The old stories

Today I checked up on one of my favourite sites, The Enchanted Conversation, to which you can find a link under “Favourite Sites”.

In the quarterly contests for content for this site, writers are invited to submit stories and poetry around a specific fairy tale. One of the many things I love about Kate Wolford’s guidelines is the clear dictum “No Disney”. She’s interested in the original, un-prettied-up, unbowdlerized versions of the stories.

I love the old stories; they’re a trove of tropes, of archetypes and themes. I love, too, their clear-eyed understanding of human nature and their statement that evil things do happen. It’s when bad things happen that the heroes of these stories, be they knights and ladies or despised stepdaughters and youngest sons, can rise to the occasion and triumph over circumstances. The people who told these stories were familiar with the evils of cruel landlords, bad harvests, unexpected deaths, infertility and illness, poverty and starvation, as well as the impersonal and multiple hazards of nature.

Cinderella has no annoying squeaky mice to wash her floors; the little mermaid has no comic foil of a lobster. There are stories of sillies and fools, but they are quite separate from the quest tales that take a stepdaughter from the hearth to the palace or a third son from poverty to wealth.

In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty asks, “Are you going to eat me?”, and the Beast replies bitterly, “I told your father I would not, but the word of a Beast is worthless.” The Beast is expected to be evil; it his gentleness and honour, belying his form, that win Beauty to love him, but the expectation of evil has to be there for the story to make sense.

The old stories preserve the old mores, and when we “update” them with political correctness, we do our history a disservice. Kate Wolford is looking for new interpretations, new tellings, even, perhaps, reversals of the old stories, but she wants her writers to know what they’re messing with before they mess with it.

Read the old stories – the fairy tales, the myths and, yes, the Bible, which contains so many metaphors and images that still resound in our literature. Rewrite them if you will, change them, flip them on their heads, find new heroes and new villains, toss them up in the air like runestones and see how they land.

Ignore them at your peril.

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