The Essential Fairytale
The original villainess of Snow White’s story was her mother. Grimm Brother’s first edition was faithful to the tale they heard and recorded, the tale of a mother who orders the murder of her adolescent daughter out of jealous vanity and devours what she believes to be the dead child’s lungs and liver. But this notion of a murderous, cannibalistic mother was too much for a self-consciously maudlin age. In the Grimm Brother’s second edition, mother was replaced by stepmother.
Recent film versions have reintroduced the themes of incest and cannibalism alluded to in the original tale; in one movie the dwarves almost rape the fugitive Snow White. But the canonization of the mother remains untouched.
Way before Phillip Larkin wrote his iconic poem about the dysfunctional family (‘This be the Verse’), the fairytale said it; and its version was infinitely grislier. In fairytale families parents betray children and children are indifferent to parents. Extreme sibling animosity is a standard trope as is unbridled parental favoritism. When faced with a choice between themselves and their children, parents choose themselves every time. Children must learn to survive on their own or not survive at all. The evil the heroine/hero needs to overcome is more likely to be a member of one’s own family than a creature of monstrous magic. In the Swahili tale, ‘The One-handed Girl’, a brother cuts his sister’s hand, drives her from home and tries to get her murdered by branding her as a witch. She is saved by a snake!
Robert Frost said ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there they have to take you in’. Fairytale has no such axiomatic home for its heroes and heroines. Their only shelter is in spaces which belong to no man, like forests or deserts, places still unclaimed by grasping, judgmental, demanding humanity. It is in these un-owned places shunned by civilization, the familial/societal outcast finds shelter, and help. In the Persian tale, ‘The Son of the Soap Seller’, a poverty-stricken boy’s way to fortune (and marriage to a princess) lies through a demon-haunted desert; the lethal desert is both his refuge and place of deliverance.
Fairytale (and folktale of which it is a branch) was subaltern literature, stories created and recreated by ordinary people in every part of the globe over millennia. Living at the mercy of the elemental, both natural and manmade, from vagaries of nature to brutal domination by power-wielders, the disempowered had an extremely incisive understanding of the dark side of human psyche and societal arrangements. Their lives were indeed nasty, brutish and short. The stories they created reflect this pitiless and senseless arbitrariness. They are stark and jagged, narrations relating every conceivable human weakness, folly and crime with disconcerting matter-of-factness.
But fairytale does more than depict dark gritty reality; it also offers the leaven of rebellious hope calling magic to its aid. Across the world and in vastly different cultures, fairytale depicts the universal human desire to escape from one’s birth conditions. In times and places where state demanded obedience and religion preached resignation (submission to divine will/karma), fairytale advocated a different ethos, one of disaffection and dissent. The meek die young, like the little match girl. The happy endings generally belong to the resisters, those who go against accepted conventions and strike out on their own. It is perhaps no accident that fairytale heroes were often the very ones derided and marginalized by their families/societies as Fools. In a Lankan story (How Gamarala Went to Heaven) it is the despised little servant boy who makes it to heaven, and he makes it because he dares to disobey the explicit orders of his masters.
Fairytales born in an archaic world often advocate a sensibility which is strangely modern. Long before the poor, the persecuted and the disempowered fled the old world to the new, seeking a different life, heroes of the fairy tales did it. Long before French Revolution gave a voice to sans-culottes, fairytale turned them into liberating heroes. Long before the term feminism was created fairytale gave women a voice and a role. Admittedly a woman’s route of escape was through an advantageous marriage; but fairytale’s inability to overcome gender-roles is on par with its similar inability to imagine a democratic alternative to monarchical governance. And yet, within these confines, the usual fairytale heroine is not a wilting lily or a simpering miss, but a creature as courageous, resourceful and generous as her male counterpart. Many of the fairytale heroines may not bear arms or slay monsters, but they do leave their home and hearth and go out to the world; they do outwit monsters, from ogres to Baba Yagas, and save their brothers and lovers.
Into a moldy, moldering world, fairytales introduced the idea of radical break, of forward-moving change. They imagined a world in which anyone could aim for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But success depended on solidarity, with living beings and with nature. In fairytales, the heroes who make it do so because they don’t spurn the cry for help. From Orient to Occident the favored older siblings fail in their quest because they ignore that cry; success always comes to the despised younger sibling because he/she does not. In societies where animals had only use value or exchange value, fairytale gave animals a voice and a choice. In a Northern African story (‘Udea and Her Seven Brothers’) the eponymous heroine almost comes to grief when an annoyed cat and an insulted raven withdraw their protection. An Estonian story (‘The Kind Woodcutter’) in which trees speak up and explain to a sympathetic woodcutter why each needs to live reads like a modern day green morality tale.
Fairytale was both utopian and anti-utopian. A timeless cautioning against utopian dreams is found in a story from Turkey, ‘The Boy who Found Fear at last’. The hero’s quest to find fear is unsuccessful until he is chosen to be king; he ponders the task ahead, trying to make the poor rich and the bad good, and terror overwhelms him. Walter Benjamin called fairytales the first tutor of mankind (‘Illuminations’). They still have much to teach us about life, living and everything relational, if only we are willing to look beyond the glossy images and hear the gritty, radical words.
In a Japanese fairytale (‘The Good Thunder’), the Thunder God sends his son, Rai-Taro, into the human world. Rai-Taro, decides not to go among warriors, the idle rich or priests but to be with a poor and childless peasant couple. In the end Rai-Taro must return to his heavenly abode. His foster mother laments his impending departure saying that he has brought them great good fortune while they could give him nothing in return. His response was, “Three things have you taught me – to labor, to suffer and to love. I am more learned than the Immortals.”
That, in the end, is what fairytales do; they depict the human condition, unvarnished and unidealized; and give hope that through labor, suffering and love – and a touch of magic – we can overcome what we have been born into and create something better.
“The Essential Fairytale” © Sam Muller
Sam Muller is a new writer who is working on her first novel, an adult fantasy.
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Chikanobu, Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, Henry J. Ford, Jennie Harbour, and John Bauer.