bonny_kate: (cinderella)
There are many instances of inconvenient promises in fairy tales. Until recently, I took it for more or less granted that the proper thing to do was to keep one's word. Now I am not nearly so sure. Most of the time it is good to keep your word, even if it is lightly given, but not always.

To begin with, there is the story of the Princess and the Frog (I start with this as i think it is fairly straightforward). The Princess gives her word to the frog that she will do whatever the frog wants if he will only return her golden ball; she will be his friend, let him eat off her plate and sleep by her pillow. It was a promise foolishly given, but the Princess does not have good grounds for breaking it. If she objects to the conditions, she ought never to have agreed to them.

Let me continue, then, with the more dubious case of Bluebeard (a fairy tale that I've never been very fond of). In it, the girl is given the key to all the castle, and told not to open one particular door. She promises not to, but does anyway, and finds Bluebeard's murdered wives. Was she justified in breaking her promise? Well, I think that she was, because she has a general idea of what sort of man her husband is. She knows that he has had several previous wives, and that no one really knows what has become of them. Bluebeard is a cruel and violent man. The real question in this case, though, is this: what did the girl know about Bluebeard before marrying him? If she had any idea of his character, she ought never to have married him. If she didn't, and only realized it after her marriage, then she was justified in finding out what secret he was hiding (although it seems that it would have been much more prudent to poke around after her brothers had arrived). If the girl only broke her promise because she was curious, and had no idea of the character of Bluebeard, then she ought never to have broken her word (whatever came of it in the end).

The particular fairy tale that I've been considering lately is that of Beauty and the Beast. I'll start by discussing the Disney version, and then discuss the storybook version. In the Disney version of the fairy tale, Beauty sets out to find her father, and discovers him in the castle of the Beast, where he is being held prisoner. She offers her life in exchange for his, and the Beast agrees. I have generally thought that it was good for Beauty to keep her word, but now I am not so sure. True, she offers the exchange (it is her idea, and the Beast does not force it on her), but the Beast is clearly capricious and violent, incarcerating Beauty's father for no good reason. It would be better, Joel argues, if Beauty had run off as soon as she reasonably could (the next day, perhaps, when there would be less danger from the wolves). The Beast clearly has a temper, is violent, and has no sense of justice (he has no right to hold Beauty's father prisoner, as it was an honest error, and her father would likely have died in the dungeon, and he ought not hold Beauty prisoner either). I agree (although somewhat relunctantly). I still think it is bad when Beauty runs off after the Beast scares her. She runs away out of fear, she foolishly endangers her life, and it would have been better to have run away a little more calmly and rationally and for good reasons.

So, what then to do with the storybook version of Beauty and the Beast? The question is complicated, as there are so many versions. However, the similar threads are that the merchant takes refuge in the Beast's house (or castle) for the night, that he only steals a rose (thinking it of little value and wishing to give Beauty happiness). For this, the Beast nearly kills him, and only relents on the condition that one of his daughters take the merchant's place (many versions specify that he will not harm the girl). This is an instance of a promise made under coercion, it is unreasonable, and the merchant is under no obligation to keep it. The situation is further complicated, though, as the Beast has (in most versions) a great deal of magic. If Beauty is convinced (with good cause) that the Beast is a sorcerer, I think it is justifiable that she takes her father's place at the castle (it is not a matter of keeping a promise, though, because if this is true, the merchant is still under threat of force). If Beauty thinks that the Beast is not a sorcerer, then she ought not to go to the castle (and neither should the merchant). It was a promise forced from the merchant, and the Beast has already shown himself to be violent and irrational. That is the first promise in the story.

The second promise is that which Beauty gives, when she promises to return to the Beast after visiting her family. Again, the circumstances vary depending on the version of the story. In some versions, the Beast only lets Beauty go on the condition that she promises to return. She is not obligated to keep such a promise. It is, at best, controlling of the Beast to force a promise, and at worst coercive. The Beast should not force Beauty to promise to return, even if he dies from her absence. If that is the case, Beauty is not guilty when she returns having spent more time with her family than she promised. On the other hand, if the Beast releases Beauty to return to her family, stipulating nothing (or only stating that he will die if she does not return; a plain fact), and she gives the promise freely, then she ought to return when she promised she would. It depends on the conditions and circumstances in which the promise was made.

