Friday, February 28, 2014

Fairy Tales

(There's going to be some HBD stuff below.)

My wife had this edition of the Junior Classics, and there was a slightly later one in my childhood home as well.  Someone did some brilliant marketing on this, because from 1912 onward a lot of homes had these, enough so that even the original set isn't worth all that much. (Your old family Bible is unlikely to fetch much of a price outside the family, either. Too many of 'em.)

I glanced at them from time to time, but had never read them.  I made an effort this month, mostly from guilt, and made it through the first two volumes. I doubt I will go further. We are sending them on to son #2 some day. In addition to the guilt, similar topics have emerged repeatedly over the last weeks, and my mind has been taken up with the whole rich stew of ancient tales and how they affect us.  First, my granddaughters' obsession with "Frozen*," the new Disney animation roughly based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen;" a discussion of Bruno Bettelheim's pariah status in the autism community, which reminded me of The Uses of Enchantment, the one good thing he ever did; a post about Lightsabers and Cinder-maids by expecting mom Julia over at her blog The Whole Sky; a rereading of Lewis's and Tolkien's  thoughts on the subject two months ago; pondering St Dymphna earlier this month; a Bible study on Daniel (and dreams); and, and, and...

Heck, I don't know where these running topics come from.  I have mild OCD, stuff comes in and won't go away.

I doubt I have anything that is absolutely new.  But I have some things that may be worth bringing up again.

The folktales of Northern Europe are different. They just are. Girls and women are more interesting and more prominent. Please note: all characters in myths and fairy tales are two-dimensional at most. Usually they are only one-dimensional: the handsome prince, the beautiful princess, the wicked enchantress, the sad king. Complaining that some female character of a northern tale is only two-dimensional is a modern fascination that shows a complete misunderstanding of the genre.  Two is the maximum. Let this sink in.  Yes, sometimes the unpromising third son, by cleverness, is rewarded with the beautiful princess and half the kingdom, and that is infuriating to modern sensibilities. Yet sometimes it is the young woman who is the central figure, who is rewarded in the end with a one-dimensional Handsome Prince. Don't complain.  She gets two dimensions and he gets only one, and this doesn't occur very often outside the Hajnal Line. (See also, Barbie and Ken.  Complain about her figure, and shallowness, her clothing, and bad influence all you want, but don't forget: Ken is an accessory. That doesn't happen in other parts of the world.)

Robert Bly, a Jungian poet wrote at length (though not depth) about men, but noted important details about the women-stories in what he regarded as universal myths.  But being essentially a Norwegian  DFL-party liberal from Minnesota (Cf: Garrison Keillor), his idea of "universal"meant "we can find occasional examples among Southern Europeans, fewer still in the Middle-East, and obscure references everywhere else, but mostly, Scandinavians, Teutons, and maybekindasorta Celts." He notes in passing the mother who passes on to her daughter a white linen cloth with three drops of blood pricked from her finger before she dies and the importance of this in her rising to womanhood. Whoa-ho! Observe the deep-rooted gender-role issues, there, eh? Menstruation! Sacrifice! Childbirth! My stars, what ignoramuses those largely-male storytellers must have been, eh?

Except that outside of northern Europe, girl and women issues don't even get that. They get one dimension. Related: one tribe stands out among the Semitic groups as even noticing that women are not, essentially, one rank above cattle. Guess. (Hint: they wrote they whole Bible.) The Christians grow out of this exceptional group, exceptional themselves for the heresy of more status for women even by that standard. When they finally penetrate to the lands which inexplicably already have some idea of female intelligence and worth, in contrast to oh, everyone else in the world, women are taught to read, allowed to own property, and rule in limited spheres.  Centuries later, it is this group that supplies feminists with new troops every generation.   Those who have followed all the discussions at hbd chick  about forbidding cousin marriage will not be surprised to  Jewish women, now at the forefront of Western feminism, could ironically only express it in the lands of the NW European gentiles.They were part of Step 1 of feminist development, millennia ago; they had some part in a few other steps. But they essentially came back into the picture mostly in America.

Yes, yes, I'm wandering all over the map here.  There's no good structure to this. Take-away point: in this set of folk tales, the princesses are often clever; the protagonist might be a female who has to go out into the world to make her fortune; women own property and give orders.  Not always, but sometimes.

Another difference, related and dear to the hearts of students of cultural (and genetic) history, is the recurring theme of being kind to strangers. Repeatedly, the hero or heroine succeeds in the northern tales because s/he shared a meal with a fox, or carried an old man across a stream, or did some other service to a woman who turned out to be some magical creature.  This seldom happens in the stories outside those realms.  One can see the cultural value growing, of loyalty not only to one's kin, but to nearby others. Not only that, but the evil blood-relative, whose claims must sometimes be denied, also turns up mostly in this region. hbd chick posted on it today, actually.

*My son and DIL are marveling how even Disney underestimated how popular this was going to be. I have seen only the musical numbers, and those with the the lyrics obscured by girls 6 and almost 3 leaping about and shouting them 2 beats behind the video. But it's good, and powerful, and it will rapidly obscure Brave, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, etc. For girls (esp. with sisters) of the rising generation, this will be among the top few influential and shared cultural experiences. You can watch 2040 - worldwide - being built right now.


Sam L. said...

I liked Frozen. I'm waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay
over the demo for it. But, Tangled. Loved it! The horse sold me! Never saw Brave or TPATF. Kinda like to see that one.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

I'll link this to my post of changelings. This could be an interesting branch of HBD, (maybe it already is and I've missed it).

Academics love to talk about how folklorists of early 1900s "constructed" national character using these tales. But it seems pretty obvious that themes vary in predictable ways and that it's just another proof that as HBD Chick would say, different peoples are different. Our stories are just expressions of how we think.

It would be interesting to look at the geographical distribution of different types of folktales. I know there is data on this but no online it seems. I'm sure those maps would match other maps of social, cultural and genetic factors.

james said...

A page in a google book: The Greenwald Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. I'm not very familiar with Chinese folk tales, but your observation seems to hold mostly true with the African ones I remember. Some collections are recent and may have other literary influences.

Texan99 said...

I mentioned to a friend the old rap against opera that the only plot was "the tenor and the soprano are in love, but the baritone screws it up." He objected that I was describing only Italian opera; German opera was full of interesting female characters.