Fairytales teach us to be bad?

This post was originally written on 4th December, 2009.

Illustration by Rui Tenreiro

Do you know the fairytales “Rumpelsiltskin” and “Clever Gretchen”? They have one thing in common: they teach us to be nasty, cunning and dishonest, if they teach.

In “Rumpelstiltskin”, a poor miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king then requests the girl to make gold out of a roomful of straw. If she fails to do so, she will be killed. Fortunately, the poor girl gets help from a little manikin. He spins the straw into gold for her, and in return she gives him her necklace. The next day, when the girl is put to the test by the king again, the little man offers help, just like the previous night; and this time the girl gives him her ring. But on the third night, when the girl is set to a similar task, she has nothing more to offer the little man. He suggests, ‘Then promise me, when you are queen, [you will give me] your first child.’ The girl is very distressed. Not having any other choices, she accepts the little man’s proposal. As predictable fairytales go, the humble girl in the story is elevated to queen. And one year later, she does give birth to a charming baby. It is payment time and the little man appears to claim his compensation. The queen is devastated. She wants to give the little man treasure instead of her child. But the little man says, ‘No, I would rather have a living creature than all the treasure in the world’. The queen weeps and wails and the little man, softhearted, gives the woman three days, ‘and if by that time you know what my name is, you shall keep your child’. Being a queen, the woman has manpower at her disposal. She sends out a messenger to investigate the little man’s name. It is as a queen, a lesser king, that she can be so resourceful. And on the second night, the messenger comes back with the information about a ‘funniest little man’ who sings (a cannibal song): ‘Today I’ll bake, tomorrow I’ll brew, / The next I’ll fetch the queen’s new child; / Still no one knows it just the same, / That Rumpelstiltskin is my name.’ The queen is delighted to hear this and when she sees the little man the next day, she says, ‘Might your name perhaps be Rumpelstiltskin?’ Indeed it is. And in his anger the little man accidentally tears himself ‘right down the middle into two’.
Illustration by Pietari Posti
The title character in “Clever Gretchen” is a wealthy lord’s daughter. The lord wants to wed his daughter and surely, he wants a worthy person to be his son-in-law. And his selection criterion is that the man ‘must be the best huntsman in the world’. A poor village boy, Hans, knows about this and he wants to marry Gretchen. But Hans is not good at hunting at all. He is just a silly country bumpkin who has no skills. Although he is a good boy, he is also ‘a bit simple’, as his mom says. However, Hans is optimistic and he believes in trying (good for him). He embarks on a journey to the castle to ask for Gretchen’s delicate hand. On his way, Hans meets a stranger who promises to make him the best huntsman in the world. The catch is that Hans has to sign a contract, which says that ‘after seven years Hans would go away with the stranger and be his servant, unless Hans could ask him a question he could not answer.’ Of course Hans gets the beautiful Gretchen in the end. Of course they live happily together. Of course the ‘villain’ returns after seven years. What to do? The beautiful and clever Gretchen thinks of a solution. She undresses herself and smears honey all over her body. She then rips open some pillows and has herself covered with feathers. There are obvious sexual overtones here — and notice it is the female body, malleable, that deceives and confounds. Hans asks the stranger, pointing at his wife, ‘What is it?’ The stranger squeezes his eyes and looks and looks; but he does not know an answer. ‘Hell and damnation!’ ‘I do not know what it is.’ Because the stranger cannot answer Hans’s question, Hans is free. ‘The stranger snorted like a goat, stamped the ground, and fled away over the fields and hills.” Hans and Gretchen live happily ever after.
What is the moral of stories like “Rumpelsiltskin” and “Clever Gretchen”? They teach us to be deceitful and manipulative; they teach us it is fine to break our promises. They teach us women — the queen and Gretchen — are capable of getting themselves (and their men) out of thorny situations, using their wit, power or body. (And the male characters? In “Rumpelsiltskin”, the father and the king are both despicable. In “Clever Gretchen”, the lord is shallow and Hans plain pedestrian, albeit cheerful and nice — positive qualities that most girls tend to admire.) Admittedly, one of the purposes of fairytales like these, for people in peasant cultures, was learn to be crafty and learn to survive, if you want to get along in the world. I understand the point of these stories wasn’t to make heroes and heroines, but to give your sons and daughters the knowledge that the world is not a nice place. Still, I can’t help but think there is something wrong about implicitly suggesting that being untruthful is acceptable.
Perhaps I am just angry with the little man in “Rumpelstiltskin” and the stranger in “Clever Gretchen” who are not proper villains. They are too nice to give the queen and Hans a second chance: ‘and if by that time you know what my name is…’ (“Rumpelstiltskin”) and ‘…unless Hans could ask him a question he could not answer’ (“Clever Gretchen”). In real life, bad people are not so foolish and benevolent, are they? They are more complicated, more three-dimensional. And are the little man and the stranger really ‘bad’? Don’t they provide a helping hand? Why should they be punished? Art sometimes does not imitate life. (?)
Don’t get me started with “Jack the Beanstalk” who lies and steals.
Tell me what you think about these stories. How do you read them? Do you have different interpretations? Change my mind.

