A flash of inspiration and motivation has sprung up at me and if I don’t grab it, it’ll be gone and I shall lay in bed uselessly. I read a very interesting post (How To Be Productive, Even When You Are Depressed) and I got so distracted by the Fairy Tale metaphor that I kind of missed the point. Something you’ll notice if you read my comments on the post… I studied Classic Fairy Tales at University. It was part of my studies for Children’s Literature which of course was part of my studies for an English Literature degree. I have to say it was my favourite part. Because with children’s literature the chances are you already know the story, particularly with the fairy tales. You know how it begins, continues and ends. Or do you? And you know the moral of the story and the importance of the characters. Or do you? That’s what’s so fun about it for me. You take a story you thought you knew pretty well and you discover that actually not only were there multiple tellings of the story that you did not know at all, but also that it wasn’t intended for children, was far more gruesome than you thought and had some pretty intense cultural significance.
Now without wanting to give a full on university lecture on them I’d like to share with you some of what I learned and some of what I think about these fairy tales. The trouble is there’s so many variations I wouldn’t really be doing them justice to talk about all of them in one blog post. So if you’ll bear with me I’d like to split them down and if you want to read any of the fairy tales I’ll be discussing I’m using a copy of The Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar (a new copy is about £13 on Amazon UK). I might as well start where Disney did. Snow White.
I’d say we are all probably pretty familiar with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney really started some cinematic history with that one. I can’t stand her though, aside from the grating voice she’s been given (that’s just personal opinion) for the cartoon she’s also so bloody pathetic it’s cringe worthy. She doesn’t do a single thing to save herself, she’s moronic and helpless and not what I want young girls to model themselves after. Let’s not even get into the fact that she wakes up from a coma with a random stranger kissing her and she figures well he’s the one I’ll marry him, there’s no way he’s got a necrophilia thing going on…
The first version of Snow White I have got is from an Italian guy (Giambattista Basile) for ease I think I’ll refer to him as Basil. Now Basil was a bit of a poet and a fairy tale collector so chances are he’s incorporated a couple of versions of the story into one, just to make sure the one he pens is as good as it can be. At first glance Basil’s doesn’t seem like it’s going to be all that similar to Snow White, it’s called A Young Slave.
It starts with a young Baron’s sister, who miraculously falls pregnant after eating a rose leaf… (surely men weren’t daft enough to believe any of these tales of miraculous pregnancies?) Anyway this pregnancy brings about the birth of Lisa. The woman’s fairy friends came to gift Lisa with charms but one of the daft beggars tripped and accidentally cursed Lisa. The curse was that at the age of seven Lisa’s mother would be combing Lisa’s hair and the comb would get stuck in place and leave Lisa comatose… (interesting idea on how that works…) Anyway not long after, Lisa’s mother dies, but not before telling her baron brother all about the whole thing. He promises to look after Lisa… He keeps her locked away in a coffin type thing and his wife gets a bit suspicious. When he’s away one day she breaks into the room and finds this beautiful (rose conceived) girl, thinking the worst of her husband she starts beating Lisa up and the comb falls out. This wakes Lisa up and the aunt proceeds to treat Lisa like utter crap so much so that she becomes unrecognisable to her uncle. Years later the whole story comes out, the aunt is banished for her part and Lisa is rewarded with a handsome husband (hooray, just what she always wanted?).
The second telling I’ve got is probably the closest to the film version of all of them. It comes from the Brothers Grimm who I’m sure you’ve heard of before. Another couple of fairy tale collectors who again I’m sure consolidated a few tales into one. Their tale is simply called Snow White and it follows Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in most aspects. The main differences are that the dwarves were perfectly neat and tidy without the help of a woman thank you very much. Snow White was tricked not once, not twice but three times by the Evil Queen, the daft bint. She gets a poisoned comb (what’s with these combs?), suffocated with a too tightly laced corset and of course the poisoned apple (that apple trying to remind us of the fall of Eve?) And the last big difference is that at the end Snow White sits at a feast totally absorbed by her own reflection (is this a sign she’s doomed to become the Evil Queen?) while her stepmother dances herself to death in red hot iron shoes.
The third and final telling I’ve chosen is called Lasair Gheug, the King of Ireland’s Daughter. It’s a Gaelic folk tale (obviously) so I don’t really have an author for this one. In this one the stepmother was a good mother to Lasair (Snow White) until some nasty piece of work points out to her that when the King dies his money will go to Lasair and not her. (good example of parenting skills in all these tales…) So her and this shady character decide that the best way to get rid of Lasair is to kill the King’s favourite dog and blame Lasair… (alrighty then…) But the King loved his daughter too much to disown her for that. The plan had to be taken up a notch. Next the queen and her shady friend kill the King’s favourite hunting horse… and blame it on Lasair (there’s a bit about riddles and what not in here but I will skip past that as it’ll just take me longer). Once again the King loves his daughter too much to disown her. So once again the plan needs taking up a notch (don’t know why the king isn’t more suspicious…) The queen falls “ill” and the only cure is Lasair’s liver… this shady friend of the Queen is certainly imaginative. The King agrees but actually puts Lasair into hiding and presents the queen with some other liver. So the King realises his wife is obviously trying to get Lasair killed but he also still blames Lasair for the death of his dog and horse. He takes her to a forest, cuts off a finger each for the dog and horse and hopes she’ll survive out there… (wtf?) Anyway there’s a beauty and the beast moment between Lasair and a savage looking grey cat beast. Her beasty cat friend turns out to be a prince who she marries and rules his kingdom with him. The evil stepmother realises Lasair is alive concocts another plan to kill her and ends up putting her in a coma. There’s a whole kafuffle with the prince marrying another woman blah blah blah. Eventually Lasair comes out on top having outsmarted her stepmother who is burned alive as punishment.
So the story of Lasair Ghueg is my favourite, simply because she actually does something about her predicament. Snow White is such a useless, pathetic girl that I just can’t like her or hope for her salvation. If you do read these tales you’ll note that there’s really no concern about the gruesome nature of the deaths. Which could strike you as odd if you consider them to be children’s stories. Good news though, they aren’t… not exactly anyway. In 17th century artwork and furniture you can see that children were just considered mini adults (weird I know) we were just young adults and then adults, there were no excuses made for bad behaviour in childhood and nothing was kept back from “fragile” minds.
And anyone with a head for feminism and feminist critique will note that not only is the villain a woman in all of these but that each of the Snow Whites needs a man to rescue her in some manner of speaking. Disney and Grimm’s Snow White is the “perfect” example of what a woman should be when she’s comatose. The prince falls in love with a woman who is beautiful but entirely passive, she doesn’t speak or say no…
I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my hasty retellings of Snow White, I hope you have found them rather interesting actually. It can be very easy to assume that Disney’s version of Snow White is faithful to the tales but really he had an agenda. He’s American (so the American Dream is a big deal) and it’s 1937, people need perking up still after WW1 and signs of a second world war on the horizon, men need to be encouraged to go to work and be happy (whistling dwarves?) and the women need to be encouraged to keep house and look after the men (Snow White?). Each telling of Snow White is culturally relevant, they are a symbol of the era in which they were created and as much a part of the tapestry of society as the real events occurring.
I’ll continue that thought with the next post on Fairy Tales. I’m going to look at Little Red Riding Hood next so get those axes sharpened because there’s a defenceless girl in need of saving… again.