Delights and Dangers: Flatness in Fairy and Folktales

I started young on fairy tales. This is, perhaps, the fault of my mother, who instilled in me a love of reading when I was a wee thing. When I was sick with pneumonia, certain I was going to die, she read the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia aloud, her voice never wavering even though I would not let her stop. My grandmother took the opportunity to inform me that everyone died of pneumonia when she had it as a child, and she herself had only survived from sheer willpower, something I lacked in equal parts desperation and apathy at seven, and so I needed my mother to finish, because if I died I would at least know what to Aslan and all those children. Perhaps, though, the fairy tales were the fault of my father, who was so excited that I read at all that he didn’t bother to see if the material was age-appropriate, which is how I got a copy of the Odyssey at nine, because I had liked the Wishbone video game of it, and wanted to read the source material. He bought me Grimms, Anderson, Wilde, and so many others.

Unfortunately, most of the sexual and violent metaphors went zooming past my head.

Yet, there was always something terribly disappointing about fairy tales, as much as I truly enjoyed – and still enjoy – them. It’s hard not to take joy and comfort in the exploits of Little Red Riding Hood, who for all her innocence and inability to follow good advice about not talking to hairy strangers, will always be saved from the wolf’s belly, because there will always be a good stranger with a steady job and a sharp axe about, ready to whack-whack her out to freedom. Even slightly more obscure tales are good fun, like The Handless Maiden, a poor girl who gets sold by her father to a wizard because he was not aiming for the World’s Best Father of the Year Award, and has to have her body mutilated because wizards hate purity, and inexplicably hands. She wanders into a Prince’s garden and does an excellent impression of a giraffe to eat, which the Prince spies and mistakes her for an angel. They marry, he goes off to war, the wizard is still angry about not winning her handlessness in marriage or whatever he was planning to do with her, and so writes tricky letters to the two of them, telling the handless girl to murder her son. She has none of that, and escapes with her son, and eventually her non-wizard lover comes and finds her, fashions her some silver hands, and everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s difficult, as a woman, to find my place in the action of these stories. If I imagine myself at all, then I have to change the gender of the protagonist to match my own, or risk sleeping for thousands of years, dreaming something never recorded, just as Sleeping Beauty did, awaiting a kiss that, frankly, she had never asked for. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are rarely given to women who are not girls or witches. In Hansel in Gretel, we have poor Hansel locked up in a cage growing plump while Gretel does the cleaning and, eventually, the witch slaughtering. Her reward, of course, is to take her brother back into the house of their father, the same one that foisted them off into the woods in the first place. Young boys, when they are foisted off into the grand world alone, often become royalty, oddly enough.

Marina Warner wrote in From the Beast to the Blonde that these stories were shared by women to young children to teach them the social mores and values that they would need to know, while also entertaining them. Essentially, the Ten Commandments are more fun to learn about if you also have Moses handing them down from the mountain. Simone De Beauvoir, in the Second Sex, expands on this:

“She learns that to be happy, she has to be loved; to be loved, she has to await love. Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Donkey Skin, Cinderella, Snow White, the one who receives and endures. In sons and tales, the young man sets off to seek the woman; he fights against dragons, he combats giants; she is locked up in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, chained to a rock, captive, put to sleep: she is waiting. One day my prince will come… Someday he’ll come along, the man I love…the popular refrains breathe dreams of patience and hope in her. The supreme necessity for woman is to charm a masculine heart; this is the recompense all heroines aspire to, even if they are intrepid, adventuresome; and only their beauty is asked of them in most cases.”

There is a certain flatness of character that we have most currently attributed to the success of the Twilight franchise – these characters are not fully formed, not rounded, not much of anything at all. Instead, they are body place-holders that we squeeze ourselves into, and the same works with fairy tales. Unless the tale calls for description – the red lips, pale skin, and dark hair of Snow White – most characters are barely described at all and, if they are, it’s something intentionally vague, like beautiful or virtuous. The heroes are all bold (even the boy who had to go learn what fear was), the princesses are all beautiful, and the witches and wizards dastardly evil for no reason other than they macguffin the plot along.


Yet it is that very flatness, so appealing, that also is quite dangerous when used to further an ideology that triggers our social anxieties. You see, fairy tales ( as opposed to folktales) are what Jack Zipes calls “instrumentalized magic”, i.e. a magic that is not for the voice of the people, but rather these tales deprive them of such power. He traces this to the moment when these tales were written down from oral narratives, and the “magic” as it were, is contained by a certain class of people who can easily take that magic away from the people who need it the most. The ruling class has to stay in power, because one day, if you’re brave or beautiful enough, you may marry into the family, and you too will have the power that wealth, status and property afford.

The ideology changes depending on the hand that writes them, and sometimes it’s very obvious – Whoopi Goldberg’s retelling of The Princess and the Pea to sell us adult diapers, or Pepsi using The Frog Prince to sell us coke (for women desire nothing, not even companionship, as much as she desires soft drinks). And fairy tales have not only been used only to sell products, but to sell ideas about certain classes of people. The most obvious example is when Hitler opted to rewrite the fairy tale for his own means, and of course cast himself as the hero, while relegating the Jewish population to beasts.