Now, of course, I'm rethinking promises in fairy tales (mainly in Beauty and the Beast). I took it for granted that Beauty ought to take the merchant's place, and that she ought to return after spending the set time, but I don't really think that anymore, and it changes the fairy tale rather a lot. It definitely complicates a relationship to have it begin with coercion and forced promises.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Charis mentioned in a recent post that my symbol, or image, is the rose. This surprised me, because I wouldn't have picked the rose as my symbol, but it fits so completely perfectly that as soon as I read it, it was like a little mini epiphany, and I knew she was right. I don't have roses all over the place, or books about roses, or little roses on binders or anything like that. I have rose petals from my rose bush sitting in a cup for when I need the sweet comfort of faded, slightly dusty roses, and I have Rose Daughter. It isn't an obvious image. And yet, roses are pervasive. I can scarcely write a story in which roses don't slip their way into it, one way or another, and I have written many stories in which the roses are integral. They are an image of love, but not just of romantic love, but of friendship, of affection, of any love that is good and virtuous and makes one better for it. Tangled up in this is McKinley's Rose Daughter, because I first fell in love with roses reading that book. I remember the library I borrowed it from, and I remember the cover. The first few times I read it, I loved Beauty more, but I slowly realized that I loved Rose Daughter more. I wanted to be that Beauty, with her quiet virtue and deep love, her stubbornness and love of roses. In that book, McKinley defined roses as an image of love, and I fell in love with them. One of the roses at my house, before we moved, was my rose bush. It was beautiful and the largest of the rose bushes, and I used to talk to it, just a little. It would grow taller than me, and the roses were old fashioned, full cups of creamy white and pink petals softer than silk or satin that made my fingers feel rough as they caught on every hangnail or callous, with a funny little twist in the petals around the center until it opened to show the center. It smelled of roses, but a rich, fragrant scent, something of citrus in the evenings. That is how my love of roses started, and then I found added to the tangle Tam Lin, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and roses wending their way through many fairy tales. And if that were not deep enough, there is the Rose of Sharon, and the white celestial rose of the Divine Comedy which is one of the last images of Paradise.

Roses are an image for me, almost never this conscious, of love and beauty and goodness. They are the heart of the Beast that Beauty saves by love and magic, the tangle of briars to protect Sleeping Beauty until her true love comes to wake her, the love that Janet calls Tam Lin with so that she may save him, and the last image of the blessed in heaven before Dante is moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars. 'Roses,' as McKinley writes, 'are for love. Not forget-me-not, honeysuckle, silly sweetheart's love, but the love that makes you and keeps you whole through the worst life will give you, and pours out of you when you're given the best instead.' And that is why roses are my image.
bonny_kate: (Default)
I've read nearly all the stories on Cabinet Des Fees, and found it an interesting experience. Nearly all of them are fairy tales (with a few myths thrown in), and I find that I disagree with the authors on one key point. I believe in fairy tales. I don't think them literally true, but I think they communicate deep truths (I've written about this at some length in this blog*). I try to take each version on its own merits, because I don't think there is a definitive version of nearly all fairy tales (the exception being those recently created by a particular author, such as George MacDonald's Little Daylight), and I like Andrew Lang's colored fairy tale books, the Grimm Brothers, Jack Zipes translations from the French of some of the oldest versions of Beauty and the Beast, Robin McKinley's retellings of Beauty and the Beast, and the Disney cartoons of Snow White and Cinderella, to name a few. But one characteristic that these share is the traditional fairy tale tropes of virtue being rewarded, beauty and good being inextricably linked, justice always being exacted, and so on. These modern fairy tales almost universally are cynical. We find that Cinderella was an evil genius, or that the stepmother in Snow White was misunderstood and wrongfully condemned. I think it is good to question assumptions, but these are not the fairy tales that I love, because the essence is not there. Cinderella is not Cinderella if she is not good. Snow White is an unfulfilling tale, and loses rather than gains over the familiar tale if justice does not triumph in the end. If the witch in Hansel and Gretel was not evil but merely misunderstood, then the story is no longer a fairy tale. I found these stories unsatisfying. I think there are deeper truths that the familiar stories tell, instead of these poor, cynical, broken hearted stories (incidentally, I think Shrek has many of these same problems), and these seemingly more realistic stories miss much that the Disney stories capture.

There are, of course, dangers inherent in desiring to be Snow White or Cinderella, and it seems I have often heard women saying that you shouldn't expect a knight in white armor or a charming prince. In answer to that, I merely wonder if we have misunderstood the fairy tales, and forgotten that it is only a virtuous princess who may rightfully win a happy ending (and it rarely comes easily). Fairy tales don't say that life is always easy, but they do say that it is ultimately good, and that there is justice.

It is too easy to swing between extremes, to say that fairy tales are only stories for children and that there is nothing of substance in them, or to say that all fairy tales are the oldest, darkest versions in which Red Riding Hood is eaten and Sleeping Beauty wakes up pregnant. The truth is that fairy tales are good for children, because they are true, and as Lewis shows much better in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, stories about dragons (such as fairy tales) are the right sort of stories. I don't throw away a story merely because I liked it as a child. Some of them I find really aren't that good, but the more I read good stories, like Narnia, the more truths I find within them. But I've never outgrown fairy tales, or seen through them. I've added more, and more grown up fairy tales to my bookshelf. I will take my fairy tales light (although with substance), or dark (although with hope, like Hamlet or King Lear), but I won't take them cynical.


