October 26, 2012
The other day I saw a trailer for a new film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Have you ever had the experience of watching a thirty second film trailer and feeling like you’ve seen the entire film? That was how I felt. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I feel like I’ve been to this rodeo before: there’ll be a lot of fast-paced CGI fights where you have absolutely no clue what’s going on but everyone will still be able to walk away after what looks like the sort of pummeling that would, in the real world, reduce a person to a bloody pulp. And there’ll probably be some anachronistic jokes. Maybe Gretel can speak to the birds using a magical "twitter" ability. And in the end they’ll have to take down the biggest witch in the world, although I’ve known quite a few witches, and they’re generally nice people, so I don’t know why we’re perpetuating the idea that they need a smackdown, but that’s another story.
I do understand that it’s hip right now to draw directly on fairy tales, although, really, a lot of films-even ones you wouldn’t suspect-are intentionally or unintentionally based on fairy tales. Alien is a warped retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, When Harry Met Sally is The Frog Prince, Jerry Maguire is the Arthurian tale of The Fisher King, and Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King is the Arthurian tale of The Fisher King, just to name a few. Jung called these stories and the characters in them archetypes, and whether they appeal to us because these tales seem to be about experiences so many of us share or because they strike a deeper chord in our genes is something I don’t know-something that may even be unknowable. It would be wrong to say that fairy tales fulfill our desire for happy endings. After all not all fairy tale heroes end up living happily ever after. Quite a few tales adapted by the English author Andrew Lang end with a variation of "And if they have not died then they are still living", which may be a happy ending, but is ambiguous. Maybe they’re still living but have the flu right now. And depending on the translation many of the Tales of The Arabian Nights end with something like, "And they lived happily until Death, the devourer of worlds and destroyer of all things, came for them." Sleep well, kids! Also a lot of scholars say that fairy tales are all about teaching morality and defending the status quo, and that’s just wrong. A lot of fairy tale heroes completely upend the status quo. As for morality I’m not sure we ever really learn lessons from fairy tales, at least not simple ones.
Okay, I do think fairy tales can be instructive. Rumpelstiltskin, for instance, teaches that you shouldn’t promise to give crazy homeless people your children, although if you think they can spin straw from gold you’re probably not sane enough to be a fit parent yourself. And if there’s one thing I have learned from reading fairy tales it’s that if you’re walking through the woods and a fox asks if he can have half your lunch you should give it to him, but after you’ve changed your pants, because talking animals tend to startle most people. But if you laugh at him or tell him to get a job you’re going to end up in an ogre’s lair with no chance of getting out and chained up so you can’t change your pants. For the most part in fairy tales if you help someone, especially a talking animal or old woman, since they usually turn out to be good witches, they’ll return the favor, but if you mistreat or ignore them it’ll come back and bite you in the ass later. There are, however, some pretty obvious exceptions. The first fairy tale I ever remember hearing was Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I can’t have been more than three or four, and there was a couple my parents would play bridge with on Friday or Saturday nights. Late in the evening the man would take a break from the bridge game-maybe he’d knocked with two clubs and lost the trick or something (I really don’t know anything about bridge) and he’d come into my room and tell me the story. He did this quite a few times, and it was always the story of Goldilocks. I was too young to think to ask him if he knew any other stories. But I did always wonder why Goldilocks got away in the end. It seemed to me like the bears should have grabbed her and said, "Forget the porridge, let’s have roast leg of Goldilocks". It seemed wrong that the story’s message was "Theft, vandalism, and vagrancy are okay if you can run fast!" As much as I still love fairy tales that was the beginning of my distrust of their messages, and I’d have serious issues with other tales later on.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling is often held up as the original it-gets-better story, but it should be noted that being born a swan makes things considerably easier. No one who’s read Andersen’s biography thinks he was born to grow up to be a successful writer. His story should have been The Ugly Duckling Who Was A Duck, Not A Swan, And Realized That Ducks Are Groovy And Worked Hard To Became The Best Duck He Could Be. Beloved tales also, in some versions, take some pretty dark and ugly turns. Most people are familiar with Snow White through the Disney version, so they think the evil queen is driven off a cliff by the dwarves. Since all the kingdom’s cops were probably on the queen’s payroll it’s arguable whether this act of vigilantism was justified. But in the version the Brothers Grimm wrote down the queen–who’s not a stepmother but Snow White’s real mother–attends the wedding of Snow White and the prince. And at the reception the queen is forced to wear red hot iron shoes and dance in them until she dies while everyone watches. If Snow White considered torture and murder fun entertainment for her wedding reception clearly the poisoned apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And then there’s the fairy tale that, in any version, always struck me as having a terrible lesson: Jack and the Beanstalk. Sure, you can think of it as the classic tale of the little guy triumphing and achieving success, which is always the sort of story I enjoy, but I always look at this particular tale from the giant’s perspective. If the giant were stomping around the countryside flattening houses or selling magazine subscriptions I think the story would have mentioned that instead of focusing on Jack selling the family’s cow for three measly beans. So he wasn’t. He was just hanging out in his cloud not bothering anyone. Then one day this beanstalk shoots up through the giant’s yard and some kid from down below steals his gold and his harp-shaped MP3 player. Sure, he wanted to grind Jack’s bones and use them for bread, apparently because he had a gluten allergy, but think about it. If some vermin got into your house and was stealing your stuff you’d probably eat it too. Okay, maybe you wouldn’t, but you’d probably set some traps baited with gold bags or peanut butter. And when the giant went to get his stuff back the kid cut down the beanstalk and the giant fell to his death. If you’re ever taking a break from a bridge game and decide to tell your friend’s children the story of Jack And The Beanstalk be sure to end it with, "Now how would you feel if you were the giant? Sleep well, kids!"