I took a break from Barbara Comyns’ The Juniper Tree with The Perfect Nanny, which I finished last night after taking another break, this time from Berlin Babylon. Am I the only one detecting disturbances in the cultural airwaves, with so many books and films in which children die, sometimes at the hands of their own mother but often at the hands of a caretaker, or, well, a “perfect nanny”? Disney gave us that wonderful little ditty and now Leila Slimani explores the dark side of the song title–do I need to insert a spoiler alert for a book that begins with the words: “The baby was dead”?
In The Juniper Tree, Comyns makes the fairy-tale connection explicit. And here’s an extract from Slimani’s prize-winning novel: “Louise . . . looks like one of those duplicitous mothers in a fairy tale, abandoning her children in the darkness of the forest.” Never mind that, in “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s the father who takes the children into the woods–it’s the stepmother who puts him up to it. Fairy tales give us events that are larger than life and twice as unnatural, but these days, fairy tales come true in our realistic fictions, where we have the chance, not just to witness melodramatic action, but also explore the minds of villains and victims, something the fairy tale rarely does.
More on Berlin Babylon once I have a chance to process a series that is perhaps the most immersive film production I’ve ever seen, which means that it’s all the more wrenching and heartbreaking to witness the violation of what was once a taboo in cinematic culture: the death of a child. The trope of death and resurrection is evoked repeatedly in this series, and maybe that provides a form of consolation. Characters you think are dead (some long dead) come back to life, and there is even a kind of twisted Sleeping Beauty moment that is easy enough to locate.
She has been raped. She has been sexually assaulted. She has been mangled in hot steel. She has been betrayed and gaslighted by those she trusted.
And we’re not talking about her role as the blood-spattered bride in “Kill Bill.” We’re talking about a world that is just as cutthroat, amoral, vindictive and misogynistic as any Quentin Tarantino hellscape.
Jessica Chastain responded to Maureen Dowd’s account by tweeting out: When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.
These days, the phoenix moment for many Hollywood heroines comes when they pick up bow and arrows or stockpile an arsenal of guns and steel. Hunger Games and Hard Candy showed us women empowered by their ability to wield weapons and torture men. (Hitchcock was famously inspired by the words of the French playwright Victorien Sardou, “Torture the women.”) In Hanna, Joe Wright reinvents Little Red Riding Hood as a genetically modified teenage assassin who reads fairy tales at night and goes out for target practice in the daytime, dressed in pelts. When Buffy, from the popular 1990s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” dresses up as Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween, she carries weapons in her basket, “just in case.” And packing heat now seems de rigueur in films ranging from the popular Hong Kong subgenre known as “girls with guns” to Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.
Never mind that women rarely shoot ’em up in real life. As in times past, women have relied on the brute force of stories to exercise their power. Once upon a time, women did not have many opportunities to broadcast misdeeds. The power of stories was limited to the domestic sphere, to sites of work and play that permitted talk, gossip, chatter, and other forms of verbal improvisation. And even then certain stories—particularly those that featured persecution, intimidation, and other forms of social injustice—were taboo. How could you possibly dare to tell your story? In many fairy tales, we find women who are sworn to secrecy and cannot tell their stories—women who, for one reason or another, fear the consequences of revealing the truth. In a German story called “The Goose Girl,” the protagonist confides in an iron stove (go figure). In the Italian tale, “The Young Slave,” Lisa grumbles and weeps before a doll. Each time, the truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts.
The legendary Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights understood storytelling as a practice with the power to transform a culture. To double duty bound, she tells stories not just to save her own neck but also to end King Shahriyar’s reign of terror and change the values of her social world. “I will begin with a story,” Scheherazade tells her sister Dunyazad, “and it will cause the king to stop his practice, save myself, and deliver the people.” Scheherazade’s triple project is ambitious, and she uses the civilizing energy of symbolic narratives not just to arouse the curiosity of the king but also to open his eyes to suffering, social injustices, and the power of compassion. A woman who has read widely in poetry, history, and philosophy, she is “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined,” modeling for Shahriyar a path that veers away from violence and vengeance. As an added irony, she is an expert in the art of making things up, but the death sentence hanging over her if she does not “perform” to Shahriyar’s satisfaction is nonetheless very real.
The women capturing the headlines today are not making stories up. They are telling about what happened in their daily lives–a stark reminder that on-screen violence is not so far removed from the horrors of real life.