*for more of my thoughts of fairy tales, see the seventh fairy, formula in fairy tales, on the subject of being rescued, the Fey, love and beauty, why read fairy tales?, the beautiful princess, and happily ever after
bonny_kate: (Default)
One of the interesting tropes of fairy tales is the seventh fairy. In Sleeping Beauty, six fairies have given their gifts to the little princess, when the wicked fairy comes and curses the princess with death. The seventh fairy, being the least of the sisters, cannot fully negate the curse, but only tempers it. Or so she says. For I think that though the seventh fairy may only ameliorate the affects of the curse, she is able to not merely negate the intent, but to completely change it. The princess does not die, but sleeps for one hundred years, and so finds a prince that is worthy of her. Goodness does not merely defeat evil, but turns it around, so that what was intended for evil becomes the instrument of happiness.

As George MacDonald points out in Little Daylight, the very thing that the wicked fairy is trying to prevent is brought about by her actions. Nor is this an isolated incident. Cinderella first catches the eye of the prince because of her exquisitely beautiful dresses; dresses that she would not have had if her stepmother had allowed her to go to the ball. The prince finds Snow White in the casket looked after by the seven dwarves because she was driven out by her stepmother. In the Goose Girl, the wicked servant cannot prevent the truth from being told, and ultimately speaks her own doom. And so on.

The villains are still wicked, and yet for all their power and perceived superiority they cannot prevent a happy ending. It will happen in spite of them. But what interests me is that evil is not simply defeated. We do not see the end of the wicked fairy of Sleeping Beauty, but the wicked stepmother of Snow White dies, as does the wicked servant of the Goose Girl. This is certainly justice. But the villains are more than defeated, because what was intended for evil has been used for good. The villains become the unwilling means of bringing about the happy ending.

(For more on this, see George MacDonald's fairy tale Little Daylight which may be found in the book At the Back of the North Wind.)
bonny_kate: (cinderella)
Well, I have started to outline the latest story, which seems to be a novel. It is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, and I very much like it, although I'm not sure it is any good. I want to just jump in and start writing it, but I'm forcing myself to breath a bit and make sure I have a proper, worked out outline first. I really don't have the time to be writing a novel, but I think I've been bitten by this idea. Oh, NaNo, see what else you have done.
bonny_kate: (gentle green)
Look! Another story fragment thing! This one is mostly based on a dream I had. It isn't really going anywhere, I don't think.



My mother warned me about the Elves.

"I'm uneasy that you're going to that house," she said.

"I'll be fine," I said. "It's just like any other great house. They're just like any other great lords and ladies."

"They're not," she said. "They're uncanny. Don't take anything they offer you, especially not food or drink. They may not be evil, but they certainly aren't good. I'd rather you were elsewhere."

"No one else would hire me," I said. "And their coin is as good as any other's."

She let me go, eventually, but not before making me swear to always wear a bit of cold iron, as proof against enchantment, and rosemary for remembrance.

I walked up to the steps of the great house, stopping for just a moment to gaze my fill at the house itself, before seeking the servant's entrance. Milord was there, standing on the steps, staring out into the bustle of the city, the carriages clattering past, the women selling apples or chestnuts or posies, the urchins begging for a coin or looking for a purse to lighten, and he did not see any of it. I knew he was milord because of the fine cut of his coat, his perfectly snowy white cravat, and the gold watch chain. He was tall and thin and pale, like all the elves, and yet he might almost have passed for a mortal. Almost. I knew when I saw him that there was something inexplicably different. He did not seem to belong to the world. He was too still, too perfectly sure of himself. Milord and milady were like that, always moving strangely, as though outside the rhythm of the world. They moved to quickly or too slowly, and I never understood them, and I think they never understood us.

I asked milord, later when I had grown bold, what he had been watching for when he stood on those steps. He told me that he had not been watching, but listening. Listening to the music of the spheres. He sounded sad when he said it, if Elves may be sad. I've heard the poets say that we no longer hear the music of the spheres because we've grown deaf through coarseness and evil. That may be. I wonder why the Elves may hear the music of the spheres when they come from another world. I wonder if they hear their own spheres. I wonder how milord could hear it over the sound of London in the morning.

They were kind, or at least, as kind as they knew how to be. I don't think they understood what we mean by kindness. We mean not just the act, the spoken word or the coin, but the intention. They never showed any passions, or at least, not as I understood them. They were never kind, or angry, or harsh. They were always calm and distant, impossible to rouse to any emotion, except, perhaps, curiosity. Milady was curious about dancing. I spoke to her of it, how we dance for pleasure, and showed her the steps. She could not understand it, though, and said she had never danced. I think, though, that we dance inside things, that we live inside our world and dance as a part of it, but the elves live outside and dance ever with it.

