Fairy Tales

cinderella-with-pigeons-jpgEdward Henry Wehnert,1857

 

Facebook again. Just scrolling through, the way you do. And here is a little semi-animated story. Cinderfella. OK. Let’s watch it.

So it’s Cinderella with a boy instead of a girl. Same things, but role reversal. Ugly step brothers. Handsome young…. Sorry… pretty, young princess. Glass loafers. You get the picture. And then at the end, just as they are about to live happily ever after, comes a blackout and the text, “You would never read this story to your son, so why read it to your daughter?”

Huh.

I look at the top of the post. “Everything that’s wrong with Fairy Tales.”

Well, okay, I get what you are saying, except why wouldn’t I read this to my son? I mean, yes, you can have uplifting stories about hard work and effort, but it’s a fairy story, for goodness sakes. Why shouldn’t a boy have daydreams of a beautiful girl making him happy? Why should he have to be the prince, looking for the girl? In Norway, they have this exact story, called Aspen Asklad. The youngest son who played in the ashes and did the cleaning up. Who did all kinds of goofy stuff, went to the ball and still married the princess. European fairy stories are full of that kind of thing.

Besides which, have you ever read Cinderella? Not the Disney version, the historical one? The one where the ugly stepsisters cut off their toes and heels so they can try and cram their feet into the glass slipper? The one where the wicked stepmother has red-hot iron shoes crammed onto her feet and made to dance until she falls down dead?

You know, the one that was recorded in the mid nineteenth century, based on stories from the late sixteenth century? The one where Princess Cinderella rejoices at seeing her tormentors tortured? I mean, seriously, Cinderella really knew how to wield the whip hand, when she had it.

So really, Cinderella is a story of dicks getting their comeuppance. And Cinderella being a dick herself.

In my experience, kids, for whom fairy stories are intended, generally like the originals. But Disney felt that good little girls being rewarded for their patience was a better message. Which I admit is a pretty stupid idea, but no worse for a boy than for a girl. I mean, isn’t patience and hard work supposed to get a reward in the end? Boy or Girl?

But anyway, the modern retelling of fairy tales is the problem, not fairy tales themselves. Which is why Disney didn’t show the bit where the Hunter in Snow White cuts out the heart of a deer so that he could show it to the Queen and say it was Snow White’s. That Queen was some bitch.

But not all fairy tale heroines are like Cinderella. Take the girl in “I Love You Like Salt” whose father drives her from the house when her two older sisters say they love their father like gold and diamonds, but she just says, “I love you like salt.” Out in the woods she finds food, catches game, builds a house, and raises a garden. Until a handsome young prince gets lost in the woods and is thrown from his horse. Youngest daughter finds him, rescues him, heals his wounds and nurses him back to health. Naturally he wants to marry her, because she is the bravest, smartest, hardest working (and prettiest) girl he’s ever set eyes on. She says OK, but won’t marry him as a commoner (Her dad was a king too,) so they send an invitation to King Dad to come to a feast, and when he arrives they serve him all the good things….. without salt. Blurgh. See?  It’s not enough she gets the Prince, she has to teach her father what a dick he had been.*

There is a tendency to see history from a modern point of view. If you do that, you almost always get it wrong. They weren’t as stupid as you might think. Which is not to say they didn’t do some seriously stupid, screwed up, dickish things in the past. But try and find out what they were, don’t just jump to conclusions based on modern interpretations. For one thing, we expect a poor boy to be able to make it to the White House, right?  But for Cinderella to become Princess, (And therefor, later, Queen) was quite literally revolutionary. Cinderella and Aspen Asklad were subversives! In fact, most fairy tales are.

Because they were tales told by the poor, for the poor, about the poor. Stories where common people won! The Fairy Godmother (Who, really is no more unlikely than the Angel Gabriel) showed Cinderella how to turn rags, mice, and a pumpkin into all she needed to be a princess. And Cinderella, who had never done anything on her own, never been out of the kitchen, took herself to the ball! In fact, if the story had been about a bloke in the first place it would have been seen as a late medieval Horatio Alger rags to riches narrative.

So, please, before you judge the past (or anything else for that matter) find out about it. And don’t just Google it. Go to a library, get the book, and actually find out. You don’t want to do all that? Fine. Up to you. But don’t JUDGE.   

You might gather that I like fairy tales. Well, I do rather. And the older the better. Because they tell us some interesting things about ourselves and our past. For one thing, new research seems to indicate that some of the widest spread stories – the Three Little pigs, Sleeping Beauty, and, yes, Cinderella – might date from as far back as 4000BC.

Older than the Pyramids? Three thousand years older than Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem? That’s pretty darned old. There might be some kind of value in a story that lasts six thousand years.

But there is another reason I kind of like fairy tales. As Neil Gaiman puts it: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” And another thing I like about fairy tales. Somewhere along the line they tend to carry the following message:

Don’t Be A Dick.

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*This is basically the plot of King Lear, by the way. So, you know, Literature.

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The picture, Cinderella and the Doves, is by Edward Henry Wehnert. 1857

One thought on “Fairy Tales

  1. True. I never really thought about fairytales in this way. I’ve always loved Disney but I do agree that the older fairytales have been modified to some extent and ruined their history. I didn’t know that Cinderella and other tales were so old but thats very interesting! As for history, fairytales are other pieces of sources of our past and as you said, are proof that without hard work there’s no reward.

    Like

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