Monday, July 16, 2007

Fairy Tales

So over at Shady Glade, Alyssa is holding a contest: rewrite a fairy tale! Any fairy tale! Since the kid is so into fairy tales right now she is about to pop, and since the conservative/patriarchal nature of most of these tales has been about to make me pop, yay, we say!

We're entering the contest together.

(Here are the rules here, in case any of y'all want to join us.)

So all weekend we have been researching fairy tales (because you know that is what English professors do first, research) -- or rather, I assigned my tiny research assistant to do the research, while I worked on the current short story. I told her to find the top five she thought we should revise, and get back to me. So she scoured her texts -- she owns about fifteen collections, and we had gone to the downtown Fort Smith library and taken out ten or eleven more, ones she had already long since read, to refer back to -- and then, Saturday evening, while we took our walk, we discussed our options.

She told me there were a few tales she liked but did not understand, and some she liked but wasn't sure we could use.

"Fr'instance," she said, "The Happy Prince."

This is the story of a thrush who is flying with his friends to the coast for a vacation. He stops to rest in the town square in a famous city, on a famous statue, of a famous prince, known as the Happy Prince. It is a beautiful statue, made of lead covered thickly with gold, with sapphire eyes and pearl teeth, a ruby study in the sword at his hip, amythest buttons, etc, etc. The thrush sits admiring the statue in the sunlight, thinking how lovely it is, how happy the prince looks. Then he hears the statue weeping.

"Why, what is wrong?" the thrush asks. "You look so happy. You're so beautiful. You can't be sad."

"I am sad," the Happy Prince says. "I wasn't at first, when the people stood me up. They cheered and they sang and there was music, and little children came to picnic at my feet. Men made speeches. Everyone said I represented brotherhood and goodness, and I was happy then. But I stand in this Square all day and see nothing but grief around me. How can I help but be sad?"

The thrush fluttered his wings, looking around the square. Things didn't look so bad to him. Markets, tradesmen, children, a few soldiers. What was the Happy Prince on about?

"Please," said the Happy Prince. "Would you -- could you perhaps help me?"

"Help you?"

"Please. I'm only a statue. I can't do anything. They said I meant something. But I don't. If you would help..."

"I'm only a thrush," the thrush pointed out.

"But you can act. Please!"

"And I'm on my way to the coast. See? The flock is leaving."

Which was true. They were.

"You can catch up," the Happy Prince said. "Please. This won't take long. There's a little girl. Do you see here? By the church steps. Crying."

The thrush looked. She was small, and dark-haired, and dirty, huddled by the steps, watching those browsing the market stalls with hopelessness on her small face.

"Her father needs money," the Happy Prince said, "or he will be conscripted into the army. He has sent her out to get some. He doesn't care how, he told her. Just get it. She's afraid to steal. He beat her last night when she didn't bring any home. I'm afraid for her. Please. If you will only take her the ruby off my sword."

Well, clearly that would not take long.

"And go with her?" the Happy Prince wheedled. "Follow her? To be certain she has no trouble getting it home?"

"All right, all right!"

The thrush pried the ruby loose and flew off toward the girl.

When he got back, he had the story for the Prince -- how happy the father had been, how wretched the room they lived in, how the father had pawned the ruby and packed and taken passage on a ship and he and the girl had set out for the mountains, where the girl's grandmother lived. The joy on the girl's face, the bare hope on the father's.

The Happy Prince sighed. "This is -- could you? One more thing?"

The thrush fluttered, annoyed. "You said one thing. You said --"

"Just one more! In that room, above the inn? See the window? It's a poet. He's been working on a play. I suppose it's an opera, really. He comes out here, early mornings, and sits under me, singing bits of it. It's so nice. Well, I think it's nice. About a prince, who wants to save his kingdom, and loves this girl down at the end of the valley...she's a farmer's daughter...well, he can't finish the play, he's been out of money for a month, he's had to take work at the docks, it makes him too tired to write or even think, and it doesn't pay him enough to get enough to eat, even. He sat here on his afternoon off, trying to write, but he was so tired he couldn't stay awake. Take a sapphire from my eye, put it on his table, by his candle."

"Your eye?"


"Your eye? How will you see?"

"I'll still have one."