I asked once why they were here, and milord said that they had been cast out from their world. I did not dare to ask why.
bonny_kate: (Default)
I thought that fairy tales were formulaic, and so I started to write a fairy tale where you could just fill in the blanks. But I didn't get very far; four sentences in fact.

[Once upon a time / Once a long time ago / In a far away land] there lived the son of a [poor woodsman / poor miller / king]. He was the youngest and handsomest son, and his hair was the color of [wheat / flax / straw]. Having no inheritance, he decided to go into the wide world to seek his fortune. He was walking through the [forest / village / desert] when he saw an old beggar woman.


The truth is that fairy tales are not formulaic. A fairy tale may begin with a king or a widow, a birth or death or christening, a blessing or a curse, and goes on from there. There is no neat little fairy tale template that you merely embellish. Rather, fairy tales are full of patterns. For example, three is very important. Cinderella has three different dresses for the three balls. There are often three tasks or three brothers. In the Twelve Dancing Princesses, each prince is allowed to watch for three nights. In the Tinderbox, there are three dogs with huge eyes, and the soldier is given three riddles. Seven, twelve, and one hundred are also often important. There are seven brothers, often, and in Sleeping Beauty there are either seven or twelve fairies, depending on the version, and she sleeps for one hundred years.

But the pattern runs deeper than numbers. For instance, kindness is always returned. The raven, the ant, and the fish whose lives have been saved return to help complete the impossible tasks. In Diamonds and Toads the girl who draws water for the old woman is given the gift of diamonds and roses whenever she speaks. As a related point, wickedness is always found out and punished. The wicked queen in Snow White drops down dead, either from the shock of seeing Snow White alive, or from having to dance in red hot slippers. The evil trolls in East of the Sun, West of the Moon explode when the true bride is revealed. Goodness always ultimately triumphs over enchantment and evil.

There is no formula to fairy tales (one dark wood, one talking animal, an enchantment of some kind, mix together and add three impossible tasks taken singly), but there are patterns, and the patterns are part of what make a fairy tale seem so familiar. If Sleeping Beauty does not wake up, or if the prince fails at the third task, or if wickedness triumphs, it probably isn't a fairy tale.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Note: for a much better understanding of this topic, told in the form of a story, I suggest Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison.


One of the reasons I dislike the stereotype of the damsel in distress or the princess in a tower waiting to be rescued is that it is an overly simplistic way of seeing the world. It defines the girl primarily as needing to be rescued. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

It is a human characteristic to need to be rescued, it is a human characteristic to desire to rescue someone (or something). This morning there was a scrawny grey tabby in our parking lot, and I wanted nothing more than to take it with me and find it a good home (I would have, had it still been there when I left work). I wanted to rescue it, poor thing. Now, the form that this desire to rescue may take is different for every individual, but I think it a universal desire.

The second reason this view is problematic is that not because girls should never need to be rescued, but because this should not be the defining characteristic of anyone. That is to say, it is a negative characteristic to be defined by the fact that you always need to be rescued. It probably means that you are making poor choices, or repeating mistakes. To use a simple example, there is a great difference between being rescued from the ocean once because of unusual circumstances, and having the lifeguard have to come after you every weekend because you insist on going into the ocean when you can't swim.

Thirdly, this view is problematic because it does not take into account the affect that rescue has on a relationship. The person who was rescued will naturally feel an obligation, and a relationship formed primarily on a sense of obligation or debt is not healthy. Now, I am not saying that all relationships that begin with one person rescuing another are doomed to failure, but it complicates things. Take, for instance, that princess in a tower who has been rescued by a knight in shining armor (from a dragon, perhaps). The princess may feel that she ought to love the knight, because after all, he rescued her, or she may feel guilty if she doesn't care for him at all, or he may expect that she will love him because he has rescued her. What if the princess happens to like someone else? Should she feel obligated to stay with the knight, because, after all, he saved her? What if she only loves him because he rescued her? I can picture a certain type of knight always using this instance to settle any arguments; after all, without him, she'd still be in the tower. What about the knight? What if, having rescued the princess, he finds that he doesn't really like her after all? But the type of story that glibly talks about the damsel in distress ignores any of these issues, in favor of the simpler psychology.

In short, the idea of the damsel in distress seems to me ultimately flawed because it represents an oversimplification and a glorification of a poor situation. To be a princess in a tower who exists to be rescued is not a good thing, whatever Twilight would have you think.

The Fey

Jun. 11th, 2008 09:49 pm
bonny_kate: (rose)
Note: Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have already written, much more clearly and eloquently than I, about the Fairy. I would encourage you to read their words.

I have written about Fairy tales before, but I have not yet written about the Fairy. What is the Fairy? What is the Fairy, both the being and the place, that we encounter in Fairy Tales? Let me begin by saying quite clearly what it is not. The Fairy is not composed entirely of pixies; if you think of the Fairy as those little sprites with wings first popularized by the Victorians, then you are sadly mistaken. It is not composed entirely of wise being who wish us good, or we have to ignore every story like Tam Lin. But what, then, is the Fairy? It is hard to answer this question, as part of the nature of Fairy is to defy definition, but I shall make some statements about it in any case.

