Radishes, Mermaids, And Shot-Putters: The Lessons Of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have been much analyzed in the past thirty years or so, and Holly Tucker's list of five books on the subject offers every interpretation from feminist to Freudian. But as a devotee myself, I have my own ideas.

Tucker describes Bruno Bettelheim's take on Grimm's tales: "the horrors of wicked witches and candy houses allow children to process their darkest fears and greatest desires. Here, Freud's theories take center stage: Cinderella's shoe transforms into a symbol of female sexuality that, when lost, spells the end of virginity." Author Maria Tatar, meanwhile, has a feminist perspective on the fairy tale from the 16th century to the present. Tucker says,

She argues that the fairy-tale fear factor is less about cautioning children and more about the need to control the young adults that they become. Women in particular are meant to take notice. Gluttony, infidelity and arrogance are, she charges, all part of a "pantheon of female sins" that must be reined in at all costs. Fairy tales, according to Tatar, teach girls to accept their miserable fate so that they will become docile wives and mothers.

Jack Zipes, meanwhile, makes the hard-to-dispute claim "that fairy tales are above all products of specific cultural moments and have always been used to reinforce social norms as well as to subvert them." As these dueling analyses make clear, fairy tales have become something of an interpretive football in the past few decades, and remain so today — especially around Halloween. I've always been amused by the Freudian angle. The little mermaid's loss of her voice, for instance, is supposed to be a metaphor for castration, and when I lost my voice earlier this week, that felt pretty accurate (I also lost my keys, so I was doubly impotent). Of course, that very same tale is in a way a caution against female overreaching, since in the Hans Christian Andersen version she has to turn into a "spirit" while somebody else marries the prince. But neither Bettelheim's nor Tatar's interpretive lens quite jibes with my experience of fairy tales.

As a kid, I was obsessed with both Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre and Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. The former, for the unfamiliar, was a series of slightly wacked-out takes on popular Grimm and non-Grimm stories. One favorite of mine was "The Princess Who Never Laughed," which included a minor character named "Phlegmatic Jack." Another was the incredibly creepy "Rapunzel," starring Duvall herself, and, I'm pretty sure, a horrifying screaming radish. The Fairy Books, meanwhile, contained all the standard tales, but my favorites were somewhat off the beaten path. I remember trying to convince my dad that it was a Christmas "tradition" that he read me a story called "The Castle Kerglass," which was extremely long and involved (if memory serves) a mysterious gatekeeper holding a giant shot-put. Yelling vegetables and mystical shot-putters pretty much exemplify what fairy tales are about for me: how fucking weird the world is.

Yes, sometimes fairy tales reinforce social norms — but they almost always do it in a way that's bizarre. Outsized punishments are meted out for small sins. Fruits and vegetables are both weapons and vehicles. Lovers turn monsters and frogs into lovers. In their original versions, many fairy tales are downright terrifying, but I like them that way. Too often, contemporary children's books are meant to reassure or to teach kids an orderly view of the universe. But if there's anything I learned from Shelley Duvall and her demon-radishes, it's that the universe is disorderly and often batshit insane. No story can fully prepare you for life's disasters, heartbreaks, swine flu epidemics, and gradual pileup of family secrets and broken glassware, but fairy tales do a better job than most. So go ahead, scare your kids with the Grimms' Cinderella this Halloween. There's more where that came from.

Academic Studies Of Fairy Tales [Wall Street Journal]