ALSO read “So much depends on a pretty heroine”.

9 Responses “Fairytales teach us to be bad?” →
December 4, 2009
Fairy tales are not like regular stories. They are more like dreams and need to be understood symbolically. Jungian psychology has caught on to this and some Jungians have even written about this.

See “Shadow and evil in Fairy Tales” or “The Interpretation of Fairy Tales”, or “Feminine in Fairy Tales”, all by Marie-Luise von Franz the foremost student of C. G. Jung, with whom she worked closely from 1934 until his death in 1961. A founder of the C. G. Jung Institute of Zurich, she published widely on subjects including alchemy, dreams, fairy tales, personality types, and psychotherapy.
Kevin
December 4, 2009
Who are the villains? There’s none. Each person here is just trying to advance his/her own interests, like people in real life do. Don’t let that ‘black and white’ mentality get in the way.
I don’t think any person is being dishonest here and certainly no promise is broken. The parties knew well the terms and conditions before entering into the “deals”. To me, they all play by the mutually agreed rules. Rumpelstiltskin and the stranger have no one but themselves to blame for being outsmarted.
Mike
December 4, 2009
What if the dwarf isn’t a villain, and neither is the stranger? They are just opportunities in life for people to climb up? Or they’re tests to the characters? Just like a boss who sets a difficult task to you. A boss can be benevolent too.
And your title says “Fairy tales teach us to be bad”- Must fairy tales be didactic? Or it’s just there to reflect life? To make fun for the poor people and stir up imaginations a bit out of the daily hardship.
The Grimme brothers were bought up by their mother under difficult circumstances- so they tend to be fond of those tales in which women are more sophisticated? cunning? The women characters in the tales are just tricky but not really too deceitful. They have to do whatever they could do to survive and save their family. Are they that bad in this sense?
Haha. I don’t know what u’ll say about it. You’re free now? Congrats!
December 4, 2009
Completely agree with Mike. Plus, before being collected by Perrault, Grimm, Andersen & Co., fairytales came from popular, oral tradition, they’re very akin to myths, except that the religious dimension that was present in myths had just disappeared when the monsters and wonders and quests became fairytales or folk tales instead of myths… but it retained the very primal quality of early myths (the horrible early version of Red Ridinghood that appears in “Sandman”, with the wolf killing the grandmother, making the girl eat her grandmother’s flesh, and then just devouring the girl, has an gruesome insanity to it that makes me think of Cronos, the father of the Greek Gods, who was much into eating his own children)… Good and Evil are rational notions (or at least they should be; when they’re used irrationally, you’ve got things like the Inquisition), and storytelling has never had anything to do with rationality.
Gontran
December 4, 2009
And the people who tell us that fairytales are for children are liars or people who don’t understand it (although, of course, children ARE perfectly able to enjoy those tales)
Gontran
December 4, 2009
And I loooooooove the thing, on your website, with the snowflakes that shift directions when I move the mouse…
Yamabuki
December 4, 2009
Since Tammy asked for my understanding of these fairy tales, here is my interpretation of Rumpelsiltskin:
The story starts out with the Miller, the Miller’s daughter, and the King. None of them has a name, so they are symbolic rather than specific people.
The Miller is symbol of the Masculine family authority figure, The King is the symbol of the masculine Social authority figure. The daughter is symbolic of the Feminine in a subservient position to both of the Masculine figures.
The Miller tells the King that his daughter can turn straw into gold. This is magical creativity. And the greedy King puts the daughter to the test. She is locked in a room at night with straw and if it is not turned into gold, she dies. This shows how the feminine is held responsible for the lie of her father.
The first night Rumpelstiltskin appears and turns the straw into gold in return for her necklace. The second night he does it for her ring. The third night though she has nothing else to give, so she agrees to give Rumpelstiltskin her first born child.
The Necklace and Ring symbolize the daughter’s personal possessions as aspects of herself which by having been worn by her, have been infused with her being. Also both are round in form which is symbolic of the feminine. Rumpelstiltskin wants connection to the Feminine, but also wants her first born child when she has nothing else to give her. The child is the creative manifestation that comes from women.
