“If it’s raining, it’s always Billie Holiday.” There are so many things Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool, gets right. This is a story about navigation, first of all, and it begins with being lost. Everyone in this book has lost something or someone, and each in some way must find a way home.
Jack Baker is lost. His mother has died and his father’s soul seems to have died with her. His father cleans their Kansas home, throws out or donates her possessions and takes Jack to a boarding school in Maine. The first time Jack sees the ocean it is so overwhelming that he vomits. Perhaps Jack’s father, a naval captain, finds the vaguely military air of Morton Hill Academy comforting; after speaking with the Headmaster and finding Jack’s dorm room he remakes Jack’s bed and sorts his sock drawer as they unpack. An awkward goodbye “. . . that involved a salute and a handshake . . .” and the captain is gone. Jack is alone.
But Jack is not to be pitied. This is not one of those fish-out-of-water, milquetoast child makes good stories where the protagonist starts out bullied. Jack knows nothing about boats and can’t row like the other kids, but he does fit in well enough, and the Headmaster gets it right when he tells Jack, “. . . boys here at Morton Hill Academy are pretty much like kids anywhere. If you want to sit with a group in the lunchroom, they’ll probably let you. If you want to go off and sit by yourself, they’ll probably let you do that, too.”
Jack finds himself drawn to Early Auden: Early who tries to sandbag the ocean, Early who listens to Mozart on Sundays, Louis Armstrong on Mondays, who comes and goes from classes when he pleases, sorts jelly beans and reads the transcendental irrational number Pi, the ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle, like a story. Early, like Pi, is irrational and is transcendent. It is to Clare Vanderpool’s credit that she takes Early on his own terms as a person, that his limitations are clear and his strengths seem real. He’s here and she’s written him and never once used the word Autism or the word Asperger’s.
Pi’s story, the story of leaving his mother and finding himself despite losing all, or perhaps because of it, is a story that becomes both guide and metaphor for the journey that both Early and Jack take through the north woods of Maine. Confident Pi sets sail, leaving his childhood. He loses his ship, his way, nearly loses himself. Jack and Early, Jack’s father, Early’s brother, each of them is Pi, each of them is lost, each finds his way with the help of the others. Oddly, for a book in which mothers are largely absent, this is a book about the redemptive power of mother’s love.
Inevitably, a book in which the character Pi takes on a metaphoric life of its own invites comparison with The Life of Pi (and here) by Yann Martel. The Life of Pi, though, is a far more complex book, an extended, multilayered metaphor in and of itself, an examination of the role of religion, hope and belief. In Navigating Early, Pi is a metaphor; people are important.
This is not a perfect book. Loose ends are too neatly tied up at the very end of the book, for one, giving it a Deus-ex-Machina quality . . . but that’s only a quibble. This is a very good book, one worth reading and recommending.
Navigating Early is Clare Vanderpool’s second book. Her first book, Moon Over Manifest, won the 2011 Newbery Award.
I would like to thank Random House for an advanced reader’s copy.
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Tags: Children's Literature, Clare Vanderpool, Navigating Early, YA books
I really have to thank Sumner County, Tennessee for introducing me to the work of John Green. The Fault In Our Stars was published in January 2012 by Dutton Books . . . and I’m impressed. This is a romantic book, but not a Romance, and a book about hope, but not Hope.
The main characters in this novel are smart, thoughtful and well read, and trying to cope with death and debilitation on a personal, practical and immediate level; in a sense, they are practical philosophers. The main characters are sixteen year-olds with cancer and their families. Hazel Grace Lancaster is living with terminal metastatic CA of the thyroid, and meets a really hot boy at the awful cancer support group that her parents are forcing her to go to . . . Yep, all is in place for the formulaic Romance: it doesn’t happen that way. John Green is far more clear-eyed than that.
His characters don’t courageously fight cancer, they courageously live each day. They courageously live despite the fact that they live with the certainty or uncertainty of death.