It is absolutely essential to look at these stories closely and question: who benefits from these narratives? Who loses out? Disney, the greatest charlatan of dreams and magic, also went along with the Jewish stereotype in The Three Little Pigs. His goal was to entertain children and to pluck the strings of anxieties of the anti-semite population, all while making a few golden dollars.

Disney has not stopped there, of course. The FW recently did a recast of Disney movies if they had honest box art. My favorite is their one for The Princess and the Frog. I remember the great cry of joy when, finally, small black girls would be able to purchase a princess-doll that looked like them, something that probably should not have taken all the way until 2009 to achieve. Yet for our villain we have Dr. Facilier, an evil voodoo witch doctor, or rather a poor black man who lives on the street who wants to take advantage of rich white people. Nope, no anxieties triggered there.

The Princess and the Frog

Yet these stories do contain the potential for magic, and that magic is thoroughly dependent on the author and their intentions with the story. Because the characters are flat they represent certain identities. The girl is all girls – and woe if you are not born beautiful, or choose not to be virtuous. Stepmothers are always evil, the youngest daughter is always the most prized and magical heir (except in the notable case of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, where the knight who saves the day chooses the eldest daughter, because he is oddly aware of age appropriateness). The wolves are always whatever we paint them to be; this is labeling at its most base.

Still, there are authors who are transforming these stories into complicated, emotionally resonant, and contemporary viable narratives. If you haven’t picked up a copy of My Mother She Killed My, My Father He Ate Me, I suggest you run to your local bookstore or click on over to Amazon and pick it up right now. It’s edited by Kate Bernheimer, the living legend of Fairy Tales alive today (and soon out with another anthology, Xo Orpheus, retellings of famous myths that I am dying to read) and filled to the brim with a variety of gorgeous retold stories. In Joyce Carol Oates’ Blue-Bearded Lover we are introduced to the newest wife of the murderer, but she is quite a clever woman who sees the blood on the key to the room that holds his previous wives, and know better than to indulge curiosity. In this way, the woman protects herself, though perhaps she is really just as awful as he is, but at least she’s not relying on her brothers to race in and rescue her as occurs in the original. In Aimee Bender’s The Color Master, we have an inside look into how the magical dresses were made in Donkeyskin, a tale where a daughter must escape her king-father, because he wishes to marry her. One of the best among a cavalcade of the best is Alissa Nutting’s story, The Brother and the Bird, a retelling of the Grimm story, The Juniper Tree.

In the original bloodthirsty tale, a woman gives birth to a son she always dreamed of having (a beautiful boy, blood as red and white as snow, as always) and dies soon after. She is buried under the Juniper Tree in the yard. When the father remarries, the new wife gives birth to a daughter, and is filled with anxiety that her own child will not inherit. The wife offers the boy an apple in a chest and as he reaches to take it she slams a lid over his head, beheading him. She props the boy back up and stitches his head on, and tells her daughter to ask him for the apple. If he doesn’t give it, and certainly he won’t, for the dead no longer give apples, the daughter out to hit him. She does, his head falls off, and the mother and daughter swear to keep this from their father.

Because she is a step-mother, which makes her decidedly evil, the wife then cooks the boy up and serves him to the father, who delights that this is the best meal he has ever, ever had. The daughter, something of a sweet thing who isn’t old enough to realize that not inheriting from her father puts her entirely at her brother’s mercy, buries her brother’s bones beneath the Juniper Tree. A bird then starts singing about the cruelties that had been done in the household, and how kind the daughter is. When each family member goes out to hear the song, they are granted a gift. The father, entirely oblivious about the death of his son, receives a golden chain. The daughter gets red dancing shoes. And the mother, complaining of heat, seeks relief from the magic bird and gets crushed by a millstone. The boy bounces back to life, and everyone goes out to dinner, with nary a concern about the death of the step-wife-mother, nor of the symbolic or real cannibalism that took place. All we know is this: all bad deeds get their just rewards. And don’t worry if you accidentally eat your kids, they’ll be back.

I won’t go into how Alissa Nutting transforms the story – you ought to read it – but one of the things that struck me was that Nutting demands that the father be accountable for his negligence. After all, one of the parts that always struck me about this story was how odd it was that the father only vaguely realized his son was missing – and take’s his wife’s word for what it is that he’s just wandered off across the country – and doesn’t even bat an eye when his second wife died. If this was Hansel and Gretel, one hopes that Gretel came home and kicked her father and his wife out of the house and took over, and sent her parents out on their own journey of enlightenment. The fairy tale is not one where everyone lives happily ever after, that is not magic, but an odd lie we tell ourselves to feel better. The real magic lies in what authors are doing and, ideally, will continue to do: transform the stories to serve all of us.