If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fairy Tales, Part I

I've been very interested in the response to my fairy tale question. It seems several of you have not had a great deal of experience with fairy tales in childhood. In spite of that, I was glad to see references to fairy tales other than the usual fare (Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). Several of you mentioned how grim the Brothers Grimm really are. We think of fairy tales as children stories but they really were originally meant for adults.

I have always loved fairy tales. Several of you were unsure what fell into the category of a fairy tale, and while I think there may be some disagreement out there for me fairy tales are stories that involve the land of fairy and/or enchantment in some way. Fairy tales can include both the dark and the light but, like White Trash Academic, I do have a preference towards the dark.

I received this book on my fifth birthday and have cherished it ever since.

Its a little worse for the wear but then so am I. I actually own several books of fairy tales but it is this the pictures in this one that are in my mind's eye when I hear the stories. I am also a big fan of myths and, like JaneB, the King Arthur legends. To me they are all an extension of my love of fairy tales.

Growing up, we also had an album from Danny Kaye's Han Christian Anderson (and yes, Dr. Bad Ass, he definitely does count). It was an actual LP that I played to death on a tiny kids' phonograph. I remember Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling the best.

The Ugly Duckling

My favorite fairy tale is Rumplestiltskin. (I was also fascinated by the Princess and the Pea but I think that is because I've always been such a sound sleeper and can't imagine noticing such a small object under so many mattresses). I'm not sure why I loved this tale so much as a child. I think, unlike other fairy tales that have wicked stepmothers behind it all and end with happy-ever-after, the (supposed) bad guy in this tale is a creepy little man. Exactly why does he want that baby so bad? It always seemed so sinister and dark. Also the story really gets good after the young woman is married. It is the one of the few tales that actually talks about life after marriage.

But as an adult, I think the draw is that the story depicts how an imaginary child is so different from a real one. We can promise away the life of an imaginary child to save our own, but if the child is here...if we know what a child means to us...there is no bargin. I also appreciate, as an adult, the real culprits as being the father who bragged about his daughter to gain favor with the king and the greedy king himself--who threatens death and promises marriage--in order to get free gold.

However I remember a part of me thinking that Rumpelstiltskin had been gypped. The queen used her advantage to find out his name, which didn't seem quite fair. It also never seemed right that he struck the deal out of pity. Perhaps he wasn't so evil of a character? It is a complex tale in many ways.

This is the image that lingers in my mind when I hear the story of Rumplestiltskin.

I've been reading updated fairy tales (a description of these will need its own post) lately and it has gotten me thinking about an update to the Rumplestiltskin story. I have a good one in mind (although it seems there have been many many retellings) but alas fiction writing is very low on my list right now and quite frankly I don't think I have the writing chops for it.

I did run across this recently. How have I lived 44 years and not known about these poems? Here is her version of Rumplestiltskin.

by Anne Sexton

Inside many of us
is a small old man
who wants to get out.
No bigger than a two-year-old
whom you’d call lamb chop
yet this one is old and malformed.
His head is okay
but the rest of him wasn’t Sanforized.
He is a monster of despair.
He is all decay.
He speaks up as tiny as an earphone
with Truman’s asexual voice:
I am your dwarf.
I am the enemy within.
I am the boss of your dreams.
No. I am not the law in your mind,
the grandfather of watchfulness.
I am the law of your members,
the kindred of blackness and impulse.
See. Your hand shakes.
It is not palsy or booze.
It is your Doppelgänger
trying to get out

There once was a miller
with a daughter as lovely as a grape.
He told the king that she could
spin gold out of common straw.
The king summoned the girl
and locked her in a room full of straw
and told her to spin it into gold
or she would die like a criminal.
Poor grape with no one to pick.
Luscious and round a sleek.
Poor thing.
To die and never see Brooklyn.

She wept,
of course, huge aquamarine tears.
The door opened and in popped a dwarf.
He was as ugly as a wart.
Little thing, what are you? She cried.
With his tiny no-sex voice he replied:
I am a dwarf.
I have been exhibited on Bond Street
and no child will ever call me Papa.
I have no private life.
If I’m in my cups
the whole town knows by breakfast
and no child will ever call me Papa.
I am eighteen inches high.
I am no bigger than a partridge.
I am your evil eye
and no child will ever call me Papa.
Stop this Papa foolishness,
she cried. Can you perhaps
spin straw into gold?
Yes indeed, he said,
that I can do.
He spun the straw into gold
and she gave him her necklace
as a small reward.
When the king saw what she had done
he put her in a bigger room of straw
and threatened death once more.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
Again he spun the straw into gold.
She gave him her ring
as a small reward.
The king put her in an even bigger room
but this time he promised
to marry her if she succeeded.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
But she had nothing to give him.
Without a reward the dwarf would not spin.
He was on the scent of something bigger.
He was a regular bird dog.
Give me your first-born
and I will spin.
She thought: Piffle!
He is a silly little man.
And so she agreed.
So he did the trick.
Gold as good as Fort Knox.