Our media-rich environment is imperfect, flawed, and full of opportunities for purveying hate speech and falsifying the news. But it has a powerful upside in offering outlets for storytelling and breaking the culture of silence imposed on victims. Scheherazade begins as a victim, but the arc of her story takes her to a position enabling her to speak and become a double agent, liberating herself from a death sentence and saving others from her fate. Transcending the limits of a narrow domestic space through her expansive narrative reach, she embraces bold defiance as she puts her high-wattage stories in the service of a social mission.
“Storytelling is a human universal. From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories. Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling. Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller. Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism. These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies. We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection. We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.”
And from Stephen Greenblatt, who drew my attention to the Nature Communications article.
This time of year, the stories that most unite us are fantasies in which we are not (except as small children) asked to put our faith. Unlike, say, the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the birth of Jesus, these festive tales generally do not draw masses of faithful who insist as a point of dogma on their literal truth. On the contrary, either our playful seasonal stories are clearly understood from the start to be fictional or, in the case of Santa Claus, they become fictional in time.
Greenblatt writes about the American cult of Santa Claus, and its origins in the verse of Clement Clarke Moore, or possibly a Poughkeepsie poet named Henry Livingston, Jr. But in this season it’s also good to recall that Santa goes by many names: St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Sinterklaas. St. Nicholas, the man who inspired our Santa Claus stories, was a bishop who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey in the third century. Legend has it that he inherited some wealth, learned about the plight of a poor man with three daughters, and tossed bags of gold through the window, enough for handsome dowries. The sacks were later said to have been tossed down the chimney (the windows were sealed tight). Sounds like a fairy tale to me, but more importantly the origin story reminds us that our Santa Claus, rotund and jolly, with a manlo https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017…) and granny glasses is an invented figure, one that we could reinvent if we wanted.
I mention this because my daughter has avoided telling her two-year-old about Santa–she fears Roxy may say “I don’t buy it.” Richard Dawkins begs to differ–not so sure whose side I take on this one.
“Child brains are gullible,” writes Richard Dawkins, “open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion…wide open to mental infections that adults might brush off without effort.”
But research in developmental psychology tells a different tale. By age 5, children are harder to dupe about the existence of a fantastical creature without some good evidence that the creature really exists; by age 8 or 9, if not sooner, children reject the reality of Santa.
My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, and it is yet. I was afraid of encountering, in a book, something I didn’t want to know. Perhaps my earliest literary memory is my fear of the spidery, shadowy, monstrous illustrations in a large de luxe edition of “Alice in Wonderland” that we owned. A little later, I recall being appalled, to the point of tears, by a children’s version of the Peer Gynt legend in an infernal set of volumes we owned called “The Book House.” I also remember, from the same set, a similar impression of pain, futility and crabbed antiquity conveyed by an account of Shelley’s boyhood. I read both these things when I was sick in bed, a customarily cheerful time for me.
Still later, in the fifth or sixth grade, I was enticed into reading, for my own good, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The adventure in the cave gave me lasting claustrophobia and a dread of Twain, besides whom Poe and Melville seem good-humored optimists. O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure. Having deduced that “good” books depict a world in which horror may intrude, Iread through all my adolescence for escape.
I always begin the fall term with meditations on the immersive pleasures of reading, and it is not until the second week that I begin talking about what Anita Brookner calls, in A Start in Life, a life ruined by literature (“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”) Well, not really ruined in Updike’s case, but we often forget the variation in appetites when it comes to childhood readers. Some embrace fright, and others, like Updike, back off and escape into other opportunities to encounter possibilities, along with perils of a lesser magnitude than what is found in Alice (see Tenniel’s illustration for the pool of tears below). The trick is to match up child readers with books they will love, and the librarian at my local public library was a genius at that.
It is not often that a new book comes along that is both a breakthrough in scholarly terms and also a magnificent work of art. Jack Zipes’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, illustrated by Natalie Frank, is both. Since Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, published in 1976, we have worried about the uses of enchantment, and also taken for granted that the high-profile figures in fairy tales are female. Who are the superstars? Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and so on. Never mind Jack, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel, and Prince Charming–the most memorable figures are girls and witches, stepmothers and princesses. And these figures all live in a world where magic happens–and no one is ever shocked, startled, or surprise. A high quotient of weirdness is part of what ensures that the stories never get old. Because the conflicts in them are primal and do not yield easily to a solution or resolution (contempt vs. compassion; predator vs. prey; innocence vs. seduction), we get caught up in an endless repetition compulsion with these stories, always making them new even as we never get the core problem at the heart of the tale right.
