Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fairy Tales Disturbingly Unmasked

Fairy tales are the stuff of childhood and parents all over the country, possibly all over the world, have used them to soothe children's fevered brows or help them ease into dreamland each evening. The stories have simple, straight forward themes of good triumphing over incredible evil and they're meant to allay fears that things might not work out, even in the worst of circumstances.

Walt Disney did a marvelous job of advancing the fairy tale into beautifully crafted films with engaging sound tracks and even adults loved them. We adopted the mellifluent Disneyesque reworkings of the original tales to be charming stories for the kids. But beneath this distortion of the original tales lies an entirely different scenario and it's not all dancing dwarfs or charming young girls singing in the forest with the fauna. The themes are dark and downright frightening.

If you, as a child, were frightened by the tale of Hansel and Gretel and their misadventures while on a stroll, you would be totally panic stricken by some of the other fairy tale themes. Sure, Hansel and his sister were drawn in by the witch's house constructed of cake and confections and what kid wouldn't? Lesson here: All is not as it seems, even if it is awfully, wonderfully inviting.

The witch, of course, has to be a gross old woman who has cannibalism on her mind. How is that? Well, sure sets the stage for ageism and against those who don't personify our current measures of beauty and, of course, beauty is to be trusted and the less-than-beautiful have vile plans. So, if beauty is to be trusted and the not-beautiful are dangerous, it's a poor morality tale. Again, the Hollywood movie set of trust.

While in graduate school, I heard that students were beginning to write dissertations on fairy tales and I thought they had Freud on their minds. After all, he pushed the whole idea of the sexual undertones of these tales. I wonder if the Brothers Grimm meant to explore sexuality or God's goodness. If you recall, Gretel, after hearing her parents discuss leaving them in the woods, calls upon God's goodness to save them. Just to make sure, they gather pebbles. Always good to have an alternative plan B.

The original stories, as is true of all folk tales, reflect both the tenner of the times and the tale-teller.  But this latest trove of fairy tales, written several decades after the Grimm Brothers, show interesting different views of children. For instance, boys are now the ones slaving in the kitchen and being mistreated. They also have to undergo challenges to try to find their love (one boy wears lead shoes). Prince Goldilocks is at the mercy of his evil parents and his father wants to kill him. Oh, shades of Sigmund again. And Siggy comes into play in another tale where the mother dies and the father, who loves his daughter too much, seems to have a problem adjusting to the new household.

The differences in these tales and the Grimm Brothers are primarily that the Grimms wanted to sell books and provide a manual of manners for kids, while the other stories are unvarnished tales without any freshening up for current readers.

Wonder what the chorus in all those Greek plays would have told us. Were their utterances sanitized? Well, we'll always have Aristophanes, if you are so inclined to read the voice of the bawdy from long ago.

I loved Greek plays and had an extremely conversant professor of classical literature in college. Unfortunately, she didn't like teaching but did give us a reading list (15 books plus a huge volume of The Iliad) which made up for her lack of an engaging demeanor in the classroom. Example of interaction at the door to her office: "Don't come in if you're going to complain!"

Complain? I just wanted an explanation of an assignment. Didn't matter.  I had to speak from the doorway and leave. Ah, yes, she had a lot of research grants she was working on and would be going to Greece for the summer, so we students were just minor annoyances bundled into her contractual agreement with the university. She had to teach a certain number of sections in addition to her research. Ugh, so much for having a major researcher for your professor.

It was a class to remember, as I recall though, and we looked, curiously one evening, at the twinkling lights in Washington Square Park. No, it wasn't intentional as New York City was about to experience the most incredible blackout in its history. Memorable.

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