Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fairy Tales

Let's take it to the Way Back Machine, Sherman.  The way, way, way, way the hell back.

We're talking fairy tales, or so they are termed now.  We're talking fairy tales because we are still reading and writing and watching them.  Disney, of course, jumps to mind.  But our fantasy literature is rife with adaptations of fairy tales.  I've already mentioned Beastly, movie and book.  Robin McKinley spawned two "Beauty and the Beast"--the first, Beauty, being an all time favorite of mine.  Tam Lins crop up everywhere.  Beagle, Jones (twice) and Dean, among others, guilty.  Making me doubly guilty as Weaver's Web is a hard twist on Tam Lin and even Rebirth includes a Tam Lin sequence.  I even have a Beauty and the Beast slated, but I have to get through this series first.  So, why are we so fascinated?  Why do modern authors and readers return to these primal, Jungian stories over and over?  Where do they come from?

I had a fascination with fairy tales from an early age.  Even our Disney-ified versions are not the usual child's fair.  In Snow White, a step mother is so jealous she repeatedly tries to kill her step daughter.  Why were we fed this stuff?

So I did my high school term paper on Grimms' fairy tales.  Only they were originally Household Tales, and meant for adults.  The Grimms had changed up the stories to fit the every day sensibilities.  A father eating a stew made from his son being, obviously, the modern sensibility ("The Juniper Tree").

So here's the dish.  The Grimms used fewer sources than they made it sound.  Most of their sources were easily accessible.  These were the nannies and cooks of the places the Grimms frequented.  I do not believe for a second that a nanny of the Grimms' best friend told a perfectly honest account of what she told her friends.  That aside, the Grimms set out to save the oral stories of the common people to publish and save.  That was their platform.

Only many of the stories didn't quite suit their tastes.  Interestingly, the Grimms added violence.  A lot of the just deserts that were served, were served up by the Grimms, not their sources.  The original tales were chaotic folklore, based on chaotic folklore and myth that preceded it, past down through the ages by an illiterate culture huddled around fires at night, trying to out-do each other.

The only notably less disturbing thing the Grimms did before repackaging their tales--all those step mothers.  Why is the fairy tale obsessed with evil step mothers?  The answer, it isn't.  Snow White?  Her own mother wanted her dead.  Cinderella, the classic step mother?  Not a step.  Deerskin getting raped by a step father?  Um.  A little more incestuous.  At the time, mothers were held up as paragons of virtue.  They were saintly, even.  The angel of the household.  Man's better half.  We couldn't have them running around killing their children.  So the "step" got inserted.

As much as Grimms glorified in violent, bloody ends, there was something they could not stand about the tales they told, and certainly couldn't hand the high born gentry:  Sex.  We still like to skip it in our retellings.  Possibly because we don't know, and possibly because we are still a culture that would rather have blood, guts, gore, and child eating than a little rock 'n' roll (in its original sense).

Before the Grimms had their way, for instance, in one of the versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" passed around, she did a strip tease for the wolf and got called a slut by her grandmother's cat.  I love that one (another tale I'm considering adapting, once I get through the three or so books in front of it).  However, it can't be beat that in more than one version of "Rapunzel," the witch (*cough*mother*cough*) found out about Rupunzel's prince climbing her long hair because the next door neighbor (so much for a tower deep in the woods) informed the witch (*cough*mother) that by the smell of it, and the flies around the window, Rapunzel would soon be knocked up and would probably run away with the best silver.  Yikes.  That could even make me blush.

But we don't use it.  Admittedly, Rapunzel is a bit of a hard story to mess with (though I'd like to try) since she spends so much time in a tower, though if you kick it old school, she also gets thrown into a wasteland to take care of her twins (knocked up) while the prince got his eyes poked out and wandered around blind till he found her again.  Which might be more interesting.

My fav adaptation is a broad range of adaptations and goes not to a fantasy writer, but to Stephen Sondheim in the musical "Into the Woods".  He tackles a host of fairy tales with both the violence and some of the sex as each for their own reasons, one after another of his characters must go "into the woods".  The woods represent a archetype of leaving society, leaving reality, and entering a space of dream, emotion, danger, and change.  In the second act, the storyteller meets an abrupt end, and the confines of the stories we know and understand bust loose even more all over the place.  Even more than in the first act, stories meet each other, and at points confuse characters into the wrong stories.  Characters learn what they really want in their lives, somewhere in the woods.

