Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Side of Fairy Tales

As children we have often been lulled to sleep with a bedtime story and more often than not the stories have a happy ending. The wicked wretch who lives in a gingerbread house gets the tables turned on her by the precocious brother and sister duo, the big-bad wolf gets chopped to pieces by a woodsman, the beautiful white-skinned beauty gets awakened by a passionate kiss from her beloved prince and the piglets finally beat the blowhard wolf by seeking refuge in their brother’s brick house.

But all tales don’t end well for the protagonist and sometimes the moral of the story (and the moral contained in some macabre tales) are often gruesome and unwarranted. The morality of the antagonists as well as the protagonist comes into the spotlight and there’s no way that we could narrate these to children, let alone lull them to sleep with. Try to analyze at the endings from the viewpoint of the antagonist: The Big-Bad Wolf had his stomach split by the sharp axe of a huntsman, the wretch in the gingerbread house was burnt alive (or baked alive if you will) and the blowhard wolf went home hungry and with a bruised ego. What’s even more disturbing are the stories—we can hardly call them compelling literature-- where there seems to be no moral, no remorse for the evils committed and no verifiable conscience for the perpetrator or for the victim.

Consider the fairy tale that the opinion piece published in this month’s The New Yorker (titled Once Upon a Time) opened with: The story of a stubborn child, who disobeyed his mother was cursed by a dreadful disease. The doctors were unable to treat the child because God himself had cursed the child. When the dead child was buried, a pale hand rose up from the grave. Piling more dirt on the tomb didn’t seem to work; the child’s pale arm continued to seek the warmth of the air above it. Finally only a physical strike from the mother compelled the arm to return to its damp domicile under the earth. The take-away message is grim at best but mordant for the most part: The benevolent Lord, God, strikes down insolent children with a plague and even as the child struggles under the dirt to seek another chance at life, it is banished to the maggots by the mother and the reader is told that the child has found peace. There are no details of the child’s gender or its age or any evidence of remorse from its mother. And one last fact is left to be unravelled. The tale was sourced from the works of the Grimm Brothers.

Let sleeping foxes lie
Let sleeping foxes lie by jasohill. Used underCC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Germans aren’t the only ones who have a history of dark tales. The Japanese too have stories that aren’t exactly right as rain. The story of Gon-Kitsune or The Story of the Little Fox is a sad tale of guilt and a failed attempt at redemption. The story, authored by Niimi Nankichi, is that of a mischievous little fox, Gon, and his escapades around a village in the mountains. One day, Gon happens to see a soldier catching fishes and eels in the river. Gon, who loves pulling pranks, decides to release the catch back into the river. Later he realizes that the fish were for the soldier’s old, ailing mother.  The old lady had passed away and Gon feels wrought with guilt. In order to make amends he steals some fish from a fish monger in the hopes that it will help the soldier who is living all on his own. But as expected, the fish monger suspects theft and levies the blame on the poor soldier. Gon decides to exercise common sense and makes an excursion into the mountains and brings back to the soldier, mushrooms and chestnuts. The soldier makes the obvious conclusion that God has taken mercy upon him and this erroneous thinking upsets Gon, who wants to be personally thanked for his kind actions. One day, the soldier is up early weaving a basket, when he spies Gon and shoots him for all the misery he has brought upon the village. He then realizes what he has done and the readers get a parting view of the dying Gon looking piteously up at the farmer- the mushrooms and chestnuts spread out before him.

The Match Girl by Bayes. Under Public Domain.
Fairy tales closer to home fare no better. Danish story-teller genius, Hans Christian Anderson has produced many a wonderful story like the Ugly Duckling, but there’s always a heart-wrenching story that keep you up rather than put you at ease. Look no further than the Match Girl (Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne) who burns up the matches she is supposed to sell in a bid to keep her warm and also to avoid the eventuality of returning home to her abusive father. Her cold, lifeless form is found on the nook in the morning. 
The purposes of these tales aren’t exactly straightforward. One might argue that they steel the reader’s heart for the inevitable cruelties in life; that human existence is largely deceit, violence and inescapable sadness.  In contrast, these tales can tell us what we shouldn’t aspire to become. Whatever lesson we can take away is left open for discussion, but there’s one thing that we can be certain about:   Never, ever wish for a fairy tale ending.


Ruchita said...

Very well written. Never knew that there are so many dark fairy tales

prateek mathur said...

and here i was thinking that this post is a tribute to my blog :D

Seeker of Truth said...

Here's a wry take on the fairy-tale-princess version of the rags-to-riches narrative.