“We Are the Folk”: Fairy Tales in the News

June 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Consider these three stories.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are married, and they live near a dark wood. The woman cooks a stew for dinner, but the man complains that it is too cold. They quarrel, and the man storms from the house, and becomes lost in the woods. He is gone for over 30 days. Upon return, he pledges devotion to his wife’s cooking—a happy ending, despite the impending loss of the man’s legs from frostbite: Row Over Cold Soup Leaves Husband Stranded in Frozen Forest for Over a Month

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are married, and they have no children. How the woman wishes for something to care for! She finds a cat. Then another. Then another. Then another and another and another until there are 550 cats for her to love. Her husband fears that they will not be able to feed all of their furry children—or himself, for that matter, as the cats continuously steal his food, the clever beasties. He also fears that his wife’s love for him is no longer as strong, when it must be spread amongst all 551 of them: Man Divorces Wife After She Refuses to Get Rid of Her 550 Cats

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are to be married, to ensure the man’s status in the kingdom. The bride’s mother makes all necessary arrangements, then departs. But when the wedding is to take place, the bride is hidden away from the light, while a false bride takes her place. The man and the false bride treat the girl like a servant and a lowly beast. She is made to sleep, eat, and behave like an animal. She is beaten and ridiculed for years, until a kindly neighbor comes to the bride’s rescue with a camera phone. She is found by authorities in a depleted state near the forest: Bosnian Police Arrest Couple Over Girl’s 8-Year ‘Slavery’

In March of this year, the New York Times ran an article about the recent “trend” of fairy tale films and shows, titled “The Better to Entertain You With, My Dear.” The author, Terrence Rafferty, argues that most fairy tale films are unsuccessful, not because they’re ill-made (though in most cases, he admits, the direction lacks the vision of what he considers to be the standard, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), but more so because the “world” of fairy tales is irrelevant, a thing of the past. I quote:

The world from which fairy tales and folk tales emerged has largely vanished, and although it pleases us to think of these stark, simple, fantastic narratives as timeless, they aren’t. Thanks to video games, computer graphics and the general awfulness of everyday life, fantasies of all kinds have had a resurgence in the past few years. But the social realities on which the original fairy tales depend are almost incomprehensibly alien to 21st-century sensibilities; they reek of feudalism.

Not too long after this article hit the presses, Kate Bernheimer of The Fairy Tale Review took to the interwebs to express her irritation at this assumption: that because feudalism is long gone, so too the suffering, the poverty, the “beauty-shock” and the happy endings of fairy tales are likewise passé. The entire rebuttal is worth a read, and can be found here. Bernheimer briefly cites our culture’s fascination with “get-rich-quick” stories as a sign that the basic societal impulses that gave birth to fairy tales in the first place are very much alive and well. As a counterpoint to those happily-ever-after fairy tales that are referenced so often in terms of money-making or marriage-celebrating, she also points her readers to a more disturbing story about children living in an abandoned school bus in Texas, and draws parallels between that and “The Babes in the Woods,” an Appalachian tale. No fairy tale wedding there, or in the stories I’ve linked to above—and yet, for both Kate and I, these stories prove that fairy tales are indeed thriving, and not just in Hollywood. The real fairy tales, in this writer’s humble opinion—or at least, the stories of poverty, suffering, and normal humans in bizarre, sometimes comic, and often horrifying situations that, once upon a time and still today, make fairy tales such a welcome and truthful distraction.

Fairy tales—at least, the way I read them, and perhaps Kate too—have never really been about social norms, as much as they did illuminate the way “normal” everyday people might act in an abnormal situation, and thus gain a higher social status. And to be sure, many of our deeply ingrained gender roles can be found inlaid in fairy tales, especially those of the more conservative collectors like Perrault or the Grimms.

But fairy tales are, at heart, about dysfunction, about a world off-kilter and the normal human’s response to that dysfunction. There’s many the villain in a fairy tale who resembles a modern-day sociopath, and many the short, comic tale that doesn’t end with a wedding, but instead begins with an already married couple, trying to eke out a life together in the midst of annoying personal quirks and lack of proper resources. The happy ending cannot exist without the dysfunction, and occasionally the horror, that preceed it.

In a recent post about Cinderella, I wondered how many young girls planning princess parties really thought at all about Cinderella as a suffering heroine, instead of just the girl who gets the prince—the number of women on Say Yes to the Dress who use “Cinderella” as an adjective tells me that many of them don’t think about this, that to them the socially normative thing to do is end up with a prince, that that’s what’s supposed to happen, to anyone. But these things happen in fairy tales as the result of suffering, and interaction with horror. There is a deep, dark forest to fumble through before you can see the light, and there are dark-hearted people to contend with before you get your happy ending. The Bride of the “Robber Bridegroom,” whose story reminds me so much of the strange, sad tale of the 19-year-old pictured above, doesn’t get to triumph unless she’s seen the murdering first (and has the disembodied finger to point with). And let’s face it, it would be a much more boring story if no one lost an appendage. For that reason among many, Mr. Yuri Ticiuc and his frostbitten legs fit right in.

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