Well, you see how this tale goes. The thrush stays, he dismantles the Prince bit by bit, taking pieces of him to this needy case and that one, until finally the Happy Prince is left blind, shoeless, indeed skinless, nothing but a lump of lead in the town square, and along come the town council and say, hey, what is this thing, what's it doing here? And melt it down to make bullets for it for an up-coming war. As they are doing so, they kick aside the thrush, worn out from flying through the town, mending the world.

"I don't know if I like that story," the kid told me.

"Ha," I said. "I do. I think I do."

"But the Prince dies. The Thrush dies."

"But look how they die," I point out. "When the Prince was alive, what was he?"

She considered.

"A big lie," I said. "He was a symbol of happiness, but was he happy? Only by dying did he become happy -- by acting, by giving himself to mend the world. And the thrush -- what was he intent on before?"

"Going on vacation."

"And once he leagues up with the Happy Prince, he's got something real to do. He has a purpose."

"But at the end..."

I agreed. The end. "They didn't mend the world," I said. "Did they? What's that mean, do you suppose?"

We're not doing the Happy Prince, because we don't think that one need revision.

There's the Boy and the Pearl, where the boy is working in a rice field and finds a pearl, and takes it home to give to his mama, and she hides it in a basket with a little rice at the bottom , and the next morning the basket is full of rice; so she hides it, the next day, in a jar with a few coins, and the next morning...

Or there's the tale of the girl with the wicked stepmother, who says come over here so I can comb your long blond hair, only the wicked stepmother actually combs her hair with an AXE...

"Why are all the stepmothers in fairytakes evil?" the kid asks.

"I've got one word for you," I say. "Which it starts with a P."

She rolls her eyes.

"Here's a better question for you," I say. "Why do none of the fathers in fairytales ever protect the children?"

She frowned.

"And why didn't it occur to you to ask that question?" I added.

"And the answer to both of those questions," I added, after a few seconds, "also starts with a P."

"You blame everything on the patriarchy," she said, annoyed.

"Not everything," I said sweetly. "The patriarchy is absolutely not to blame for the second law of thermodynamics, for instance."


Tree of Knowledge said...

If you haven't found yet, check it out. It's wonderful.

tonkelu said...

I recently discovered that, since I'm no longer a glossy eyed little girl (ha!), The Little Mermaid is one of the worst fairy tales ever. Particularly the non-Disney version (which is bad enough) which involves the teenage mermaid sacrificing herself so her "true love" can be happy. Bleh.

delagar said...

The kid hated Disney's Little Mermaid, but when she read the HCA version (she grew up on the films of Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro and that, so she has a whole other mythology in her head), she was livid. Don't fret, I told her who to blame!

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, how would you explain the patriarchy to a 2-year old and 4-year old. The 4-year old (boy) particularly wants to know.

delagar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
delagar said...

Well, with the kid I've always let her direct our dicussions (not just on patriarchy: on everything -- she was asking about circumcision last night, and what part of the male penis got snipped, and what FGM was, and how women urinated after, my, what a fun evening that was). I answer the questions she asks, and go from there.

But with a four year old, I'd stay simple. Tell him that it's been a way for some people to control other people (if he knows the word oppress, I'd say oppress -- a way for some people to oppress other people).

Then I'd say that the people doing the oppressing are powerful men.

I'd tell him they opress women and less powerful males, and they do it through all kinds of ways -- by force of all kinds.

I'd tell him it still exists, but that we have been taught, by our culture, not to see it or admit that we see it, except when we begin to look, we can begin to see it. (That fairytale about the emperor's clothing is useful here, though what I used was the shows the kid was watching on Cartoon Network, with all the characters doing actions being boys, essentially, maybe one girl here or there, and even those with girl characters having those characters controlled by men.)

Then -- well -- as you can tell from my conversations with the kid -- you'll find it keeps coming up. I don't bring it up, btw: she does. "Why do boys always win?" she asks, bringing a story to me. "Why are stepmothers always mean?" "Why do Mick's friends make fun of him for being friends with me?"

"I've got one word for you," is all I have to say to her now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Next time the opportunity arises, JP and I shall have a better patriarchy talk. I didn't explain it nearly as well as I would've liked but I was thrilled to pieces when he asked, "Mama, what's a patriarchy?"