Yes, we all face oblivion, we all face death, and we face the fact that we will not live our dreams. We face the certainty that we will someday be forgotten. But we don’t face these things with the reminders of missing eyes and limbs, with oxygen tanks and indwelling catheters, with daily pain, and with the knowledge that others don’t face the same immediacy, the same limited horizons. This knowledge, in John Green’s book, does not ennoble. His characters are real humans with real families, strengths and faults, and yet, most still have the courage to fall in love.
This is an honest book about love and living even when it hurts. Highly recommended.
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Tags: cancer, John Green
John Green‘s Looking for Alaska won the 2006 ALA Michael L. Prinz Award and was the 2005. School Library Journal’s Book of the Year. Sumner County Schools in Tennessee have just banned the book, considering a brief oral sex scene as too racy for the teen audience. They are not the first to do so: the book has been banned in schools in Knox County, Tennessee, and challenged in other places. I’m going to rant about that a bit, but then I want to examine why the scene is there and what would we miss in terms of plot, theme and character development if Mr. Green had decided to excise it. I promise to keep the rant even more brief than the scene in question. I’m not even going to rant about censorship; there are some things that are developmentally inappropriate for an age group and an adult’s responsibility is to let kids explore the literature that those children are ready for. I think censorship has little place beyond the freshman year of high school, but if someone wished to argue whether the line should be set at eighth grade or tenth I would listen respectfully and consider the material and the arguments.
My rant starts and ends with the condescending remark made by Sumner County School Board spokesman Jeremy Johnson saying that “…language or description that may make parents uncomfortable…” is OK if it’s done by a Steinbeck or a Hemingway, but not if it’s done by living author. OK, he didn’t say living author, but that’s the way I read it: if the author is someone he read in high school then we’re talking about someone of true stature and value. The ALA and the School Library Journal beg to differ. Check out John Green’s response to the challenge by a parent in the Depew County, NY school system.
Down to business. I won’t do a real or detailed summary of the book, but there are [SPOILERS], so be warned.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is the thin, gawky protagonist of the novel, and he decides to go to Culver Creek, his father’s boarding school, to follow the last words of Rabelais, “I go to seek a great Perhaps.” He falls in with a group of bright outcasts, pranksters in both the literal and, I think, Jungian sense. He, like the others in the group, falls in love with Alaska Young, and the book divides itself quite naturally into “before” and “after” Alaska’s death. The scene in question takes place the day before Alaska dies, and the context is important.
The group has just staged an elaborate and dangerous prank. They hide overnight in a barn, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and talk. They have an excruciatingly, beautifully honest game of “best day, worst day” in which they all share some of their most treasured and painful memories. Lara, the only other girl in the group of five, becomes Pudge’s “girlfriend,” and they spend the night chastely together in a sleeping bag. The next day, back in the dorm, Lara asks Pudge if he’s ever had a blow job. He’s startled and awkward, as is she. They start, but realize that neither of them understand the mechanics, so they get dressed and go ask Alaska how it’s done! After getting a lesson they complete the deed. There’s an awkward silence which Lara eventually ends with, “So, want to do some homework?” The only real sharing comes later, when Pudge tries to explain his fascination with people’s last words.
That evening Alaska dares Pudge to hook up with her. They make out.
We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.”
Mr. Green says that the oral sex scene is there to show the difference between sterile sexuality and communication, and cites the contrast between the scene with Lara and the following scene (between Pudge and Alaska). Honestly, I think the most intimate scene in the book is the scene before the oral sex scene, with the five kids sharing their best and worst days. Either way, the contrast is stark.
The scene is truly a masterpiece of character development, though. It shows Pudge as guarded and reserved, awkward, and Lara as reaching out and looking for a way to reach out to him. It shows the INCREDIBLE trust they both have in Alaska. They assume together and without discussion that she will know what the mechanics of oral sex are and that she’ll be willing to teach them, will not humiliate them and will not violate their trust. And they’re right.
Finally, structurally, the oral sex scene does several things. It establishes Alaska as the lynch-pin of their group, and therefore of their lives at Culver Creek. When she dies, they’ve lost their center. The scene also, set between best day/worst day and Pudge’s love scene with Alaska, gives the cause for the guilt and ambivalent feelings that drive Pudge away from Lara and prevent the two of them from finding solace and support from each other after Alaska’s death. Taken together, those three scenes give an emotional foundation to the drama of the second half of the book, and its resolution.