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Then the king marries the daughter and she becomes queen. She has proved she has the magical creativity to be made queen. Now she has been transformed to a figure of feminine power. But then, when she has her first child, Rumpelstiltskin appears and demands his reward. When she offers to buy him off, he refuses, after all he can turn straw to gold, what need has he of riches.
He then changes the bargain. If she can guess his name, he will let her keep her child.
So who and what is Rumpelstiltskin? We know he is a small mankin, that he can transform straw to gold. It seems to me that he is the daughter’s inner masculine side. After all the stories main character is the daughter, and Rumpelstiltskin’s relationship is to her.
In Jungian Psychology there is the idea of the inner Feminine side in men, called the “Anima”, and the inner Masculine side in women, called the “Animus”.
This may seem like a strange idea, but if you consider that what makes a women feminine is to a large extent her hormones, especially Estrogen. And for men the same hold true of their masculinity being a function of Testosterone.
But Women also have Testosterone, and men have Estrogen as well. In old age when men and women go through menopause, women often take on characteristics of men, and vice versa because of the change in hormone levels. This does not prove the existence of the Anima and Animus I admit, but it is suggestive.
So with that in mind I believe that Rumpelstiltskin is the daughter’s Animus, her masculine side. The Animus in women, and the Anima in men tend to be in the unconscious, and usually only come out in dreams, times of stress, and any time when the primary mode of consciousness becomes overwhelmed.
This is what happens with the Miller’s daughter. She is locked in a room with the command to do the impossible, or she will die. This sounds pretty overwhelming to me. Then magically there appears this little man who can save her with his magical creativity.
The final part of the story concerns his name, Rumpelstiltskin. We as humans rely on names. In many magical traditions, to know the name of something is to have power over it. But knowing the true name of someone or something also implies having a deeper connection.
Thus Rumpelstiltskin needs for the daughter to find his true name so that he can be in good relationship with her. If she cannot get his name, then he will have power over her.
Men having power over women has been the pattern of patriarchal society for a long time. When his name is revealed, the spell of being dominant over the daughter is broken, and Rumpelstiltskin splits into two parts.
This is an interesting ending because it says to me that the Masculine has lost some power, but true equality has not been reached. I think for that to happen the creative power of Rumpelstiltskin has to be integrated into the Feminine.
I choose to interpret this story in a symbolic manner, like a dream or poetry. This does not mean other ways of seeing a fairy tale are invalid. It’s just my way of seeing fairy tales.
Jason
December 25, 2009
Tammy, yours is one of my favorite blogs. Keep up the good work.
Andrew
January 28, 2010
Hey there, I like this post. I also like how you always combine visual elements and texts.
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One thought on “Fairytales teach us to be bad?

  1. “Deep into that
    darkness peering,
    long I stood there
    wondering, fearing,
    Doubting,
    dreaming dreams
    no mortal ever dared
    to dream before”
    ~Poe

    Fairytales are for the daylight
    Ghost stories come from the night
    'Once upon a time' feels good
    'Now you're dead' brings up fright

    Young Girls and Boys
    Fairy tales they do cheer
    Loving so the light
    Their feelings so clear

    Half grown teens seek blood
    Sappy stories dim their eyes
    While Vampires pull them
    Out of cold boredom's Stys

    Shadows creeping through
    Always for them ringing true
    When homework pulls them
    Down to mind numbing blues

    So what are we to do
    When they stalk us in black
    Their eyes shaded too
    Creeping from us out the back

    Their plans to find fun
    Seeking to escape tedium
    Running from life's shackles
    Searching for death's freedom

    This Twilight they seek
    It's a game that they play
    To bring back the peak
    And shore up their day

    Night's dreams set them free
    From hard work they would flee
    Only Zombies and Vampires
    Will bring them relief.

    yamabuki

    Like

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