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Fairy Tale Fest: Fairy Tales, Blood, and the Oral Tradition

2011 May 6

Guest post time again: regular reader Russell reminds us why Angela Carter should still be on your Essential Reading list, or if you’ve never read her, why you should start…

The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.

– Angela Carter, The Tiger’s Bride

Fairy tales weren’t always Disney cartoons. Once upon a time, they were part of an oral tradition passed down from mother to child, cautionary tales about the horrors that lurked in the woods, and the dangers of going off the path. They were much bloodier back then, much scarier, and with a lot more impact. Then along came the Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson, and other men who liked writing things down and only wrote down what they liked. The fairy tales got sillier from there, cautionary tales without any of the blood and violence that made them worth paying heed to in the first place. They only got worse with Disney (though some of us love Disney movies, occasionally even with good reason).

Photo by Flickr user bowbrick, shared under a Creative Commons licence.  A paper sign stuck on a window with blu-tack. The message reads, 'We have bought several thousand books from the library of Angela Carter. Please view inside.'Fortunately, it doesn’t end with a happily ever after. Modern authors have taken the sanitised narratives we were all told as kids, and twisted them, into something we recognise but appreciate in a very different way. They’re still the stories we know, but not only has the blood and gore reappeared, they’ve grown up in much the same way as our society has grown up. Rather than warning our children that they should stick to the route life’s prepared for them, walk the road to happy marriage and 2.4 kids, they instead encourag stepping away from the traditional routes, rebelling against authority, and reclaiming traditional feminine roles which are often painted in a negative light. Or they tell grown-up stories about characters traditionally relegated to the most sanitised view of childhood. There are countless modern fables which also play much the same roles as traditional folk tales, from the insanely popular wizard kids of Harry Potter to fables shrouded in mystery and played on a concept album.

Through all of this, there’s one book which, in my opinion, has succeeded in reclaiming stories once used to repress and control women (and by extension everyone else) to a far greater extent than any other: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. As Carter herself asserted, the stories therein are not simply updated or “adult” versions of the traditional stories (she really hated this idea). Rather, they build on the essence of the originals; not those set down by the likes of Perrault, but the original stories, those told in the oral tradition. From a linguistic or anthropological point of view, it’s a fascinating experiment: how would those stories have evolved and changed over the years if the game of Chinese whispers that is oral storytelling hadn’t been brought to a stop?

The result, updated versions of Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast (twice), Puss In Boots, Snow White (kinda), Red Riding Hood (two or three times), plus a vampire story and a sort of
Red Riding Hood/Alice Through The Looking Glass amalgam, is a brilliantly charged piece of work. Charged emotionally, through our strongly forged connection to these stories; charged sexually, through the transition of the stories from cautionary tales to fables of teenage awakening; and crammed with ideas and themes, many of which it’s fair to say would be beyond the young minds to which these stories were once told. Instead of telling children how to behave themselves, they tell adults how not to behave themselves.

As I mentioned above, the traditional versions of these stories are very often about staying “on the path”, the course society sets for an individual based on their gender and circumstances. Nowhere is this more evident than in the traditional Red Riding Hood story; a little girl follows a shortcut through the woods, deviating from the way she’s been told to go, and as a result she and a matriarchal figure are murdered by a vicious beast, or rescued by a male hero who is otherwise absent from the story. In Carter’s versions, the little girl leaves the path, and the rewards, while terrifying, are great. In The Company of Wolves, the wolf becomes an image of feral sexuality, with the adolescent Red Riding Hood sleeping with him at the end. In The Werewolf, Granny herself is the wolf; a certain metaphor for how traditional ideas of the feminine role are monstrous – Red Riding Hood kills her, and inherits all her stuff. In Wolf Alice, which merges a variant of the story with elements of Through The Looking Glass, the titular character emerges from a feral childhood, not into the socialised womanhood which the nuns taking care of her demand, but instead redeeming the vampiric Duke in whose care she is left by the power of her sexual awakening.

Sexual power is a primary theme in many of the stories. Carter refutes the view of female sexuality as passive and submissive; such sex is presented as a sterile, pleasureless experience. The titular story, and also the longest, goes into this in detail with a version of the Bluebeard story set in the 1930s. The narrator, also the heroine, marries the familiar murderer. Rather than merely dying, as in some versions of the fairy tale, or being rescued by a male saviour, it is her mother, a badass world-travelling tiger hunter, who comes to the rescue. The “saviour male” is replaced with a blind piano tuner who ultimately becomes the heroine’s lover, taking the sexual emphasis away from the visual with which Bluebeard is so obsessed, and placing it firmly where it belongs: in the realm of the sensual.