Wikipedia talks about a parent in Depew who supported the challenge against Looking For Alaska without reading the book, saying, ”One does not need to have cancer to diagnose cancer.” I have diagnosed cancer, and he’s right. But mindless censorship of any book with content that might make that man uncomfortable is cancer, too.
Filed under: General Thoughts, kidlit, Life, Literature | 1 Comment
Tags: banned books, Children's Literature, Looking for Alaska, School Library Journal, YA books
The Association for Psychoanalytic Thought presents
Let Down Your Hair
A presentation of Rapunzel by storyteller Omope Carter Daboiku
followed by discussion.
A professional teller of tales, Omope Carter Daboiku has been affiliated with the Ohio Arts Council as an Artist-in-Education since 1990. She was among the first artists chosen for the Cincinnati Arts Association’s“Artists On Tour” program and is a regular teller for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the Cincinnati Storytellers Guild. Her company, Homeside Cultural Programming, is included in the Cincinnati-based Association for the Advancement of Arts in Education catalog.
Rapunzel is a rich and layered story that has been told and retold for centuries. Don’t get Tangled in the many interpretations: come and participate. Join us as we try to understand why children and adults love this story.
And, yes. Jan and I are the discussants.
Filed under: Fairy Tales, kidlit | 1 Comment
A king was hunting in a great forest and became separated from his men and lost. He comes across an old woman and asks her for directions. She consents, but only if he will marry her beautiful daughter. The king, afraid, consents. When she meets the girl she is not surprised to see him. She is beautiful, but “he could not look at her without secretly shuddering.” He weds the girl.
The king had seven children by his previous wife: six boys and one girl. He loved them and he hid them from the stepmother in a secluded castle. The queen noticed his absences and bribed the servants to find out what was going on and how to find the children. She makes shirts for the children and sews a charm into each, then goes to their hiding place. The boys come out and as she throws a shirt over each of them they turn into swans and fly away. The girl had not come out with the boys and had seen what happened. When her father came she told him what had happened, but he did not believe that his wife had done the deed. The girl left and went to look for her brothers.
After a long day’s journey she found a small hut with six little beds and crawled under one of the beds to spend the night. The swans flew in through a window, blew the feathers off of one another and shed their swan skins to reveal her brothers. They could become human only a quarter of an hour each day. They warn her that she cannot stay in the hut, which is a robber’s den, and tell her that they cannot be redeemed, the conditions are too difficult. The sister must make six little shirts for them, sewn together from asters (or star flowers or gold or nettles or just plain thread) in six years, and cannot speak or laugh during that time. They turn back into swans and fly away. The girl resolves to free her brothers from the curse “even if it should cost her life.”
After a long time making shirts in a tree in the woods the girl is found by the king of the land who is out hunting. The huntsmen with the king try to get her. The girl thrown down her golden necklace to the men to satisfy them, then her belt, etc. down to her shift, but they climbed up and brought her down to the king. She remained silent. He fell in love with her and brought her back with him to the castle, where they were married a few days later.
The king’s mother opposed the marriage and when the girl, now queen, had a child a year later, the old woman stole the child while the queen was asleep and smeared the queen’s mouth with blood. She accused the queen of being a cannibal. The king did not believe the accusation and refused to allow the queen to be punished. A year later the same sequence of events happened, and again the queen remained silent, and again the king defended his wife.
A year later, after the third time, he could not. The queen was sentenced to be burned to death at the stake, six years to the day after she had set out to free her brothers. She had finished all but one arm of the sixth shirt.
As the queen was led to the stake the six swans came flying down from above. She threw the shirts over them and the swans transformed back into her brothers, save one arm on the youngest, which remained a swan’s wing.
The girl was able to tell of the treachery of the king’s mother who had stolen away the children and hidden them, and the mother was burned at the stake. The king, the queen and her brothers lived in happiness and peace.
