning, and conniving help from wiser counselors, manage to win their way to unearned wealth and power.
Tatar's choices search but do not settle a central historical question: Are the stories that we conventionally group together as fairy tales really folktales in origin, a repository of popular wisdoms and oral tradition, which came to rest in the hands of a few compilers in the nineteenth century, or are they highly artificial, manufactured romantic literary productions, pre-distressed, like blue jeans, to look the part? This is a hot subject in fairy-tale academe; new studies of the Brothers Grimm and the English fairy-tale compilers make much of their ideological polishing and their nationalist agendas. One new scholarly book, "Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition" (Pennsylvania; $36.50), by Ruth Bottigheimer, even makes the case that the fairy tale, far from rising from the ground as a rural folk tradition, was invented by a city-bound sixteenth-century Italian literary hack, Zoan Francesco Straparola, in his "Pleasant Nights." Straparola, a freewheeling entrepreneur who seems to belong more to eighteenth-century London than to sixteenth-century Venice, put together "the urban tale's humble protagonists with the courtly tale's magic," combining the manners of Boccaccio with the matter of commedia dell'arte. Where in the old stories magic brought you grace, in Straparola's stories magic brought you money, and, in the joining together of these two kinds of tales, a new genre was born. The "fairy tale," if one accepts Straparola's primacy, is an invented tradition, like the kilt or haggis.
Tatar deals with this subject by avoiding it: without proposing any rule about what's put in and what's kept out, her book includes obvious folktales retold; tales so thoroughly remade as to be unrecognizable; and nineteenth-century literary confections that are no closer to folk tradition than "A Christmas Carol." There are literary contes, like Perrault's "Donkeyskin," so stiff with polish that they could stand up and promenade in Versailles, and there are Hans Christian Andersen's parables and allegories, which are about as much folktales as Tchaikovsky is folk music.
At the same time, Tatar seems, throughout her notes, very friendly to the idea that fairy tales represent a long line of vernacular folk (and particularly feminine) stories that were told by generations of women and happened to land in the opportunistic lap of a compiler, to be retold, with the old amorality still shining gaily through. So fairy tales are not part of a bad folk tradition (masculine, nationalist, and völkisch) but part of a good folk tradition (feminine, universal, subversive, and anti-patriarchal). This combination of beliefs—fairy tales are wherever you find them; fairy tales are an oral feminist tradition—gives Tatar's collection its peculiar shape, as if a CD of folk songs included not just "Down in the Valley" but Stephen Foster and Bob Dylan and Irving Berlin and the Blues Brothers, too, while the liner notes insisted that the beauty of folk songs lies in their unstudied popularity.
Matt Notes: Fairy tales are feminine, universal, subversive, and anti-patriarchal. If you were under the cave man society that they were with every aspect of your existence dependant upon the whim of a man you might be these things too. oh we still are.
At one level, of course, it is true that even manufactured entertainment can be folk art, since everybody is somebody's folk. (Vegas lounge acts doubtless revere Dean Martin the way blues archivists revere Leadbelly, as part of the dim epic past of their form.) If Hans Christian Andersen didn't begin as folk literature, it is now. Still, one would expect a scholar to give a scholarly argument for what's in and what's not, and it is surprising not to see it.
If Tatar doesn't offer an organizing idea about what fairy tales are, she does offer a strong view about what they usually include, and that ends up doing more or less the same work. She makes a point of not minimizing—indeed, whenever possible, of underlining—the violence and horror of fairy stories. We are not spared the blinding of Rapunzel's prince or that of Cinderella's stepsisters (in one version, their eyes are pecked out). "Today we recognize that fairy tales are as much about conflict and violence as about enchantment," she writes. "When we read 'Cinderella,' we are fascinated more by her trials and tribulations at the hearth than by her social elevation. We spend more time thinking about the life-threatening chant of the giant in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' than about Jack's acquisition of wealth. And Hansel and Gretel's encounter with the seemingly magnanimous witch in the woods haunts our imagination long after we have put the story down."
But then it is in the nature of storytelling to depend for its spell on establishing the credibility of the villain's evil, from Satan to the Wedgie Woman, and this does not mean that the story's real hero is not God or Captain Underpants. It is not, as Blake wrote, that Milton was on the side of the Devil without knowing it because he was a poet. It is that Milton was on the Devil's side because, as a poet, he was on the side of sides. Having two dimensions, one good and one bad, is all that gives a poem, or a fairy tale, three.
Still, Tatar is surely right to sense in the cruelty and violence of fairy tales some key to their spell. What, after all, is the difference between a fairy tale and a legend, a parable, or a moral story? We sense it at once: it is the presence of magic, meaning not just cool weird stuff but an unpredictable suspension of the regularities of natural and human order, an arbitrary and therefore sometimes terrifying lifting of the rules, including the rules of justice and mercy. Magic—completely unearned and undeserved good fortune or misfortune—is at the heart of the fairy tale, what gives it its special flavor. The giant is evil, the giant's wife friendly; the boy is a fool, the boy gets the beans. Rumpelstiltskin outwits the girl and has his hands on the baby; a sudden bit of luck in the forest dooms him. Bottigheimer tells us that when the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, got hold of Straparola's book it deleted the words fortuna and fato wherever they were found. This was a sharp bit of literary criticism; the magic of fairy tales is the pagan magic of fortune, rather than of virtue, and of fate, rather than of faith, or even grace. The moral of every fairy tale is not "Virtue rewarded" but "You never know" (which bean will sprout, which son will triumph).
