When I was writing my second album, I started to notice that each song had a character that was stuck in situation.
Over time, I started to see them as representatives of ‘reality’, lost in a strange world, trying to find their way out. As it happened, many of these situations ended up with themes that came from fairy tales or myths. This was unintentional but as time went on I started to see how these themes repeat themselves again and again in stories, legends, movies, comic books, video games…Then I read a bunch of books and realised I was not the first person to notice this.
Everybody loves a good quest – whether it’s to wake up a sleeping princess, save a princess from a tower, make it to the ball, or blow up a Death Star with your secret princess twin. In case you should ever find yourself in the middle of a fairytale quest, here are a few cast-iron rules to help you make it through the other side.
Remember, in testing times, only the virtuous survive.
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1. Don’t Stray From the Path
In Angela Carter’s film, ‘In the Company of Wolves’, inhabitants of a village by a wolf-infested forest live literally by this rule. Stray from the path, and you might find yourself lost to a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle (Ms. Carter was not an Oasis fan). Other tellings of Red Riding Hood belie a similar moral – don’t talk to strangers, do as you’re told, beware the unknown. You might say of course, that only once she strays from the path does Red Riding Hood begins the journey of self-discovery that leads to experience.
Hansel and Gretel are other famous forest protagonists, but rather than deliberately deviating from the path, they are lost once a bird makes away with the breadcrumbs that should lead them home. Carter, ever the subverter of fairy tales, puts their destiny back in their own hands in her short story, Penetrating into the Heart of the Forest. In this, a brother and sister break the forest boundaries set by their migrant society, and must face the consequences when they find a magic tree that mirrors both the witch’s gingerbread house and Eden’s Tree of Knowledge.
2. Virginity! Keep it.
“Sex equals death,” says Scream’s uber-nerd Randy Palmer, when trying to explain his survival in the first film, “I’ve never been so glad to be a virgin.”
Randy, who eventually dies after a little college-age messing around, is of course describing a tradition that dates much earlier than the slasher movie genre. In classical times, virginity was power. A woman who dedicated herself to chastity, or in service to the gods, freed herself of the social obligation to be married and bear children. In Christian tradition, martyrs were sainted for choosing the love of the heavenly bridegroom over physical love, seen as tainted by the sin of the flesh. Saints’ lives often overlapped with and wove themselves into fairy-tales – St Dymphna, patron saint of the insane, became the inspiration for popular 17th century story Donkeyskin. Both Dymphna and Donkeyskin are rewarded for resisting the advances of amorous fathers – Dymphna by martyrdom and Donkeyskin by marriage to a true king.
Meanwhile, Guerino, of the 14th century Italian legend Guerino Il Meschino, is freed from the grip of a monstrous subterranean Sybil, when he turns down her sexual advances. The Christian subtext here is glaring – the Sybil represents heathen Italy, with its classical cast of gods and creatures, and in some stories took to a cave after discovering that she would not be the bearer of the son of God.
3. Appearances can be deceiving
Constantly exhausting rule – nice little old ladies with apples turn out to be evil sexy queens, grubby peasant women turn out to be magic wielding fairies. Best thing to do is stick to the missives of charity, be kind, and smell everything before you eat it.
Also, if your girlfriend happens to be mute, there’s a strong possibility she’s in the middle of a spell or has done a deal with a sea witch. Especially if you found her washed up on the shore or in a forest while you were hunting. Give it seven years and she might start talking, and – if you happen to be the king in the story Seven Swans – please don’t try and burn her at the stake before the seven years is up.
4. Don’t make bad deals
This one’s for the parents. If you want to prevent a fairy tale quest before it happens – don’t make a deal with the devil. You wouldn’t think it needs saying, but it does. In the Grimms’ Maiden Without Hands, a miller offers his daughter to the Devil in return for wealth. When the Devil comes to claim his bride, he finds her hands clean and without sin, and has to force the father to cut them off. However, she weeps on her stumps so they become clean, and the Devil admits defeat. This has yet to be made into a Disney film.
One bad deal that has made it into the Disney cannon is the one made by Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast. In most versions, the deal is a mistake, made after Papa Beauty is caught stealing a rose for this daughter, but our friend Angela Carter rewrote it so he lost his daughter at cards.
Included in this could well be ‘Be careful what you wish for’, as Jennnifer Connolly discovered in Labyrinth. When she finds her baby brother playing with her teddy, she wishes for him to be carried away by goblins, only to be forced into approximately 1.5 hours of navigating a particularly tricky cast of Muppets. Upside: she meets David Bowie.
5. Keep your promises
Adam’s wife Eve, and her Greek cousin Pandora are famous examples of what happens when you break a promise. Another curious lady is Bluebeard’s wife, who disobeys her fancy French husband and – some might say fortuitously – finds his secret bondage room full of dead wives. The Bluebeard moral is somewhat ambiguous – would he have killed her anyway if she hadn’t disobeyed? “I have to kill you because you lied…” is a little too close to “I only hit you because I love you so much.” Anyway, who cares when your fearsome hunter brothers happen to be at hand with weapons etc.