This story has a great deal in common with others we’ve looked at . . . the mother-figures are hostile and even murderous and the fathers are unable to protect their children, though in this story the father seems to love and try to protect his six sons and daughter. The king tries to protect his wife, though we do not see him trying to protect the three stolen, possibly murdered, infants.
This is a story of filial love, devotion and sacrifice. The girl gives up all communication. In the face of humiliation and possible rape she does not speak or cry out. Faced with the king of the land asking her questions she does not answer. She does not speak during a wedding, nor does the talk with her new husband. She does not speak to her infants, and does not speak out to deny that she murdered and ate them. She does not speak to protest as she is being led to the stake to be burned alive. In this story, in contrast to so many other fairy tales, the girl is active. She makes the decisions.
Yes, there are the usual creepy fairy tale elements of a king who promises to marry someone he’s never met because he got lost, and another king who falls in love with a girl “as silent as a fish” because she’s pretty and has nice manners. Children disappear with no evidence of emotional turmoil on the part of the mother and the father. This is a popular fairy tale, though, and it must have some universal truth within it about the human condition or it would not have survived to be told and retold in so many forms.
Of the many versions of this story, some things are constant: the boys are all turned into birds or animals and the girl must remain silent while making them clothing for a long time, usually a year for each one, at peril of her life. She always succeeds, but there is usually some remnant of the bird or animal. The number of boys/birds does not seem important; as characters, they remain ciphers.
Let’s look at this irreducible core for a moment.
The active person in the story is the girl, and she goes from being a youngest sister, a little girl (for all the shirts the witch/step-mother made are little), to being a married woman, a queen, and bears three children of her own. But it’s hard to call this a coming of age story, since her marriage and her children come in the midst of her journey. The story is about her silence, her task and her pain. Hans Christian Andersen has her knitting nettles, and her pain is only assuaged by the tears of her youngest brother. Contrast this with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White: the death, the silence, the sleep that they experience is symbolic of the transition from child to adult. The protagonist here becomes an adult during her silence.
What about the boys? They really aren’t transformed in any sense other than physically. The first thing we hear from them is that they have given up hope, for the task their sister faces is too great. In most versions of the story we don’t see them again until the years have run their course. The most interesting things to consider about them: they ran headlong into the trap, they turned into swans, and they are almost completely turned back to humans.
I think that in trying to understand the deep and lasting appeal of this story, trying to find its heart, we should consider looking at the main characters as aspects of one person, and as symbolic pieces of one person’s struggle. Then we have the boys who rush headlong to greet the witch and are turned into swans as being representative of an animal nature, an id, an impulsive part of our nature. The girl’s struggle then is to bind that animal nature (with a shirt, something civilized and human). By abnegating her own urges to speak and to laugh, and by her industry in making the shirts she is able to (almost completely) bring that animal part of herself under control.
Why is the last shirt incomplete, the youngest brother’s arm still a swan’s wing? This is a masterful story-telling move, since it lends tension at the climax of the story: will the fact that the shirts are not all whole and complete mean that the enchantment won’t be ended, and that the girl will have failed?. But this could not be just a story-telling trope without some underlying reason that it rings true, and it does appear in almost all versions of the tale.
Have you ever met someone who seems just too dry and controlled, someone with no fire in the belly, someone whose mind has hospital corners? We are, after all, animals. If we are able to suppress our id, to bind our animal natures so completely that we cannot have those impulses then we cannot use those impulses to live a full and human life. We need to leave a wing free so that we remember to fly.
Filed under: Fairy Tales, What's it all mean | Leave a Comment
Tags: Brothers Grimm, Fairy Tales, Meaning of fairy tales, The Six Swans
As usual, I’ll start with a brief synopsis of this Brothers Grimm story, then go on and discuss it.
Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived in a filthy shack by the sea. The fisherman caught a flounder who spoke to him, claiming to be an enchanted prince and asking to be set free. The fisherman did so, saying, “. . . there’s no need to say more. I can certainly let a fish swim away who knows how to talk.” He put the fish back into the clear water and it swam to the bottom trailing blood behind it.
