April 02, 2004
Random magic

Joel and I recently discussed the morality of Goldilocks. He's right that fables have been used for teaching ever since Aesop, but I think there's a difference between a fairy tale and a fable. Last year Adam Gopnik pondered the moral lessons of fairy tales and decided there isn't much of one:

What, after all, is the difference between a fairy tale and a legend, a parable, or a moral story? We sense it at once: it is the presence of magic, meaning not just cool weird stuff but an unpredictable suspension of the regularities of natural and human order, an arbitrary and therefore sometimes terrifying lifting of the rules, including the rules of justice and mercy. Magic—completely unearned and undeserved good fortune or misfortune—is at the heart of the fairy tale, what gives it its special flavor. The giant is evil, the giant's wife friendly; the boy is a fool, the boy gets the beans. Rumpelstiltskin outwits the girl and has his hands on the baby; a sudden bit of luck in the forest dooms him. Bottigheimer tells us that when the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, got hold of Straparola's book it deleted the words fortuna and fato wherever they were found. This was a sharp bit of literary criticism; the magic of fairy tales is the pagan magic of fortune, rather than of virtue, and of fate, rather than of faith, or even grace. The moral of every fairy tale is not "Virtue rewarded" but "You never know" (which bean will sprout, which son will triumph).

I don't know that the fairy tales I remember were quite that random. There was often a theme of the last becoming first in it: the poor boy becomes a prince, the youngest son/daughter succeeds where the older ones failed, etc. However, they managed this as often by being ruthless, clever or lucky as by being virtuous. When you think about it, very few fairy tales have really discernable morals. What's the moral of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the Sleeping Beauty, Jack the Giant Killer? Later authors have sometimes tried to wrest a moral out of these tales, and perhaps that's the case with Southey (like I said, I grew up with a different version of the story, and it seemed to have no particular moral), but I think Gopnik has a point that this is untrue to their roots.

UPDATE: Just to reacquaint myself, I Googled up this online version of the Goldilocks story and am quite mystified as to why Joel reads it as pro-Goldilocks. Her reward for her behavior is to be scared out of her wits. Ah, such is literary criticism...

There's also a history of the story's permutations here.

Posted by Camassia at April 02, 2004 09:04 AM | TrackBack

Hey, don't forget to check out:
-[i]The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World[/i] (NY: Routledge, 1988)
-[i]The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm[/i], translated and with an introduction by Jack Zipes; illus. by John B. Gruelle. (NY: Bantam, 1987)
Before reading Zipes' critical edition, I had no idea how bloody and seemingly amoral some of the old tales were. He demonstrates the great extent of re-working that went into the old tales.

Posted by: Troy on April 2, 2004 02:29 PM

Oh, and check out Jack Zipes [ed.] [i]Don't bet on the prince: contemporary feminist fairy tales in North America and England[/i] ( New York : Methuen, 1986).

Not what Bill "Book of Virtues" Bennett would reach for!

Posted by: Troy on April 2, 2004 02:32 PM

Yes, I dimly remember the Grimm fairy tales, and they were appropriately named.

By the way, if you do html here you have to use greater-than/lesser-than signs instead of brackets. I should put that under the rules one of these days.

Posted by: Camassia on April 2, 2004 06:18 PM

I recently purchased a book that I unfortunately have not started reading, the purport of which is that the Grimm fairy tales--the Grimm version of the those fairy tales--are carefully constructed Christian allegory. The title is "The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: the religious meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales". Analyzed are: Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. The author is G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., a Professor of German at Georgetown University. Shoot. Timing is everything...

Posted by: Rob on April 4, 2004 11:41 AM
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