What Jack Zipes has done is to foreground a tale that has not received much scholarly attention and yet has been right in plain sight. Many of us grew up with Mickey Mouse as beleaguered apprentice in Fantasia but never thought to drill down deeper into the story. And even dedicated readers of the Harry Potter books are unlikely to have connected “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Dumbledore and Harry, but presto! there it is. Zipes writes: “In short the structure of Rowling’s fairy tale resembles the folklore tale type ATU 325, which has the following plot functions: (1) a poor father apprentices his son to a magician/sorcerer to study magic for one or three years at a mysterious place/school. (2) The son secretly flies home and indicates to his father/mother how he or she can recognize him, or the father and mother are helped by a mysterious stranger who advises them on how to recognize their son. (3) Once liberated, the son, who has learned and gained just as much knowledge of magic as his master, can shape-shift . . . (4) The magician seeks revenge . . . (5) The magician imprisons the pupil . . . (6) The pupil uses his cunning and knowledge of magic to escape and the magician pursues him . . . ” I’ve left out a good deal, but there’s enough there to reveal the degree to which tropes from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” flash out for us repeatedly in the Harry Potter books. Rowling’s series still seems more fantasy literature (with its multiple portals to Hogwarts and the magic world) than fairy tale, but it is astonishing how fantasy fiction creatively repurposes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” along with a host of other intertexts, to be sure.
The great accomplishment of Zipes’s anthology is to draw attention to the importance of magic in fairy tales and to identify a subset of fairy tales that feature a father-son type relationship that goes wrong (a nice way to balance out all the stories about mothers and daughters). And there is something wonderfully meta about a fairy tale in which the power struggle turns on magic and how to wield it and control it.
Zipes gathers together more than fifty variants of the tale type, from classical times up to the present, with what comes to feel like “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” He shows how the tale bifurcates, taking two different pathways, with “humiliated apprentices” who are defeated by magic and yield to authority and “rebellious apprentices” who learn how to control their powers and wield them skillfully and responsibly. There is much to ponder in this book, and, the stories show a fascinating range and play of possibilities.
It’s rare to have a moment when two high-wattage cultural events collide to bring back a story–in this case Beauty and the Beast. One of those blockbuster films, Disney’s live-action version of that story, “smashed records,” as they say in the business, with a record-breaking $170 million debut and $350 worldwide. Easily earning back its $160 million budget (an entire village was constructed in the English countryside for the opening scene, with 150 extras, 28 wagons, and hundreds of live animals, not to mention Emma Watson), it stuck closely to the script of the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast, even as it piled on special effects and ornate excesses, all the while promoting the cute in the service of what Mel Brooks famously called “Moichandising” (see clip from Spaceballs below).
Then there was Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a Beauty and the Beast story that pulls out all the stops and gives us what horror movies do best, exaggerating and amplifying our cultural anxieties, and putting what Frank Bruni of the NYT called a “fantastical, grotesque spin” on things. Get Out (budget of $4.5 million) as a Beauty and the Beast story? Yes, it’s that and Bluebeard too. Only in this case, the monster is Rose (get it?), played by Allison Williams. As the social messaging of so many Beauty and the Beast story tells us, appearances are deceiving, and in this case they are beyond what we could imagine. Rose is the ferocious beast who lures an innocent into her childhood home, from which there appears to be no escape. She is also a Bluebeard figure, a monster straight out of our culture’s master horror-narrative, with its classic tropes: a secluded mansion with a dark place inhabited by a brooding homicidal maniac with secrets stored in a closet (in Get Out it’s Rose’s stash of photographs of victims pre-dating her relationship with Chris). And suddenly we see how Jordan Peele, unlike Disney, hit the refresh button and inflected the tale as old as time in new ways that speak to our own cultural anxieties about race and gender.