The fisherman went home and told his wife who told him he must go back and ask the fish for a little cottage. The man did not want to go, but did so because he did not want to oppose his wife.
When he arrived, the water was no longer clear but green and yellow. He called (invoked) the flounder. Various versions of the tale translate the invocation differently, and in some he uses a name, “Ilsabill,” for his wife. In all, he says that his wife wants what he does not.
The flounder comes and the man explains that his wife says he should have asked for something, and that his wife doesn’t want to live in a shack any more, she wants a cottage.
“Go home,” said the flounder. “She already has it.”
The man went home and his wife was waiting for him in front of the cottage, which was furnished nicely and had a yard and a garden and chickens and ducks. The wife seems happy and the man says “This is quite enough. We can live here quite well.” Ominously, his wife answers, “We will think about that.”
All went well for a week or two, then the woman was not happy with the cottage. “The flounder could have given us a larger house. I would like to live in a large stone palace,” and she demanded that the man return and ask for a palace. The man argued that the cottage is enough, but his wife insisted and he went back (though he said to himself, “this is not right,”). This time the water was purple and dark blue and gray and dense. He invoked the flounder with the same words as before. The flounder asked what the wife wanted, and said, “Go home. She’s already standing before the door.” Again, the wish was granted in surfeit. The wife seemed happy, and the fisherman said, “This is quite enough. We can live in this beautiful palace and be satisfied.” The wife’s reply again did not bode well: “We’ll think about it. Let’s sleep on it.”
The next morning she asked the fisherman to have the flounder make them king. When the fisherman protested that he didn’t want that, she said that she must be made king, then.
This time, the sea was dark gray and the water heaved up from below and had a foul smell. The flounder, again, only asked what she wanted and it was done. The fisherman went home, and his wife was not waiting for him, she was inside an even grander palace, and was now king. This time, however, it lasted less than a day. She demanded that she be made emperor . . . and commanded him as his king.
The water this time is black and dense and boiling, and a strong wing blew over the fisherman that curdled the water. The wife became emperor, then demanded, the same day, to become pope. Each wish is granted in an even more lavish way than it is asked. Each time the fisherman argues with her, but ends up asking her boon. Each time the fisherman returns to ask the wish the ocean, sky and land are even more disturbed.
“Wife, be satisfied now that you are pope. There is nothing else you can become.”
“I have to think about that,” said the woman.
She spent the night thinking about what she could become, and the next morning tells her husband that she cannot stand it when she sees the sun and moon rising because she was not the one to cause them to rise. She wanted to be like God. The fisherman begged her not to make him ask this, but “anger fell over her. Her hair flew wildly about her head. Tearing open her bodice she kicked him . . .”
This time there was a terrible storm that knocked over trees and houses. Mountains were shaking. The sky was black and there were great black waves as high as church towers and mountains. The fisherman again invokes the flounder, and tells the fish that his wife wants to be like God.
“Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”
And they are sitting there even today.
It strikes me that this is more a fable with a moral than it is a fairy tale. There is no real movement in the story: it ends where it begins . . . perhaps with a sadder and wiser wife. There is more than one moral here, though, so it’s not quite as clean as most fables.
Don’t be greedy. Greed undoes the wife. As a human being, there are limits.
If you know that something’s wrong, you must stand firm against it. The husband could have stopped this at each stage.
Still, there are some fabulous elements (in both senses of the word “fabulous”) that work on a number of levels and should be examined.
First, the flounder. A flounder is a common fish, it’s flat, it’s a bottom feeder and a food fish. As I write this I have a number of associations to it. First, moving through the water it seems a reflection of the subconscious mind, of that within us that can grant our own wishes. It certainly grants, without comment, each wish that the fisherman’s wife presents, grants them generously and instantly like a toddler’s ideal parent.
And that brings us to the fisherman’s wife for a moment . . . I’ll go back to the fish afterward. She seems a toddler. Each desire must be granted instantly, and granting each leads to a more extravagant wish. When it seems her wishes are to be thwarted she is first insistent, then angry, then throws a temper tantrum. And at each step the wishes are less for material things than for power. Her desire for power is evident not only in her demand to be king, then emperor, then pope, then as God, but also in her relationship with her husband. She waits outside the cottage and the palace, but he must go inside to see her when she’s king. He becomes supplicant.