Matt Notes: Fairy Tale express true morality. The morality that our culture tries to put forward is not how the world works. Honesty is not rewarded but is punished. Most rich families had a pirate some time in their past. Most fairy tales are not about enchantment so much as breaking of enchantment. Jack obtains his wealth by stealing it from someone who didn't deserve to have wealth. If you are kind to people around you they will assist you when you need them is a common theme in fairy tales.
Fairy Tales are predicated upon principles with actions and formula of action which is much more realistic than the Judio-Christian tradition of trust in god and all else will be taken care of. The Jewish Tradition is much more like the logic of fairy tales. Jacob being tricked by his father in law after working seven years for him for his daughter's hand in marriage. Jacob has to work seven more years to get the hand of Rebecca after having married the older sister Leah. Abraham being told by God to lie to the servants of the Pharaoh when he entered Egypt because they would kill him and take his wife to Pharaoh, seeing that she was so beautiful.
Tatar's mixed-up choices do have an internal logic. Any story with random magic and an arbitrary allotment of ascents and punishments can justly be called a fairy tale. At the end of her book, one comes to feel that the fairy tale, like satire, is a genre with a certain shape and spirit that pops up all over the place, rather than a form with a single history. It is in its origins hybrid and bastardized. Andersen's cruel, mysterious "Snow Queen," though an invention, is the truest of fairy tales.
Matt Note: The feminism of Fairy Tales comes from the fact that many of them were wives tales that they would tell to each other and tell their children. The Grimm brothers, when compiling, interviewed two lady story tellers, who gave them the majority of their stories.
There is something about the pagan, or pre-Christian, quality of true fairy
tales that seems to sit well with the feminism that Tatar finds in them, too.
By escaping from morality into magic, fairy tales have their own erotic
candor. In a moral conte, the Princess would learn something from the pea. In
a fairy tale, she just feels it. The average reader may not be prepared for
how many fairy stories seem to deal, in fairly direct ways, with a girl's
first experience of sex. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon,"
"Beauty and the Beast," "Donkeyskin" (with its incestuous
material), "The Frog King," "Rapunzel" (who lets down her
hair only to become pregnant, and mystified by it) are about a woman's
discovery of the animal nature of man. A beast abducts a girl and marries her,
and she either gets used to the beast or finds out he's not so beastly.
Reading Tatar's book, one thinks of how, for many thousands of years and
generations, women must have approached the marriage bed armed only with rumor
and fear, and how the good or bad news about what went on there got passed
along in the form of warning and enticing stories: you'll like it in the end,
or else you won't, or else it may kill you; the wolf will eat you until you're
bleeding or else you will eat the wolf. Contemplating the centuries of this
dread almost makes a father grateful for Christina Aguilera; whatever other
horrors our daughters may suffer, a lack of sexual awareness won't be one of
Matt Note: I don't agree with the Christina Aguilera comment. I believe that our culture is sexualizing children and placing sexual expectations that they cannot meet. It has been shown in studies where schools increased the sex ed classes or taught younger than high school had increases in teenage pregnancies. Lack of sexual awareness is not a bad thing as long as this lack of awareness does not lead to predatorial sexual acts perpetuated on the naive. Our culture has a problem with this and does not sufficiently protect against it or even give law enforcement the tools to do so. Children can be educated to be protective. Where men are monsters and not noble, children must be taught to be on guard.
"You will never win Hook, as long as there is faith, trust and pixie dust." - Peter Pan
If fairy tales are where you find them, where can we find them now? The "Star Wars" films, like Tolkien's books, are surely epic rather than fairy, with a neat morality and the overriding lesson that blood (Luke Skywalker's or Aragorn's) will always tell. C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales uneasily mix an optimistic Christian morality with a darker and more intuitive pagan one. (Lewis is creepy on the subject of his witches' bare white arms.) The magic of the Harry Potter books is that there is no magic in them; they depend entirely on the idea that what looks like magic is really something regular you learn, like algebra or French verbs.
To this reader, at least, only a few modern children's classics have the necessary mixture of mystery and amoral magic to count as true fairy tales, and high among these are Barrie's "Peter Pan" and P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins books. Both are undependable in the way good fairy stories ought to be: Peter Pan is a hero, but, like a true fairy-tale hero, his motives are suspect and his desires vainglorious; Mary Poppins is essentially benevolent, but she is also cruel, conceited, and unpredictable. That both these pure expressions of the fairy spirit came so recently, and out of an urban capital of empire under extreme stress, is, this Christmas, at once a scary and a hopeful thought. All our fairy tales are fractured now. But then it seems they always were.
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