This morning CNBC had a brief segment on the box office numbers for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Joe Kernen pointed out that Disney had not even made the story up–gasp! Wasn’t the story invented in 1740? In a French novel? Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve did indeed write La Belle et la Bête, but it was hardly the “original.” In my new anthology, Beauty and the Beast: Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World (Penguin 2017), I start with the Ancients, with stories like the one about Zeus and Europa, Cupid and Psyche, Hasan of Basra, and connect the narrative circuits of the tale with a global network of stories about Beauties and Beasts. There is no original, no pure, untainted right and true foundational story—just variants.
Still, not all adaptations are equal. There are the nostalgic ones, the ones that want to bring back earlier versions, just as the live-action Disney Beauty and the Beast aims to preserve, sanctify, and re-brand the story for a new generation. And then there are the adventurously inventive, creative adaptations that shock and startle us, rewiring our brains, and making us think more and think harder about the terms of the film. “Beauty and the Beast” is suddenly not just a tale as old as time, but a story that takes on new relevance as it resonates with fears and desire that beset us today.
Last night I gave a talk about my new anthology of Beauty and the Beast stories at the Harvard Bookstore. It’s spring break week at Harvard, and I was expecting just a handful of true believers in fairy tales. But Harvard Bookstore has its own faithfuls, and what a lively, attentive group it was. Afterwards I browsed the tables and shelves and was reminded of what a powerful intellectual and social experience it is to roam around in that bookstore. If you read this, stop by, browse, and buy at least one volume. And if you live elsewhere, go to your local bookstore and do the same.
My purchase last night will make great reading for today’s Nor’easter. It’s Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (British cover below), and I can hardly wait to plunge into its pages today. Here’s a link to the Guardian’s review
The English novelist Angela Carter is best known for her 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber,” which is a kind of updating of the classic European fairy tales. This does not mean that Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood chews gum or rides a motorcycle but that the strange things in those tales—the werewolves and snow maidens, the cobwebbed caves and liquefying mirrors—are made to live again by means of a prose informed by psychoanalysis and cinema and Symbolist poetry. In Carter’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” retitled “The Tiger’s Bride,” the beast doesn’t change into a beauty. The beauty is changed into a beast, a beautiful one, by means of one of the more memorable sex acts in twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the heroine is ushered, naked, into the beast’s chamber. He paces back and forth:
I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.
Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.
A tremendous throbbing, as of the engine that makes the earth turn, filled the little room; he had begun to purr. . . .
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!”
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
Fairy tales are like riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and that’s what accounts in part for our fierce repetition compulsion when it comes to stories like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or The Frog King. It is always something of a challenge to figure out what makes a fairy tale tick and whir with cultural energy and why each one tends to carry some kind of emotional charge.
Disney’s release of a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” reminds us that fairy tales are not just for the nursery, but also for the older crowd. The “tale as old as time,” as Mrs. Potts sings in the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” has become so familiar to us that the odd couple at its core has been normalized. Yet the many other versions in circulation the world over remind us of just how startling it is to pair humans with animals in courtship rituals that end with “happily ever after” – or not. The tale’s narrative circuits are connected to a global network of storytelling in which young women encounter frogs, condors, muskrats, and snakes, while young men find themselves romantically linked with monkeys, dogs, swans, and toads. Is this what we mean when we refer to fairy-tale romances, and if it is, do why do we long for such a thing?
The anthropologists tell us that animals are good to think with, and in many ways we can imagine that stories about animal brides and animal grooms enabled our ancestors to address complicated issues turning not just on courtship but also on sexuality – in all its beastliness and tenderness. After all, sex stands at the point of intersection between the human and the animal kingdom, and the symbolic always helps us navigate the real. Some have speculated that Beauty and the Beast tales once served some kind of totemic purpose, helping humans to organize and understand their own social worlds. They also surely represented alterity in all its monstrous and terrifying incarnations, challenging humans to find some way of coexisting with lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, along with all the bugbears that haunt our imagination.
Our version of “Beauty and the Beast” derives from Mme de Beaumont’s 1756 story, published in a magazine with designs on the young, teaching them about character and good manners. In that French tale, Beauty not only outshines everyone in looks, she is also “good,” “kind,” “sweet,” and “sincere,” amassing a set of attributes that would be impossible for anyone, let alone most little girls, to replicate. Why does the classically attractive and instinctively generous Beauty settle by marrying a Beast who is grotesquely ugly and desperately needy? In Mme de Beaumont’s tale, Beauty discovers that she feels something more than friendship for the Beast and that she cannot live without him. Three “peaceful” months at the castle, full of “good plain talk,” along with the discovery that Beast is “kind” and has “good qualities,” arouse Beauty’s compassion, so much so that she can agree to marry him when he stops eating and nearly dies of starvation.