There’s more to explore in the fisherman’s wife and with the fisherman, but I want to go back to the flounder. I feel that this form for the wish-granter can’t be accidental, and it brings to mind the fish as symbol for early Christians (possibly because of the resemblance of the Greek words for fish and Jesus). And in the story the fish grants each wish as a God might answer a prayer . . . until the wife asks to be like God. The fish anticipates each request, and the earth and the water are a reflection of the fish’s (emotional?) response to it. As the wish is expressed, it has already been granted. And Jan points out that perhaps the flounder did even grant the last wish, for in Christianity Jesus was born in a hovel.
Perhaps this is less a fairy tale or a fable than it is a parable.
I have to leave this here for now. I may add another piece of artwork to this post if the one I want becomes available.
Filed under: Fairy Tales, What's it all mean | Leave a Comment
Tags: Brothers Grimm, Chautauqua Summer Institute, Fairy Tales, Meaning of fairy tales, The Fisherman and His Wife
We had a death in the family and had to fly out for the funeral last week, came home, turned around and went to Chautauqua, so I won’t be able to get to John Hutton’s books until I get back–another two weeks.
We’ve started our Fairy Tales course, and I’ll do my best to blog on the stories we read, though some have already been worked on here. We did Snow White and we’ll do The Juniper Tree, which I looked at last year, but today we’re going after a class-requested story, The Fisherman and His Wife. I’ll post my thoughts on that later today or tomorrow.
Filed under: Life | Leave a Comment
Tags: Chautauqua Summer Institute, Fairy Tales
Sorry about the long time between posts. Life, of course, has a way of getting between me and good intentions. Next post should be about my friend John Hutton, proprietor of Blue Manatee Books here in Cincinnati, and his new box set of picture books. That will be fun.
I’m wading through a stack of books about fairy tales, madly trying to get ready to teach Fairy Tale Magic and Why Kids Love It at the Chautauqua Summer Institute July 25-29. Jan will be co-teaching. Here’s a link to the Special Studies Catalog.
My book list currently is:
Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar
Off With Their Heads!: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood by Maria Tatar
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales ed. by Jack Zipes
The Great Fairy Tale Tradition ed. by Jack Zipes
The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise Von Franz (There has to be one Jungian represented, after all).
The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan
Psychoanalytic Responses to Children’s Literature by Lucy Rollin and Mark West
Off the top of my head, there seem to be at least five ways to look at fairy tales critically. First, you can look at them as literary documents. That applies to tales from an oral tradition like those written down by the Grimms and Basile, those which are authored like those of Hans Christian Andersen, or even those first committed to film, like Edward Scissorhands. Second, you can look at them as an historian or a cultural anthropologist might, looking for clues as to what the culture of the time was like, and what truly was important to individuals at the time and place when the tale was first told. Third, the historian or cultural anthropologist could look for evidence of influences across cultures in the themes and details of stories and how they spread across time and distance.
Fourth, these are political documents. People who tell fairy tales to their children do not live in a bathtub, they live in a society with rules and rulers, with cultural norms and morays, and it should not be surprising that there are political overtones (or undertones) to any fairy tale. Nor should it be surprising that there are communist or feminist or other readings of almost any tale: these are valid approaches.
Fifth and finally, you can look at at fairy tales for their psychological and developmental content. That’s certainly what interests me most. But there is no one correct way to interpret these stories even from the psychological viewpoint. Like dreams, they can be approached by Jungians and Freudians, as well as from the point of view of an ego analyst or from object relations, and there is insight there to be found.
I’m really in it for the joy of understanding the story, and the joy of telling it. We’ll probably look a little at all of those levels in the course, but mostly we’ll tell the fairy tale, discuss what it’s like to tell the story to our children, and try to find out a bit about what the children respond to about the story.
