Clarifying Current Understandings of Fairytales: The Princess or the Goblin?
Few things are simpler than your standard fairytale. Paradoxically, few things are more divisive in the modern age. Are they fluffy princess stories with no basis in reality? Do they foster dangerously unrealistic ideas of life via the “happy ending”? Are the critics right to call them “dark,” “disturbing,” more akin to horror stories for adults than light fantasies for children? Is the violence of fairytales something unsuitable and grotesque? The resolution to these questions hinges upon an understanding–or misunderstanding–of what fairytales are at their core. Rather than asking what are fairytales for, we should ask, why are fairytales the way they are?
Two Related Approaches
By far the most prevalent popular understanding of fairytales is the one we shall call the “Disney Princess” approach. Replete with pink, fairies, baby animals and glitter, this approach understands fairytales as stories wherein the princess (for it’s always a princess) is beautiful, and her prince handsome, evil gets its just desserts, and they all live happily ever after. In this view, a fairytale creates unrealistic expectations through relating the perfect resolution of trouble by seemingly ludicrous magical happenings. Most people subscribing to this view brush fairytales off as only suited for children, while others adopt a more hostile attitude, insisting such “rosy” pictures of suffering and its resolution are actually harmful to children. Fairytales, viewed as an inane flight from reality, are either completely irrelevant or else, highly dangerous.
An antithetical position, generally adopted by those who actually bother to read the original stories, might be called the “Grimm” approach (or better yet, the “Freudian”). The “true” stories, they say, are dark, grim, violent, and replete with disturbing psychological implications, which can only be recognized and appreciated by adults. One might argue it is the most prominent among literary critics of the post-modern persuasion, and has begun to trickle down among the reasonably intelligent folk who remain ignorant of the tales outside of their prominent adaptations (as evidenced by articles with titles such as “The Gruesome Endings of 7 Popular Fairytales,” and variations thereof). Many people who subscribe to this view either know of the ‘real’ stories second-hand, or read them without understanding them. In any case, it too maintains that fairytales are in some way deviant and unsuitable for children.
An Organic Synthesis
Both viewpoints are mistaken in that they disregard something crucial to the origins of the tales themselves. For fairytales, as any other literary creation, were born within a specific time and informed by that specific milieu. Though first written down in the early nineteenth century–most notably by the brothers Grimm– the stories had been handed down for generations beforehand, dating back to the Middle Ages. Europe in the Middle Ages nursed a predominantly Christian worldview. It was the very air the people breathed, palpable and clear in a way we can neither appreciate nor even fully comprehend in our own diverse world. Therefore, if one examines the tales more closely, one should logically expect to find a Christian sensibility permeating throughout. What those who read or hear of the tales in a more superficial way ignore is the predominantly Christian perspective of the world into which these tales were born.
Now, on to specifics: the claims of both opponents of the fairytale cannot be true. It cannot be both a shallow princess story of happily ever after and a grim psychological fantasy. The truth must involve some combination of both: it is a huge mistake to split them apart and treat them as inherently antithetical. Recalling that fairytales were born into a milieu almost entirely Christian, it is necessary to ask: what, specifically, does that mean? How does Christianity concretely inform these stories? There are three ways. First is the central claim of Christianity: that we were created for friendship with God, but lost that friendship through our own disobedience. Second, God did not abandon us to our own devices, but became man, an infant even, in order to redeem us. And, finally, such redemption was only effected by the suffering and brutal death of the Son of God. Of course, after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.
With this overarching understanding of human history in mind, we can now reconcile the seemingly disparate threads of fairytale criticism: the happy ending and the violence. Surprisingly, we find that neither is entirely wrong. True, fairytales often contain violence. Yet, it is never violence for violence’s sake, in the way a horror or an action film might be. Indeed, despite some rather gruesome detail (Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet, for example, or the girl having her hands cut off in Grimm’s “The Girl Without Hands”), violence in a typical fairytale is remarkably understated. If something horrible happens, it is presented matter-of-factly, and is only important insofar as it drives the plot forward. For instance, when the prince throws himself from Rapunzel’s tower and is blinded by thorns, rather than reveling in descriptions of gore and misery, the emphasis is upon their almost tragic reversal of fortune: as Rapunzel has lost her beautiful hair and now wanders friendless in a barren wilderness, so the prince wanders alone and sightless. A fairytale actually functions, up to a point, much like a tragedy—the misfortune that befalls the characters seems an inevitable result of a flaw in either themselves or one close to them.
“…And They Live Happily Ever After”
Which brings us to what may be considered the crux of the fairytale tradition—the happy ending. The happy ending perhaps rankles people more than any other aspect of the fairytale. Some wonder if it is merely a deus ex machina while others deride it as unrealistic tack-on. They say it doesn’t speak to the human condition, since tragedies in “real life” are rarely resolved so neatly. The resolution of a fairytale often appears to come out of nowhere: the blinded prince just “happens” to wander into the same land to which Rapunzel was banished. But recall the context into which these tales were born. Who, out of those who witnessed the crucifixion, ever expected it would turn out well? Who could ever have believed that, not only would all manner of things be well, but that it would be unimaginably better than anything that came before? Who, witnessing the murder of the Son of God, ever expected He would not only rise from the dead, but rise in a glorious triumph for both himself and all those that followed? This sort of reversal of events, from the tragic to the joyful–a “eucatastrophe” as Tolkien would call it–is what any fairytale worth its salt hinges upon.
The fairytale is not meant to give a picture of the world as it is, but the world as it will be. By stripping off the shades of grey and placing matters of life and death, good and evil in naked opposition, the real structure of reality, paradoxically, becomes much clearer. As any good Catholic would tell you, especially in the Middle Ages, Christ has not left this world to its own devices, but shall return in glory at the end of time and finally put everything to right. The fairytale gives a glimpse into this apocalyptic vision. The gruesome punishment of evil–whether by having your eyes pecked out by birds or dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes– rather than a Nietzschean kind of vindictiveness or a Freudian complex unleashed, reflects the eternal judgment of those who persist in wickedness. Likewise, the dramatic reversal in fortune of a pious miller’s daughter and a youngest son reflects the eventual reward of goodness in eternity.
Ask yourself: would the endings of these tales have the same staying power were they not preceded by tragedy? A thoroughly happy story has no lasting effect upon the reader, which is why My Little Pony will never be considered great literature. What makes the happy ending of a fairytale memorable, what makes us return to them again and again, is that, in a sense, it was not supposed to happen. In a true tragedy, Rapunzel’s prince would have wandered, blinded, heartbroken and alone till he died. The fact that he lives–not only lives, but finds Rapunzel and is cured of his blindness—is itself like an act of grace. Unlooked for, often undeserved, they happen nonetheless. For that reason is a fairytale violent, yet sublimely happy.
Were a fairytale not at all disturbing, one would lack a sense of the evil these characters suffer and confront; were the ending not so joyful, the tale would be somehow incomplete. So, on both sides, though they hit upon a grain of truth, most critics miss the whole. The gruesomeness of a fairytale is not evil and darkness for its own sake, but always in juxtaposition with the good. The happy ending of a fairytale, rather than creating unrealistic expectations of life, instead gives a glimpse of the underlying structure of reality in the Christian mindset, giving us hope that the evil we encounter and confront in this life does not go unpunished. Without this fundamentally Christian conception of reality, the logic of fairytales becomes completely unintelligible.
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