Fairy Tales. Funny name really – very few of them feature any characters that are fairies, though a wide range of other supernatural and natural characters parade through. But I’m digressing before I’ve even started. I want to talk about freedom. Specifically freedom in fairy tales, myths and legends. Before I get stuck in on that, let’s clear up a few ‘literary myths’.
Fairy tales were not originally written for children. We homonids are wired to receive, process and pass on information most effectively when it is given in story form. Originally this may have been a way of passing on hunter-gatherer experiences and wisdom – text books are a fairly recent invention after all. In a way the information may have changed but the delivery method has not. And importantly, for a story to have most impact when passed from one person to another, it needs to have an immediacy; if it’s not something that happened to the teller, then it’s ideal for it to have happened to someone the teller knows…this is a quick way to align sympathy with the character and for the listener to form an allegiance with the main character. The expansion of this into heroic tales is not the distancer you might think; when a character – like Herakles – is mentioned, it is so much a part of the collective story telling consciousness, the zeitgeist, that it may as well be a story about somone you know. Once you’ve acheived an alignment of sympathies, then the reader/ listener is willing to suspend disbelief and tales of fantastical beasts and fearsome deeds become probable.
It’s always seemed a great peculiarity to me that there is a propagated mind-set which hands down the received wisdom that fantasy is something you grow out of. At a certain age, childish things like wishes, bad fairies, dragons and heroes must be put aside or you become a quirky, even maladjusted, adult. Ergo fairy tales are for kids. The problem with that is the fact that in the original forms, very few fairy tales are considered fit material for children! Enter the Victorians who in a perfect frenzy of solicitousness, tidied away all the dark, nasty bits in the original tales. It became a self-perpetuating cycle – cleaned up stories became more suitable for children, they were fantasy so fantasy was the province of infants but let’s just check what the little tikes are reading and maybe make them ‘nicer’.
Even as a child I found the clean version of fairy tales lacking; less than satisfying. There was no jeopardy because no matter what you knew there would be a happy ending. It led to an age of ‘not-believing’ for me which luckily I got over. When I read some of the original versions of the stories, especially Celtic, Greek, Norse and African myths, everything fell into place. As Diana Wynne Jones once said ‘only the feeble minded despise fairy tales – each contain a kernel of utter truth’. Lots of common themes strike me over and over again in fairy tales but perhaps the one I come back to most is the idea of imprisonment/ slavery vs Freedom/emancipation.
This seems to take several forms;
Physical – the MC is physically impaired, like the girl with silver hands. Or physically imprisoned, like Rapunzel (Petresonella). Or held in a position of abuse or servitude – Cinderella or The King who wanted to Marry his Daughter.
Magical – the MC is placed under a curse – Sleeping Beauty, or called upon to free someone under a curse – Beauty and the Beast or Six Wild Swans. The MC might be transformed into another creature and denied a human voice at all – Odette in Swan Lake, for example. Or perhaps the curse might make them unappealing in another way – Sir Gawaine and the Loathly Lady.
Class – the MC is held in place through poverty or low birth. Or by having elder siblings who take all of the youngest child’s share of power of position – the chinese version of Cinderella has a heroine with 499 elder sisters! But essentially the MC has to step outside themselves and their pre-conceived belief in their inferiority and become all they can be. In other words, seek their fortune. The Goose Girl, Clever Janet, the golden bird, Jack and the Beanstalk (which actually I hate as an example because any way you slice it, burglary, house-breaking and murder do not a hero make in my book!)
Mental – these are the most subtle forms of imprisonment in stories. If the MC is aware of themselves as trapped, often you have a more mysterious character who endures their imprisonment until they can free themselves. Often this freedom comes at terrible price. Danae defying her father and being locked in a chest and sent out beyond the ninth wave as an exile. Deirdre throwing herself from the chariot rather than submit to a cruel husband. Bloudewedd being turned into an owl after conspiring against her husband. These tales on the surface seem to trade one form of imprisonment for another or to suggest that only death is the release. A closer reading shows the character making a clear, hard choice, and choice in this case is the epitomy of freedom.
This is not an exhaustive list but it does point at a common theme: The MC is enslaved and needs to earn/ conquer/ choose their freedom.
Doubtless some fairy tales and myths are ways of recalling historical events, but changed and distorted (rather like nursery rhymes – I doubt most parents teaching their toddlers ‘Humpty Dumpty’ realise that they are singing about a cannon used during the war with Cromwell or that ‘Baa-Baa Black Sheep’ is actually about the unfairness of the wool selling laws of the 11th century). But there seem to be deeper truths or rather levels of truths that you can access depending on how deeply you read.
Let’s take Beauty and The Beast as an example. Every major character in this story is a prisoner. Beauty is held prisoner by the beast but also by her obedience/ duty/ love for her father. Her father is bound by his word (and somewhat spurious other motivations). The Beast is imprisoned by his form – so hideous he is an outcast, a self-imposed exile, doubly imprisoned by his own loneliness and his inability to interact with other humans. You could look at this as a cautionary tale told to young girls pre marriage (especially if it wasn’t her choice) – he may look like a beast now but it’s a good match and he’ll turn out to be a prince. That seems a bit facile to me.
Another interpretation is that Beauty is actually imprisoned by her pre-conceptions (a mental imprisonment) and must learn to see past external appearances. Love and acceptance comes in many forms. Most versions of the story depict Beauty as a dutiful child who chooses to go into voluntary imprisonment to improve her father’s flagging fortunes. (That may well have been an historical fact in many cases) But this casts her in the role of someone who must free another – ie the Beast and to some extent, her family (from poverty). In fact the further down you go with this story, the more layers there are. It contains almost all the previously mentioned forms of imprisonment and equally the corresponding forms of freedom; physical, emotional, mental and choice. Perhaps this is why it is one of the most popular fairy tales – it hits on all levels.
Which begs the question of ‘why?’ Why is freedom such a potent theme? I don’t have a definite answer – mostly because myths, legends and fairy tales are by nature and necessity, very subjective. They are designed to speak to an individual in a different way depending on what is important to them at the time. Personally, I think freedom is such a common theme because no matter what situation we are in, at some point we will feel trapped. As the essence of true fantasy, fairy tales allow you to examine your prison in a ‘make-believe’ setting. By vanquishing the monster, freeing the hero, releasing the heroine or transforming the beast, we free the part of ourselves that is truly trapped and our real life prisons become endurable if not conquerable. Of course, that’s just my opinion.