Fairytale literature is also littered with inexplicable curses, usually involving tricky sub-clauses with more traps than the woods behind Sandringham. With this in mind, if you have married an invisible man who only comes out at night, and he makes you promise not to turn the light on when he visits, do what he tells you. Otherwise, like Psyche in the proto-fairytale Cupid and Psyche, and the heroine of Norweigan fable East of the Sun and West of the Moon, you will find yourself on your Bridget Jones, trying to win back a handsome but enchanted husband.
Keeping a promise is often a symbol of redemption, as morally casual Aladdin finds out in Disney’s version of his story, when he frees the Genie instead of using his third wish for his own ends.
6. Smash the patriarchy, embrace womanity
Many a fairy tale adventure begins with a simple action: a refusal from a daughter. Women were low on power when these stories were being formed, but they did have a duty to uphold their Christian virtue, especially in regards to marriage. In the fairytale universe, where mothers are usually dead and stepmothers are mostly part ogre, the father is often useless, greedy or crazed with incestuous desire. In these situations, he will often be on the brink of forcing his daughter into some unsavoury union when she rises up and kick starts the story’s events.
While the generation above the protagonist gamble, die and disappoint, an elderly woman in a quest is a socially mobile person of mystery. Is she a fairy godmother? A powerful witch in disguise? It is for her to know and the heroine to find out. One thing is for sure, whether it is an old peasant offering a solution in E. Of the Sun & W. of the Moon, or Cinderella’s godmother singing ‘Bobbledy Bobbledy Boo’, an old lady in a fairy tale is a true force to be reckoned with, and has been thought to represent the wise Queen of Sheba, Mother Goose, the Sybil, and Jesus’ grandmother – St Anne.
7. Stepmothers – I know, right?
If your father, the king, gets remarried, start making sandwiches – you’re going on an adventure.
The fairytales that we know best have been laundered and stripped free of their most gruesome aspects. Many children, weirdly, haven’t read the French telling of Sleeping Beauty, from Charles Perrault in 1697, with its second act involving a cannibal stepmother and her attempts to turn Beauty and her children into dinner. What they will know is the familial politics that leads to Cinderella’s enslavement at the hands of an insecure and greedy stepmother, and Snow White’s banishment at her envious, ageing stepmother. The Grimms contributed to this homogenised story type when, unable to reconcile themselves with existing plots that involved wicked mothers, they re-wrote them to keep ideals of maternal love intact. Cultural theorist Marina Warner says, “On the whole, they tended towards sparing the father’s villainy and substituting another wife for the natural mother.”
Bruno Bettelheim hypothesised that the stepmother character was really the shadow side of the good and virtuous mother.
8. Do the right thing
Luke used the force, but if you don’t have access to Jedi mythology, the best thing to do is to follow your moral compass, and hope that fate will reward you. If your moral compass is set to the right dial, this should involve staying faithful to true love (the Little Mermaid), not giving in to pride or greed (Icarus), and adhering to Christian principles of neighbourly behaviour. In Diamonds and Toads, a young woman mirrors Jesus’ parable of the woman at the well, when, at a well, she meets and is kind to a beggar woman. When the beggar woman is revealed to be a powerful fairy, an endless stream of diamonds and pearls, which fall from her lips whenever she speaks, rewards kindness. I’d rather take a cheque.
It’s also worth mentioning the one thing we tell children and people interviewing for jobs: Just be yourself. When a fairytale adventure spins out of control, the best thing is to remember who you are and hope your straightforwardness leads you back to reality. And, as a last resort: ‘believe’. In stories from the Neverending Story to the stage version of Peter Pan, when all is lost, a happy ending can be gained from the simple existence of a child’s belief in magic.
9. Don’t eat the fairy food
In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a young girl battles to save her parents from a spirit world, after they partake in an enchanted feast, and are transformed into pigs for their gluttony. The concept of forbidden food is as old as folklore. It was said that you could return from the land of the fairies only if you did not eat while you were there. This mirrors the myth of Persephone, wife of Hades, who spends a month of the year in hell for every pomegranate seed she ate there.
If you are in the midst of an adventure, all food is to be treated with suspicion. Alice learned her lessons in Wonderland, where anything labeled ‘Eat me’, or ‘Drink me’ leads to mind-altering disaster. Meanwhile, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel’s mother discover at great cost what it means to steal from a witch.
The rule about fairy food could come from the belief that you cannot escape what you know too much of. Orpheus, so close to freeing his wife from death, loses it all when he turns around to take one last look at the Underworld.
10. Pucker up
Boys, you know the drill. You encounter a sleeping princess, or fall in love with a dead girl in a glass box in the woods: limber up, lean over, kiss her. Morrissey should have taken note, and Eric from Disney’s Little Mermaid wastes a good 90 minutes of everyone’s time, when he fails to understand crab language and follow Sebastian’s instruction to ‘Kiss the Girl’.
Meanwhile, ladies, if you meet a talking frog – just go for it. No one will know if it doesn’t work out.
Emmy adds –
Most of this information was lifted straight from ‘From The Beast to The Blonde’ by Marina Warner
‘Virtue’ is out on June 13th