Photo by Flickr user saraicat, shared under a Creative Commons licence, showing a black indoor wall with red lettering on it spelling out 'Nothing is a matter of life and death except life and death - Angela Carter, 1991'For Carter, the beasts are not terrifying, but liberating; in one of her takes on Beauty and the Beast, The Tiger’s Bride, Beauty herself becomes a beast, instead of bringing the Beast back to humanity. I have to say this is probably my favourite story in the collection, with its beautiful emphasis on primal power and strength rather than civilised control. Beauty is at first an object, a thing given to the Beast to repay a gambling debt. It’s through her own acknowledgement and understanding of her bestial side that she claims freedom, and achieves her transformation, which in a reversal of the traditional fairy tale beast transformation is not a horrifying punishment, but a liberating reward.

In many ways, these stories aren’t for children. They’re complex narratives which many adults would struggle with. On the other hand, these stories, which challenge the expected ideas and cautionary tales of behaving like good girls and boys, are in a way exactly what we should be telling our kids: there are terrible things out there, and some of them are you. It’s no longer worth staying on the path. It’s time to explore the woods.

New to Carter? Other things to try:

  • The Company of Wolves was turned into a film, although it’s more based on Carter’s radio version of the story. Contains more fairy tales, and is a better werewolf movie than some recent films.
  • For more Angela Carter, there’s The Magic Toyshop
  • For more modified, subversive fairy tales, you could do worse than check out Neil Gaiman. His short story Snow, Glass, Apples, which is available in Smoke and Mirrors, recasts Snow White as a vampire. He’s also tackled a number of other fairy tales from various cultures in his numerous different works, and written a few fables of his own that aren’t too far removed.

In his time, Russell has worked both on and off stage in theatre, and is currently working on the fringes of the legal profession. In his spare time, he can usually be found hanging round the comments on BadRep like a bad smell.
<---- his words, not ours! ;)

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Daniel Koczy permalink
    May 7, 2011

    Thanks for this Russel – makes me want to read them again.

  2. May 7, 2011

    I’m turned off these works by the suggestion that her takes on Little Red Riding Hood hit one of my pet peeves in reworkings of that tale – I’ve long felt an affinity to LRRH as a survivor(sometimes) of this thing that happens to her, and as much as I dislike the traditional ‘dyes unless she is rescued by a woodcutter’ take, I have special distaste for the sexualisation of the character because that reads like a sexualisation of rape victims, particularly young girls.

    Long story short: if there’s anything I dislike more that woodcutters rescuing LRRH, it’s anything that implies her abuse was consensual.

    • Rob permalink
      May 8, 2011

      It is not entirely fair, I think, to cast RRH as either a character who has things happen to her or as a survivor of abuse.
      In the earliest surviving versions of the tale there was no woodsman, she escaped by her own cunning, using trickery to get past the big bad wolf and back on the path of life. These, and related variants make it not a cautionary tale of “don’t go into the dark; bestial masculinity will have you,” and more a tale of adolesence. The mother sends the maiden into the woods of uncertainty to meet the crone. On the way she confronts sexuality and overcomes it by escaping the wolf. Arguably the earliest forms of the LRRH tale are coming of age stories.

      • Miranda permalink*
        May 8, 2011

        Yes, I think the whole point about fairy tales is that they can take a whole lot of spinning and respinning, interpreting and reinterpreting. I’d not actually considered the mother-maiden-crone motif! I like that.

    • Russell permalink
      May 8, 2011

      I think Rob and Miranda have done a good job of defending the idea of reworking, but to come to the defence of Carter, in the first instance if her “abuse” is consensual then it’s not really abuse, it’s consensual sexual relations, which I think everyone is (or should be) fine with. The counter-argument is of course that LRRH is normally presented as being a child, or underage, but in the case of both Carter’s versions that more strictly adhere to the traditional story, she’s presented as virginal but adult. There’s increasingly a dichotomy between Red Riding Hood and her Little sister.

      “Wolf Alice” does deal with a younger girl, but it’s a very complex story that’s only very loosely based on Red Riding Hood (or Alice Through The Looking Glass, for that matter) at all. Nevertheless, I feel that Carter does deal with the issues sensitively and appropriately, and uses the vampire/werewolf dichotomy quite well to create a vision of two kinds of sexuality.

      There’s no getting around the fact that there’s a lot of sex in Carter’s versions. But as I tried to say in my last paragraph, without being built around the notion of “adult” versions of traditional fairy stories, these aren’t stories for kids. That’s not because of the sex but rather because of the complexity, which requires a level of maturity to properly appreciate, in my opinion. It’s great that it’s a book still being taught to A Level students, as they’re the sort who will have both the maturity to appreciate the layered meanings and linguistic subtlety, and the youth to appreciate the message.

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