The king married her
and within a year
a son was born.
He was like most new babies,
as ugly as an artichoke
but the queen thought him a pearl.
She gave him her dumb lactation,
delicate, trembling, hidden,
warm, etc.
And then the dwarf appeared
to claim his prize.
Indeed! I have become a papa!
cried the little man.
She offered him all the kingdom
but he wanted only this—
a living thing
to call his hown.
And being mortal
who can blame him?

The queen cried two pails of sea water.
She was as persistent
As a Jehovah’s Witness.
And the dwarf took pity.
He said: I will give you
three days to guess my name
and if you cannot do it
I will collect your child.
The queen sent messengers
throughout the land to find names
of the most unusual sort.
When he appeared the next day
she asked: Melchior?
But each time the dwarf replied:
No! No! That’s not my name.
The next day she asked:
Spindleshanks? Spiderlegs?
But it was still no-no.
On the third day the messenger
came back with a strange story.
He told her:
As I came around the corner of the wood
where the fox says good night to the hare
I saw a little house with a fire
burning in front of it.
Around that fire a ridiculous little man
was leaping on one leg and singing:
Today I bake.
Tomorrow I brew my beer.
The next day the queen’s only child will be mine.
Not even the census taker knows
that Rumpelstiltskin is my name…
The queen was delighted.
She had the name!
Her breath blew bubbles.

When the dwarf returned
she called out:
Is your name by any chance Rumpelstiltskin?
He cried: The devil told you that!
He stamped his right foot into the ground
and sank in up to his waist.
Then he tore himself in two.
Somewhat like a split broiler.
He laid his two sides down on the floor,
one part soft as a woman,
one part a barbed hood,
one part papa,
one part Doppelgänger.


Julie said...

Beautiful! I love your book. I also love the poem. This post is excellent and makes my wheels turn.

I used to read Grimm's fairy tales to my daughter from the Riverside Anthology, but I edited the violent parts since she was a kid. As for myself, I'm not put off by the violence. I hate violence in the real world, but in literature, I tend to gravitate toward the darker stories. They are real. The world can be a rough, scary place, and fairy tales reflect that darkness. Shoot, we see far worse on the idiot box or at the movies. I am fascinated by the stories, though.

I agree with you about Rumpelstiltskin. There was always something a little sympathetic about him. I thought it was just me. Yes, it is more complex than the surface story.

Thank you for a very interesting post!

drax said...

"The devil told you! THE DEVIL TOLD YOU!" That always chilled me when I was wee...

Curious. I love Anne Sexton, I love Fairy Tales. But I was never nuts about The TRANSFORMATIONS.

(Looking forward to part 2!)

Annie K said...

Hi Brigindo,
Have you ever read Rumpelstilstkin's Daughter, a revisionist children's tale, written at about third or fourth grade reading level? It's written and illustrated by Diane Stanley. I like her version so much better. The Miller's Daughter runs off with the wee man, and marries him. Why would she want to marry the King who threatened to kill her? Then, their daughter, when she is grown, and also imprisoned, ordered by the same king to spin straw into gold, manages to outwit him, help the starving populace, and make a place for herself in the kingdom, and without the help of her clever father. I used to read the story out loud for grade school kids. (It takes about 25 minutes to tell, so I rarely get a chance to do it.)

Thanks for the Anne Sexton poem. I'd read it about six months ago for the first time, and enjoyed it.

Brigindo said...

Annie K -I've never heard of it but the story sounds wonderful. It is now on my list.

Gail Nelson said...

Hi, Would you please be able to tell me what year the Tasha Tudor Fairy Tale book was published, and if possible, what stories are in it. I have been trying to find a fairy tale book from when I was young which had things like Snow White and Rose Red; The Goose Girl; Little Tuck; Briar Rose and many other stories in it, but I can't remember the name.

Many thanks,
Gail Nelson