What is the social messaging in that story (which we have made our own through picture books and through the Disney film) and how does it differ from what we find in the long ago and far away of the fairy-tale universe? To begin with, we are drawn to Mme de Beaumont’s version of Beauty and the Beast precisely because it enshrines empathy as the greatest of virtues and as the pathway to true love – even if in the most hypocritical sort of way. Who knew that hotness is not at all a factor and that charity, generosity, and pity reign supreme when it comes to romantic alliances? We live in what has been called an age of empathy, with dozens of books on why empathy matters, on the neuroscience of empathy, on the empathy gap, and so on. And so it is no surprise that we instinctively recoil from stories like the Filipino Chonguita, in which an act of defiance or outrage – hurling an animal against the wall – disenchants the animal groom or animal bride. There we are in the arena of brute force and passion rather than compassion.
Yet stories like those, along with the Latin American The Condor and the Shepherdess (with its abducted heroine who has to put up with a dinner of carrion) or the Ghanaian Girl and the Hyena-Man (which ends with a clever ruse used to escape an arranged marriage), remind us that the most satisfying narratives are those that shock and startle us. Counterintuitive finales get us talking about the terms of the story – the cultural contradictions that are so artfully encapsulated in fairy tales and give them their staying power. That’s the self-reflexive genius of the fairy tale and of the mythic imagination, to give us stories about the power of talk (those long dinner conversations between Beauty and the Beast light the spark) and to leave us with something to talk about. In African cultures, a popular genre is the dilemma tale, a story that recounts an extreme situation and ends with a question. For example, a boy is given the choice of executing his cruel biological father or his kind adoptive father – and now you must decide which of the two he should slay. Fairy tales make us wonder and try to find solutions as we wander through their storied precincts.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” like the many other versions, gave us a vivid, visual grammar for thinking about abstractions: cruelty and compassion, surfaces and essences, hostility and hospitality, predators and victims. Like all fairy tales, it gives us the primal and the mythical, getting us talking in ways that headlines do their cultural work today. And they also lead us to keep hitting the refresh button, as we try to get the story right, even as we know that Beauty and the Beast will always be at odds with each other in an endless struggle to resolve their differences.
Shortly after the publication of The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman gave a reading at the Harvard Coop. My children dragged me to the event–it was only a few months after volume one of His Dark Materials had appeared–and there he was, seated on a kid’s chair, surrounded by a dozen children, ages 6-12. For close to 90 minutes, he talked about stories and what it was like to write them, while answering questions from the band of true believers and diehard fans. It quickly dawned on me that Pullman’s magic derived in part from how seriously he took his readers, talking to them without a touch of condescension. I felt not a touch of embarrassment about being an adult intruder on the enchanted circle, because he treated my question, asked only because there was one awkward pause near the end, with the same respect that he showed for the children. Many years later, I was not at all surprised when I read the following
There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book. In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness… The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.
And it also explained why he led the charge against age-banding for books:
Mr Pullman told The Daily Telegraph: “I don’t mind anybody having an opinion about my books. I don’t mind a bookseller deciding they are for this age group or that, or a teacher giving one of my books to a child because they think it is appropriate.
“But I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don’t have an age group in mind.
“I have had letters from children of seven who say they have read all the way through His Dark Materials and they have an astonishing knowledge of it. But not every child is the same. A child of nine might be tentative and unsure about reading, and to give them a book that says 9+ will reinforce their sense of failure. The book should be suited to the individual child.”
As someone who still tries to read at a 25 year-old-level, I applaud his effort.
Who else but Neil Gaiman could become an accomplice of the gods, using the sorcery of words to make their stories new? The author turns Norse myths into addictive reading for young and old, with high-wattage retellings that preserve the monumental grandeur of the Nordic universe but also turn it into world that is up close and personal, full of antic wit and dark intrigue.
That’s what I wrote after previewing the book last fall, and the pantheon of Nordic gods finally feels familiar to me, after many attempts to try to understand their dark universe. For more on the volume and on Neil Gaiman and his appreciative fans, read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times on February 13.