Fairies may be bad, or they may be good, or they may be neutral concerning humanity. There are quite a lot of wicked fairies, such as the wicked fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty or the Fairy Queen that tithes to hell in Tam Lin, but there are also quite a lot of good fairies, such as the fairy godmother in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. There are fewer cases of the faerie that is neutral towards humans, but there are a few, such as the fairy in Thomas the Rhymer.

The land of Fairy is an entirely separate world (a world or dimension that exists side by side with our world, yet cannot be reached by ordinary means, if that helps you to think of it that way). Time runs differently in Fairy, as we see by the various tales where someone returns to find that fifty or a hundred years have passed in what seems only a night (Lewis used this idea to great affect in the Chronicles of Narnia).

Faries have the power of magic (or at least some of them do), by which I mean that they have a particular power to create or change things, in a way unexplainable by science. Tam Lin is changed into a succession of creatures, the good fairy in Sleeping Beauty causes every one in the castle to fall asleep for a hundred years, and the fairy godmother in Cinderella changes a pumpkin to a coach and mice to footmen.

Fairy is indefinable, not because it is insubstantial, like mist, not because it is less real in any way, but because we may only catch glimpses of it at best. Fairy is more real and more beautiful than our own world, although it is with a different type of beauty. Fairies are inhumanly beautiful precisely because they are not human. We do not understand them because they are not human, and do not have human motivations and desires.

In Thomas the Rhymer, Fairy is not the road to heaven, nor is it the road to hell, but we are left with a question. What is the road to Fairy? That question, I think, sums up everything about Fairy because it is a great and puzzling unknown. It is desirable, and wondrous, and mysterious.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Since my previous post about beauty in fairy tales, I have been thinking about the relation between love and beauty. I touched briefly on this relation before, and it is worth considering in more depth. There are two ways in which beauty may be related to love in the fairy tale, or at least two that I will speak of, and I shall call these redemptive and purifying, in order to better differentiate them. They may both, interestingly enough, be found in the different versions of Beauty and the Beast.

The first relation between love and beauty is redemptive. Here, love redeems and transforms the beloved from something wicked or ugly to something beautiful. In this version of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast was turned for his wickedness, and it is the love of Beauty that causes him first to become good, and then to become human (such as in the Disney version, or Beauty by Robin McKinley). The Beast was not beautiful in any way; he was ugly in both spirit and form until the love of Beauty redeemed him. The transformative love of the beloved is, I think, more easily understood than the second relation.

The second relation between love and beauty is purifying. In this instance, the beloved is always beautiful, yet the lover does not realize or cannot see the beauty of the beloved until the lover truly loves the beloved. Love purifies the eyes of the lover so that they can see the truth. The beloved always was beautiful, but was not seen clearly at the beginning. To the lover, the beloved seems to grow more beautiful, yet it is not a change in the beloved, as in the first relation, but a change in the lover that causes this. Beauty learns to love the beast, and then finds that he is not only good, but beautiful in spirit and body (as in Robin McKinley's Rosedaughter). This is also the love of Dante for Beatrice. It is not, in a sense, that Beatrice grows any more beautiful, for she is always as beautiful as she can be (the stability of souls in heaven is established by Dante), but as Dante's eyes are opened, as his soul grows, he is able to see more of her beauty.

Now it becomes a bit more complicated, because both relations are sometimes present simultaneously in fairy tales. The Andrew Lang version of Beauty and the Beast is an interesting example of this. Here, the love of Beauty is redemptive, for it transforms the Beast to a prince, yet it is also purifying, for Beauty must look beyond the form of the Beast and the form of the prince in her dreams. In other words, Beauty's love for the Beast is redemptive for the Beast, and is also purifying for Beauty. I think both relations are also found in Phantom of the Opera.

Love may redemptively create beauty, or love may purify the eyes to see beauty, but beauty is always inextricably linked to love. When Dante sees the Beautific Vision at the end of Paradise, it is a vision of the love that moves the sun and other stars.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Why read fairytales, or write them, or think about them? It is more than a matter of taste, as of liking chocolate, or disliking it. There are several reasons why I think it is worthwhile to read fairytales. Usually I would begin this discussion with a rough definition of what a fairy tale is, but I think I can safely assume that everyone has a general idea of what a fairy tale is, and go from there (for instance, Ever After is obviously the story of Cinderella, although it contains nothing of the fantastic, and Redwall is not a fairy tale, though it contains talking animals). If you want a good definition of fairy tales, I would suggest Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories.

