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Fairytale Friday: The Problem of Good and Evil

December 13th, 2013

More musings from the editing table:

Fairytales would be nothing without evil: the dragon, the curse, the step mom or the wicked witch, there must be something there for good to battle. But what does evil want? In the older tales the motivations are often obvious, especially if read within the context of their time: evil wants to rule the household (step-mothers and mothers in law), evil wants revenge for insult (wicked faeries of various kinds), evil wants to marry well (sisters), evil is hungry (wolf). But in our modern days, such pragmatic reasons are not enough. We no longer believe that people are just “born bad”, and we have also discovered psychology. Thus comes all the new stories that aim to explain – and redeem – evil:

Hungry wolf
Red Riding Hood by Manuhel

In the Snow White-novel Fairest of Them All by Serena Valentino, it is a childhood trauma (my father didn’t love me) and the king’s evil cousins that persuades the queen to do bad things (where did their evil come from? did they have a traumatic childhood too?). In Once Upon a Time; Regina lost the love of her life and is therefore emotionally wrecked. In Snow White and the Huntsman the Queen lost her land, and I am fairly certain we’ll get a good explanation for Maleficent’s behavior too, in the upcoming Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

I cannot help though, but think that many of these constructs try to mask – or explain away – the villain’s hunger for power.  And it’s interesting in this context that so many of the fairytale villains are female. Is power and femininity still water and mercury? Can we still not fathom that a beautiful woman wants to own her own land and rule her own castle? We would never ask that a conquering fairytale king explained his motivations, or masked his true intent with stories of lost love and childhood traumas – would we? Just to make things clear: I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the wicked ones get stories of their own, it’s the redemption part I have a problem with: the victimizing of strong characters.

Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen

If we accept that evil has its (culturally valid) reasons, one question still remains: if evil is allowed to be human and flawed, what about good? Is good allowed to be human – and flawed?

If the villains aren’t born bad, are the fairytale princesses born good? We do like to believe that we humans are born with a moral compass, and the fairytale princesses (especially the Disney versions) are idolized as icons of beauty and goodness. Back in the days however, especially in the Victorian era, fairytales were used as cautionary tales for little girls, and there was much emphasis on what the princesses did wrong (read: their fatal lack of obedience): Sleeping Beauty spun, though she had be warned not to. Red Riding Hood did not go straight to grandmother’s house. Bluebeard’s wife opened the door, and had she not she might very well have lived out her days as a most happy wife – never knowing that her husband was a serial killer.

Ad for Bluebeard’s Revenge shaving cream

Perrault writes at the end of his version of Bluebeard:

Curiosity, in spite of its charm,
Too often causes a great deal of harm.
A thousand new cases arise each day.
With due respect, ladies, the thrill is slight,
For as soon as you’re satisfied, it goes away,
And the price one pays is never right.

It’s no secret that in the Western world, women have been regarded as weak and easily tempted ever since that fatal apple of Eve – and fairytale princesses are obviously no exception to that rule… but does such “natural flaws” make them any less good?

The classic princesses have no power over their own destiny, so it’s hard to figure out what motivates them (if anything). Cinderella was reinstated to her proper place in society, Snow White too, but both had help or were moved by external forces. We can only assume that the weakness they’re displaying is a part of their inherent goodness, like their beauty and kindness (and ability to communicate with rodents and birds).

That Apple
Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach

All of this was probably much easier back in the days when the world was a simpler place: divided by the church into good and evil. No one ever asked why God was good and the devil was evil – it was all a part of this cosmic rivalry that we lowly humans could not comprehend anyway, so better just accept the truth as it was presented. Once we stopped to think, it all became very complicated… But so not in the fairytales, where time has moved very slowly and culturally inherited simplifications still abounds:

When we opened submissions for Black Apples we asked for new stories; stories that explored shades of grey (no, not those shades of grey). We wanted to see princesses who were not born with a stamp of goodness on their heart – yet we still received so many stories that were miles away from what we were asking for. The stories were grim, horrible even… but the princess was still good – trapped in dire circumstances, yes – but still so very good… and there is nothing new in that story… We were very puzzled at first, but eventually we just had to accept that the role of the fairytale princess is so defined, it’s not easy to let her go. Her particular kind of goodness too, is defined, and hard to reshape. (We did receive many, many stories that were spot on as well).

Snow White’s birthday party, complete with apples and mirror
Confetti Prints

I admit it; I love evil (that’s why I edit Black Apples). When I was a little girl however, I loved the princesses, and I have dozens of drawings to prove it. Then one day (I can still remember the scene; I sat by the kitchen table making yet another drawing), something in my head just “clicked” – and I suddenly saw the splendor of the evil queen. What I sensed, I think now, was the power: she was confident and strong – a ruler, and she was free, she did as she pleased — she might not get what she wanted, but she was brave enough to try. Also, my young self realized: without her, there would be no story – she was the mover and the shaker – and from that moment on, and for years, I found the princesses utterly dull and insignificant. I still loved their hair and dresses, though:

Pretty hair and dress
Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

In Black Apples we have gathered “grey stories”: fairytales that are not “safe” or predictable, where the princesses are sexual beings with conflicting emotions and ambitions beyond marriage – just like the villains… I think they are the perfect princesses for our time, reflecting a world that has become increasingly complex and without easy answers – tiny pieces in the great puzzle that makes up the next generation of fairytales.

 

Sources:

Tales of Faerie: The Issue of the “Moral” in Bluebeard

 

Camilla Bruce 2013 

2 Responses to “Fairytale Friday: The Problem of Good and Evil”

  1. Priscillia says:

    Hello ! I am kind of obsessed with the painting of charlise theron as the evil queen. Can you tell me who is the painter ? Thanks

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