This reputation of the woods--this is what I believe we are all attracted to.  Be it children's movie, YLP book, YA movie, adult movie, that kind of adult movie, or a myriad of fantasy books, we all strive to walk back into the woods, to retain this portion of our lives and share it.  Fantasy books and films are especially prone as the goal is so often the same anyway.  We strive for this archetypal space where chaos and learning meet in twisted metaphor.  This is why we write fantasy.  This is why we love it, and this is why we return to those ancient stories over and over again.


  1. Strikes me that everyone remembers the version of the fairy tale they like thge best, even if it wash't the one they grew up with and - frankly - the gory ones are just a lot more fun.

  2. Hm. Have a feeling that wasn't what the Grimms were going for.

  3. I really, truly, deeply believe that looking for the weird and changing elements of our lives is a survival skill that we practice hard as a child, and then don't recognize as we drift into assumptions of certainty and safety. When you're really young--young enough to walk under the dining room table--the shape that slides around a tree could be a squirrel, or it could be a child-stalking slithery form from nowhere; the pile of clothes on a chair, at night, could be a giant--but I don't that's any form of childhood induced hysteria. I think it goes right back to a time when you needed to look before you knelt to look in the water, let alone drink it; if the woods were too still, that was not a good thing, and the cave that offered shelter might already have occupants. We want back into that world of childhood and close observation and beauty, but we also want back to a time when we lived and changed with the world of "what if."

    1. It seems to me that the whole American conscious has gone brothers Grim now - grabbing every fairy tell that can be grabbed and bringing out the dark. Grimm and once upon a time bring this out on TV. Snow White and the Huntsman in film. It's funny, because I clearly remember growing up in the error of children who rebelliously admired Bobba Fett over Luke Skywalker (even over Han Solo) only to find that everyone else did it too. We were very anti-disney in generation x, or thought we were at first, only to find ourselves relishing each skeleton, bloody surprise, or deliciously evil queen that Disney painted. I wonder if it wasn't the grimmness we loved, but the shock. The surprise. The genuine feeling of discovery and unpredictability these moments generated, in an utterly predictably happy medium. Now I feel like it's gone the other way. Everything is so predictably dark, that I've really come to miss uncomplicated heroes. And complicated heroes that are uncomplicated in their heroism too, I suppose. Snide enjoyment of the darkside has become not a secret vice, but an accepted reality of everyone we get to watch. Our escapism is now ruled by assholes. Sure, they're cool. Bobba Fett looks cool. But they are still assholes. They might be interesting, but before to long, you want to look at your watch, make an excuse and walk away.

      So we may have put a bit of the sex back in, but I think our popular culture is Grimm-Brothers-Guilty of stripping something that is supposed to be a reflection of our common, complicated culture, inner and outer, and making it very one-sided. No one wants to watch dudley dooright styling his hair all day long. But snidley whiplash twriling his mustaches drabs out just as quickly. We're getting the ass-tale of fairy tail, and I think we could use a bit of the fairy back. I agree with the above post, and on top of it, I'm tired of living and changing in a world of "what if everything was black as death crap?"

      Blah blah. Moderation in everything I suppose. I just finished Weaver's Web, and I think that's why I like it so much. When the heroes behave badly, its because they behave humanly, and when they behave heroically, it's their humanity that makes it special.

      But it ain't smarmy either.

  4. Wow. Thanks for such a well thought out comment. This is the kind of thing I live for. I agree depressing gets boring very quickly, even if it is nuanced, actually. It's a limited range of emotion, of humanity.

    Perhaps the best piece of writing advice I got, I got from Victor Lavalle: Sometimes good people do bad things.

    Characters are people and have faults and make mistakes. They are not the paragon of the way we wish the world was living in a world that is prone to espousing our own philosophies.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed Weaver's Web. Character is key for me, so it is great to hear that is what you appear to have taken away from it.