Fairy tales are one of the few modern mythologies. I am not suggesting that anyone believes in the literal existence of fairy godmothers, or the real historical existence of Cinderella. However, fairy tales are so prevalent that they have crept into our common language. They may be ignored, or they may be loved or hated, but their influence is obvious. Many people talk about "happily ever after" and "once upon a time", about a "knight on a white horse" and a "princess in a tower." These are all fairy tale tropes. Movies like Shrek or Enchanted are dependent on a widespread understanding of fairy tales in order to make any kind of sense. And, of course, there are the many retellings of Cinderella, Snow White, and Briar Rose, to name just a few.

Fairy tales are mythic because there is no one definitive version. There are many versions of Cinderella, from the Disney movie to Ever After to Ella Enchanted. But no one story or version contains all that is to be said, or can be said of Cinderella. The story exists in various incarnations, but it also exists independent of the various forms in which we may encounter this. Compare this to, for instance, Pride and Prejudice. The book is compelling, one of the great works of literature, yet it is dependent on the language and atmosphere of the English Regency. However, fairy tales have a certain independency of setting and form. Cinderella may be found in Los Angeles, in generally historic past (think of Ever After), or in a fantastic past (think of the Disney version), or in an entirely different world (think of Ella Enchanted). Fairy tales may be told as simply as a few pages, or may be an entire novel.

Fairy tales are lasting and durable. Now, by this definition, not everything that is called a fairy tale or is found within the pages of a fairy tale collection is, in fact, a fairy tale. There are many stories that have disappeared into obscurity, often with good cause. However, the great stories are lasting, and Beauty and the Beast is still as powerful today, in all its incarnations and manifestations, and the day it was first penned in France.

Fairy tales deal with important and lasting ideas, but cannot be distilled into mere summations. One of the ideas of Briar Rose, for instance, is that love can conquer time and even death itself. But even stating all the ideas contained within a fairy tale, if such a thing is possible, does not explain away the fairy tale. The story contains more than can be stated propositionally (as opposed to poorly written allegories, which contain only that which can be stated propositionally). The images found within fairy tales, of the great briars around the castle, of the single glass slipper or the golden apple, are as important as the ideas found within fairy tales, such as the reward of virtue with happiness, of the redemptive nature of love, or of justice tempered by mercy.

You may like fairy tales, or dislike them, you may reject them or embrace them, but fairy tales are worth thinking about. To conclude, I will say that fairy tales are mythic, and you ignore them at your own peril.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White . . . why are all the heroines in fairy tales beautiful? Surely it is the general rule that princesses, adventuresome daughters, and generally any woman destined to live happily ever after is stunningly beautiful. I think I know why this is, but unlike the role of happiness in fairy tales, which I have thought much about, I am sorry to relate that I have not thought nearly as much about the role of beauty in fairy tales, because I have not thought nearly enough about beauty. But, I shall do my best with this topic.

Let me start by making an artificial distinction between two types of beauty, that I think will be helpful. First, there is physical beauty. Any object, such as a rose, may have physical beauty. Secondly, there is moral beauty. This is independent of physical beauty, but may coexist with it. Let me see if I can describe someone who has moral, but not physical, beauty. Mother Theresa was a very good person (I take this to be generally agreed, and not really debated). She was not physically beautiful (just look at any picture), but she was morally beautiful. She was so good and kind that she was beautiful. Moral beauty is the beauty of the soul. A wicked person may be able to be physically beautiful, but they can never be morally beautiful.

But this distinction that I've made is, at least in some ways, a false distinction. It is not possible to separate the physical from the spiritual in a person. While my self, my soul, does not reside in, for instance, my toe, my soul is manifested in my physical self. It is part of who I am. This is very important, because it may help us to see how moral beauty is related to physical beauty. Take a very plain, but virtuous Cinderella. Her moral beauty will shine through her plainness. You will find yourself thinking that her freckles, that you thought detracted from her complexion, either add to her beauty, or are really no longer noticeable. I have found this to be true with my friends. Some who I have thought plain have really been beautiful, once I have known them. What I think happened was that the eyes of my soul were opened, so that I could truly see beauty. The physical has not merely been sublimated to the spiritual, but has been beautified by the spiritual.

To use a counter example, which I think further strengthens the argument, take the wicked witch of Snow White (I will here refer to the character in the Disney film). She seems beautiful at first, but because of her wickedness we see that she is truly an ugly hag. I do not think (and I speak this tentatively), that someone who is truly wicked can be beautiful. A wicked witch or enchantress may appear beautiful, but like the Siren of Dante's Purgatory, once our eyes are opened we will see that she is truly hideous.

Before I return to the beautiful heroine of fairy tales, I want to speak briefly on beauty and ugliness on those we meet daily. If it is true that the wicked are really ugly, and the virtuous beautiful (and while I think this true, I am not very certain of it), there are two dangers we must be wary of. First, we must not equate physical beauty with moral beauty. That someone has physical beauty does not signify that they are virtuous, or that they are wicked. We can assume nothing about the moral beauty of the soul from the physical appearance. Second, we should not try to simplify real living, breathing people down to a determination of whether or not they are morally beautiful. It is not so simple as that, because there may be beauty and goodness within a very wicked person that can only be seen by love or pity (such as the Phantom), or there may be vice or frailty within the heart of a very morally good person (many times within fairy tales the hero or heroine chooses wrongly before they choose rightly). Outside of death, there is always the possibility for a fall from grace, or a redemption from evil.

