Fairytales of love

12 01 2011

When I was pregnant I vowed never to show my children certain films or read them certain fables—Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were at the top of that list. This was simply because I never wanted them to overly romanticise love, marriage, or consider waiting “forever” for some prince to come rescue them. I also was extremely uncomfortable with the fact that all of these tales featured dead mothers and wicked step-mothers (I have recently learned that the second part of the non-Disneyfied version of Sleeping Beauty actually features a cannibalistic mother-in-law who attempts to eat all of Sleeping Beauty’s children—as if she hadn’t suffered enough from her 100 year coma!)

Still, by the time Philomena had turned 4, she had the three book versions of the stories above and had seen Sleeping Beauty a dozen times over (actually, I am embarrassed to confess just how many times she’s seen the film). So while I didn’t appreciate the lesson being taught by the fable, i.e. that with patience and through passivity, every woman’s prince would come to her rescue and marry her, or that a woman is somehow incomplete without a man, or that a woman should not dare to be curious (curiosity, represented by the spindle in which S.B. pricks her finger, led to her terrible fate), I still exposed her to it in all its glory. Upon lots of pleading, I even bought her a Sleeping Beauty dress and matching crown.

Anyway, as you might suspect, P has taken to love this story so much that we re-enact it regularly at home.

One day, P was so set on the idea that her father would play the role of “prince,” despite the fact that he had not yet come home from the office, that she lay herself down on the floor of our kitchen for 30 minutes (I kid you not!) and patiently waited until her father came home to waken her with a magic kiss. Dressed in her Sleeping Beauty gown, a pillow under her head and hands folded over her belly, she perched her lips and just waited and waited and waited for what probably felt like 100 years to her little 4 year-old self.

I tried everything to convince her to get up off the floor (it was late, we needed to eat, have a bath and get to sleep) but  she refused to EVER get up until the prince arrived. I was, of course, incredibly relieved when he finally walked through the door.

And even more overjoyed that he knew to kiss her immediately. With a gleaming smile from ear to ear, Philomena stretched out her arms to greet him and quickly pronounced them “married.” Moments later, she led her prince down the make-believe grand staircase of her castle to dance the waltz, which she hummed as loudly as possible. I, in the role of her mother, the Queen, was commanded to cry with happiness while watching them dance.

It was just about the sweetest thing in the world to observe my 4-year old wait so patiently to be kissed, held and danced with by her father-prince. But I was also unsettled by the fact that we were all celebrating the fact that my child was being influenced by 16th century values, passed down in story form by peasants around a campfire 4 centuries ago, knowing full well that these violent stories were embraced at a time when society was extremely sexually-repressed and dominated by religious conflict.

A while back I read ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ by Bruno Bettelheim to get a better understanding of the value of such fairy tales–it was actually the reading of this book that made me lighten up a bit about exposing my children to all these old methods of story telling. Bettelheim won the US Critic’s Choice Prize (1976) and the National Book Award for Contemporary Thought (1977) for his analysis and support of these fairy tales, which he believed ultimately helped children to deal with their own inner darkness, fear of abandonment and sense of purpose–his logic was framed in terms of Freudian psychology. All in all, what I took away most from Bettelheim’s book was his message that a parent should not to alter or offer explanations of the plot or characters of the fables. He believed that children would come away after each reading of the fable with a deeper understanding of them; to soften or alter the stories could potentially cause more confusion and harm to the child.

Charles Perrault, who first published ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ in 1697, made some changes to the century old fable to appeal to the aristocracy of Louis XIV by making the characters more opulent, but he made sure to leave  the original fable to speak for itself. Well I read Perrault’s story today and was amazed to discover that I had been completely wrong about my understanding of the story. It was actually good old Walt Disney, who altered the fable in the 50s, pumping some 6 million dollars into its adaptation, which was VERY different from the original story, as an attempt to expel his own Christian narrative and patriarchal values.

How ironic is it that I find the original fable easier to embrace than the one updated in the 1950s—the version embraced by my parents generation?!  How ironic is it that those 16th Century peasants weren’t nearly as sexually repressed as Disney?!

Perrault’s original text  actually tells a story of a prince, who waited 100 years for the love of a princess. It tells of an extremely devoted and emotional man who was “more at a loss than she.”  It tells a story of a marriage sealed in secret, unbeknownst to the King and Queen, and of sleepless nights of divine love-making. It tells the story of a son afraid of his strong and powerful mother who eventually begins to suspect that he is married and reacts with jealousy and vengeance.  Lastly, it tells the story of a humble servant who stands up to the angry Queen to protect the love between the prince, the princess and their children.

This is much more my kind of story.

See for yourself below:

“At last he came into a chamber all gilded with gold, where he saw upon a bed, the curtains of which were all open, the finest sight was ever beheld — a princess, who appeared to be about fifteen or sixteen years of age, and whose bright and, in a manner, resplendent beauty, had somewhat in it divine. He approached with trembling and admiration, and fell down before her upon his knees. And now, as the enchantment was at an end, the princess awaked, and looking on him with eyes more tender than the first view might seem to admit of. “Is it you, my prince?” said she to him. “You have waited a long while.” The prince, charmed with these words, and much more with the manner in which they were spoken, knew not how to show his joy and gratitude; he assured her that he loved her better than he did himself; their discourse was not well connected, they did weep more than talk, little eloquence, a great deal of love. He was more at a loss than she.”

…after supper, without losing any time, the lord almoner married them in the chapel of the castle, and the chief lady of honor drew the curtains. They had but very little sleep.

…the prince left her next morning to return to the city, where his father must needs have been in pain for him. The prince told him that he lost his way in the forest as he was hunting.

The king, his father, who was a good man, believed him; but his mother could not be persuaded it was true; and she began to suspect that he was married…

The queen spoke several times to her son, to inform herself after what manner he did pass his time, and that in this he ought in duty to satisfy her. But he never dared to trust her with his secret; he feared her, though he loved her, for she was of the race of the ogres, and the king would never have married her had it not been for her vast riches; it was even whispered about the court that she had ogreish inclinations, and that, whenever she saw little children passing by, she had all the difficulty in the world to avoid falling upon them. And so the prince would never tell her one word.

But when the king was dead, which happened about two years afterward, and he saw himself lord and master, he openly declared his marriage; and he went in great ceremony to conduct his queen to the palace. They made a magnificent entry into the capital city, she riding between her two children….

for the complete story see: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0410.html#nights



3 responses

12 01 2011

Wow……..what a discovery……now you can tell Philomena the original story!!!! You are a great story teller…..maryann

25 01 2011
anita bleyleben

Wonderful. I am glad Bettelheim was of help.

27 01 2011
Christian Kostner

Love it! And love your way of thinking about it. xx

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