The Cap’n and I are notorious junkies for J.K. Rowling’s books. We were hooked on the Harry Potter series for its language, character development, and subtly unfolding plots (sometimes over several volumes). While we haven’t donned robes on Purim and walked around waving branches pulled from trees, the Cap’n did take a day and a half off from work last year so we could curl up on the couch while the kids were in gan and read the entire seventh book aloud to each other.
Although Harry Potter’s story is finished and the great battle of Good v. Evil is over, Rowling decided to publish another book late last year entitled The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of stories from the wizarding world used by Hermione to piece together part of the mystery in the seventh book. Rowling includes an introduction explaining the stories and their context in the wizarding world, including how they contrast with Muggle (non-magical) fairy tales. Imagine my surprise and delight when reading Rowling’s introduction when I saw the following:
Another notable difference between these fables and their Muggle counterparts is that Beedle’s witches are much more active in seeking their fortunes than our fairy-tale heroines. Asha, Altheda, Amata and Babbitty Rabbitty are all witches who take their fate into their own hands, rather than taking a prolonged nap or waiting for someone to return a lost shoe.
As a parent of three daughters, I take seriously the role of teaching my girls about their many choices in life, their great potential for accomplishment, and laying a firm foundation for their good self esteem. I endeavor to teach them proper hygiene and grooming without overemphasizing beauty; I want them to believe in the importance of knowledge and wisdom, without neglecting the virtue of kindness; and I want them to understand that their ability to make good choices is the greatest determiner of their fates, not the choices of others.
As most parents know, the best-laid plans can sometimes be thwarted by outside forces. My great efforts notwithstanding, my girls have fallen for the lure of the Disney sluts princesses. I have made sure they have all of the fairy tales in lavish color and (very nearly) the original text, which is much more complicated and raw in its portrayal of emotion and intrigue than the syrupy, seductive Disney-fied versions. But given a choice, the girls will often lean toward wanting to hear the Hollywood versions which present the female protagonists as empty-headed, warbling, biologically accommodating dolls and the antagonists as warty, senselessly scheming stepmothers. My only option as the reader/mother/teacher/feminist in these situations is to consent occasionally to read the Disney versions, stopping to ask pointed questions, critique, or gloss my own personal commentary into the reading of the stories. For example, is there any evidence that Princess Jasmine is a nice person when the first thing the reader sees her do is sic her pet tiger on a potential suitor? What can the Little Mermaid have been thinking to give up her life as a princess under the sea and become a mute mannekin in love with a fickle prince who doesn’t even know who she is? And if Snow White is really in her late teens (as Disney portrays her), why does she defy the dwarfs’ warnings and keep answering to the door when the Wicked Queen comes selling poisoned Amway?
The thing that needles me the most about these stories is the way evil in the world is never explained except by some people just being that way. Villains are nearly always women motivated by vanity or envy. Victims are nearly always girls whose beauty arouses the ire of the villains (who themselves are former beauties past their prime.) Men are either enchanted, weak-willed, or dead, or else show up in the last scene to steal away the princess. Even in the original tales, which are much more complex and layered, the girl protagonist is still a pawn of other people’s actions, and in most cases must await rescue by a male.
I have never been very comfortable with the idea of rewriting traditional fairy tales. It feels phony to me to switch male for female and vice versa to give the weak strength (which can only be found in testosterone), give characters powers they never had in the original stories, or make villains repent when they were really left for dead.
To write new stories, though, is refreshing. Robert N. Munsch and Michael Martchenko did this when they published The Paper Bag Princess, where a dragon lays waste to the princess’s castle and carries off her intended, leading her on a quest for justice which requires wit, pluck, and a familiarity with dragons and their weaknesses. Another picture book with amusing, competent female characters is Three Strong Women: A Tall Tale of Japan by Claus Stamm and Sandra Tseng. A few years ago, I discovered a book of fairy tales entitled Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales which features girls and young women who go out into the world and make things happen rather than staying home and waiting for other people to do mean things to them. And perhaps the most surprising discovery I made was through my collecting of Arthurian tales, during which I picked up a copy of John Steinbeck’s (yes, THE John Steinbeck’s) The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, containing an astonishing account of a young knight named Ewain whose search for adventure begins in the usual way (meeting up with a woman at a well in a forest, of course), but ends quite unexpectedly. Instead of leading him to save a maiden or kill an ogre, the old woman leads him off to train him in the arts of knighthood. Here is part of their conversation upon meeting:
“Have you known a young and untried knight to ride away and in a year return as tempered as a sword, as sure and deadly as an ashen spear?”
“Why yes, I have. Last year Sir Eglan, whom even I could best, returned to win the prize at a tournament.”
She laughed with pleasure. “Did he now? A good boy. One of the best I have handled.”
“He never mentioned you.”
“Well, how could he? What man in this man’s world would admit he got his manners from a woman? I did not need an oath from any of my knights.”
And now Rowling has done a similar job with several of the stories in Beedle the Bard, where friendship and compassion heal, deception and foolishness are punished, and women are not the stupid Playboy bunnies of the film industry and its commercial franchises.
I know it will be years before I can escape having to read the horrid, syrupy versions of fairy tales that have captivated my children. But at least now I have something with which to cleanse my palate (and theirs).