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Tags: Chautauqua Summer Institute, Fairy Tales
Jan brings up that Snow White is one of the most passive of heroines. What does she do? She begs the huntsman to spare her, she cries and she runs. She enters the dwarfs’ house and steals a meal. When she wakes up she tells her tale to the dwarfs and agrees to cook and clean. She allows the witch to enter the cottage three times. When she finally awakens from her third (near-) death experience, she hears the tale and the prince’s profession of love, agrees to marry him, and dines with him. That’s pretty much it. She’s a little more of a character than Sleeping Beauty, but not by much.
The Queen/mother, in contrast, is all action. She seeks out competition and destroys it, over and over again. Even in the face of certain doom she chooses to go to her daughter’s wedding. Even her death is active. Yes, she’s tortured, but she dances to death in those red-hot boots. My picture of her is that the boots are applied and she’s expected to scream and faint, but defiantly dances . . . OK, it’s not in the story that way, but I think it’s a better story that way.
There’s almost a yin and yang quality to the pair of them: the queen active, passionate, jealous and Snow White passive and . . . what? There isn’t a lot . . . She seems to reflect the latency industriousness of the dwarfs when they’re around, and when they’re not you can almost see her by the reflected light of her mother’s sexuality, trying on brightly colored silk laces for her bodice, looking at new combs for her hair. Even the love she feels for the prince almost seems a reflection of his for her. “I saw you laying there under glass and I fell in love with you (anyway, with what you look like and what I imagine you to be). I love you. Be my wife.” And you see her saying, “Um . . . OK.”
There’s a place-holding quality to the fairy tale hero: she’s never a full or rounded person as the story is told. The narrative of the story tells us that she is beautiful, and her actions say that she is not particularly courageous as she cries and begs the huntsman, not particularly honest as she’s taking the dwarfs’ dinner, not particularly smart letting the queen in three times . . . but sweet enough that the huntsman and the dwarfs are not put off by her. It all comes down to beauty—pleasant passivity as well, but mainly beauty.
No acquisitions editor today would ever buy this story. Readers, each of them would cheerfully and earnestly tell you, would never identify with such a passive main character; her actions and desires must drive the story. Snow White should trick the huntsman into freeing her and lead the dwarfs in a guerrilla war against the palace. As for falling in love with a creep who saw you sleeping and tried to buy you from some dwarfs . . .
And yet, since the fairy tale was written down 199 years ago by the Grimms it’s spawned more than a dozen movies as well as plays, an opera, and countless literary adaptations. Why does it survive?
Partly, perhaps, is that this is a told story. You learn this story from someone you love so it becomes the shared experience and the shared affect. In the telling of the story by your mother, you learn that she, too, was a little girl just like you and that she grew up successfully.
Jan also points out that little girls love Snow White, the character: they take her as an ideal because everyone loves her. They imagine themselves as someone who is loved by all because their own wonderful qualities are visible to all. And most people do love young children on sight as children. Snow White is taken as a sexual competitor by her mother, and loved at first sight as an adult by the king’s son. She looks at the laces, the combs, the apple offered by her disguised mother and seems to want that same unconditional adult sexualized love as unconditionally as its childhood equivalent. This isn’t that unreasonable on the face of it. A child, girl or boy, does become a different person going through puberty, but this is hard for the person going through puberty to realize, at least to realize day in and day out, and often people around them react to them as their adult persona while internally they still feel like a child.
One of the lessons of Snow White is that we need time to make transitions, that it takes dying and being reborn to become an adult. (Life might be easier if we all had to sleep through middle school). Maybe Snow White, taking the apple and the other wares of the witch, was actively seeking a way to become an adult, to go through that transition, to die (temporarily).
I guess the answer to why Snow White can be such a wimp and get away with it is that the important thing about Snow White is not what she does but how the other characters in the story react to her, and the reason that is so is that the story is experienced by the daughter in her mother’s lap as events that happen to her and are shared by her mother. She’s not active, nor is Snow White.
Filed under: Child Development, Fairy Tales, General Thoughts, What's it all mean, Why do kids love it | Leave a Comment
Tags: Fairy Tales, Meaning of fairy tales, Snow White