In light of all this, I propose that the beauty of the heroine of fairy tales is often a moral beauty. Truth, goodness and virtue are beautiful, and will always shine through and beautify the physical. My friend N. is very beautiful, but you may not know this unless you know her as I do. I am not content, however, with tritely saying that her soul is beautiful, and it doesn't matter what her physical appearance is. Rather, I think that her physical appearance is beautiful because of her beautiful soul. Cinderella is good, and therefore she is beautiful. I wonder if beauty, linked as it is to goodness and truth, is an indicator in fairy tales to virtue. (I exclude from this category the wicked but beautiful enchantress on the grounds that it is clearly either a spell or refers only to the appearance of beauty; a merely outward beauty). This fits in well with Beauty and the Beast. Beauty, who is both beautiful and virtuous, loves the true nature and soul of the Beast, and it is through her love that his physical appearance is changed to properly manifest his soul (this works really well with versions where the Beast was cursed so that his physical appearance matches his soul, and can only be changed once his soul has first changed).

To conclude, I think that beauty is more than merely the physical, but exactly what that means and how it works, I can't say.
bonny_kate: (Default)
It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this journal that I have the highest opinion of fairy tales, and am annoyed by those who dismiss them. This, then, is a short defense of "happily ever after", which is so commonly dismissed as being unrealistic, impractical, or just plain wrong.

Now, in order to understand what it means to live happily ever after in the context of a fairy tale, I want to take a quick look at what happiness is, because we will never agree otherwise. To be truly happy, you must also be virtuous, in the classical sense (someone who is just, temperate, etc.). In other words, a villain cannot be happy. So far, this agrees perfectly with the fairy tales. It isn't a proper fairy tale that ends with the wicked witch or evil sorcerer living happily ever after. Implicit in "happily ever after" is that it is the good living happily, because only the good can live happily. But you may not yet be convinced of that.

Cicero argues that happiness is found in moral virtue, and only in moral virtue. Since moral virtue is the highest good you can have (above anything so ephemeral as standing in society, money, position, titles, good health, and so on), then someone who is happy must have the highest good, which is virtue. To say that someone who possesses the highest good, virtue, also needs something else that is external and temporal, is to say that moral goodness is lacking in some way. Now, you may or may not go so far as Cicero (although I think I agree), but the point remains that virtue is necessary for happiness, even if something else is also necessary.

So far, I've established that happiness is dependent on virtue. I think this is crucial to understanding fairy tales; for instance, Cinderella. At the end of the story, Cinderella lives happily ever after not because she marries a handsome prince, but because she is good and virtuous. True, her circumstances have improved; she no longer is forced to work for her wicked stepsisters (note the connection between wickedness and ugliness, and beauty and goodness, which I will hopefully explore in a later post), but lives in a castle married to a rather eligible prince. Her circumstances may be a part of her happiness, but they do not explain it. If one of the wicked stepsisters had instead hoodwinked the prince and married him, the stepsister could not have lived happily ever after because she is wicked (and it would have been an unsatisfactory ending for precisely that reason).

If you think that a happy ending, living happily ever after, is primarily dependent on circumstances, you won't ever be happy. Fairy tales never assume that the small, normal problems of everyday life suddenly disappear. I suspect that Cinderella had days where she curled up in a corner because the roof was leaking, the milk had curdled, the prince was gone for the week, and all those little things were going wrong. But as a great counterbalance to the problems is the goodness of Cinderella, and the love of a prince who would try the slipper on the little coal girl. So at the end of the day Cinderella is happy (whether you agree with Cicero and think she is unconditionally happy, or whether you disagree and think she is somewhat conditionally happy).

"Happily ever after" does not mean a life of pure pleasure, of all ice cream sundaes and chocolate, of circumstances that are all neatly aligned to give the greatest pleasure. It does not mean that it never rains, or is gloomy, or that you live in an unreal world of sunshine all the time. To live happily ever after is to be good and virtuous, to be as caring as Cinderella, as innocent as Snow White, as patient as Briar Rose, and to see to the truth of things as clearly as Beauty.
bonny_kate: (Default)
I am tired of being told that I want to be rescued. I don't, particularly. This idea that I keep hearing, clearly or hinted at, and even by my extended family is that girls want to be princesses rescued by knights in shining armor. I don't presume to speak for all women, but I will say in my case that I think this a horrible misinterpretation of fairy tales, and complete rubbish.

If the question is, do you want to be rescued? I reply, from what? The point of being rescued is to be rescued from something; a dragon, an enchantment, or an evil witch or magician. In the presence of a real danger or evil, of course I want to be rescued. But I do not think this is a particularly female desire; it is a human desire. This image of a girl sitting in a tower waiting for a prince to come frustrates and annoys me because of the assumption, spoken or not, that I should be like that. I want to live my life. I want to find who I am, and what my purpose is, and what I am made for. I want to be out in the world having adventures and learning. I see no good in locking myself in a tower. Why should anyone presume that I want that?

It is because I love fairy tales that I do not like this assumption or image. It is quite true that the Prince awakened Sleeping Beauty from an enchanted sleep, but it is also true that Beauty alone could save the Beast from his enchantment. In Rapunzel, it is true that the prince rescues Rapunzel from the tower, but when he is blinded by the thorns it is her tears that save him, allowing his restoration to his kingdom. In the Six Swans, it is the sister who must save the brothers from their enchantment as swans through much pain over six years. It is the girl in East of the Sun, West of the Moon who travels beyond the world to save her beloved from the evil witch. It is these women, living their lives and following their loves, who I think are forgotten in that static picture of the princess in the tower.

I should like to point out that while I greatly dislike the stereotype of the woman waiting to be rescued, there are various ways of dealing with this stereotype. I think the worst way to deal with it is to be consumed with a desire to show that rescue is never needed. Elizabeth Swan (of the three Pirate movies) annoys me in that she seems to go around trying to prove that she doesn't need to be rescued, and she can rescue herself. But this is merely falling into that same way of thinking. It is better to stop thinking in terms of being rescued, by yourself or anyone else. This image has become so simplistic that it has ceased to be useful, if it ever was. If an image is necessary, I propose simply this; we are in a story.

It may be a comedy, it may be a tragedy, or a fairy tale, it may have elements of all of these or neither. It is not a particularly helpful image in the sense of giving nice, neat boxes or ways of thinking. The world itself is often not nice or neat, and often does not make sense. Also, I happen to think it a true image. But that is an entirely different post.

Enchanted?

Aug. 27th, 2007 05:28 pm
bonny_kate: (Default)
There is a new Disney movie coming out called Enchanted, which has an interesting enough premise. A fairy tale princess finds herself magically transported to a strange land; modern day New York. Now what the film appears to do (and mind you, I am speaking only from having seen the trailer) is rather cynically show that fairy tale princesses are all very well and good, but that it would never happen in Real Life. It is absurd to think that people burst out in song, or that animals would sing along and help with housework, or any of that sort of thing.

I am tired of so much cynicism when it comes to fairy tales, because I think it unwarranted. Therefore, I should like to say a few words in defense of Disney princesses, namely Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and Snow White. Take for instance Cinderella (for I know her the best), and place her in our modern world. She would doubtless be surprised, even scared, by all the advances of civilization. Cars, freeways, the Internet, television, the list is nearly endless. These are all very good things, but they are not essential. None of the scientific or technological progress has taught us more about goodness, or truth, or beauty. If Cinderella found herself in today, she would be lost. But I would be a wicked person, or at least a blind person, to mock her for her lack of knowledge. If I was wise, and I pray I would be, I would sit at her feet as at the feet of Socrates, for she could teach me so much of virtue. She knew nothing of electricity, and yet she was good, and happy, in spite of adversity and cruelty. I would like to think that if I were in her world, I should be happy and good, but I think it more likely that I should cry and mope in my room, or think up dreadful things to do to my stepsisters, or spend all my time complaining about how horrible my life was. That is why I should want to learn from Cinderella, that it is kindness that should be returned for spite, that even the mice deserve our pity, and that dreams are really important.

It is all very well to poke fun at the trappings of Disney movies, such as the way that everyone bursts into song, or how animals tend to follow around and help with the housework, or the beautiful costumes that would be impractical. I can both understand and enjoy this to some extent, as long as the fairy tale itself is not made a mockery (although I think that even these things make sense within the genre of a fairy tale). To make fun of fairy tales because of such things as are unessentail is to misunderstand what a fairy tale is in essence. Growing up is not about making fun of everything that we loved as children, or about "seeing through" fairy tales. If we are disapointed that our prince has not come, perhaps we have misunderstood Snow White. If we are convinced that all dreams are merely soap bubbles, perhaps we have misunderstood Cinderella.

These Disney fairy tales may contain an element of the ridiculous, but it would be a horrible thing to throw them out completely. There is much that is good, and virtuous, artistic, beautiful, and there are deep truths to be found in these simple stories. They have been told to children, but that does nothing to negate their worth. I do not think I have the kindness of Cinderella, nor the insight of Beauty to look beyond appearances and love the inner self, nor the goodness of Snow White that is a protection in itself, nor the great love and beauty of Aurora that inspires courageous love. And that alone is enough that I dare not mock these Disney princesses.

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Kate Saunders Britton

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