If it is true that fairy tales describe the way we are, and the society around us, by staging dramatic conflicts the resolutions of which give individuals the chance to “reconstruct” the world, then they are all the more necessary in times of great upheaval, precarious periods during which we find we are more exposed and fragile, hard times, both historically and socially speaking, such as the ones we are experiencing right now. If, as Novalis tells us, the true writer of fairy tales is someone who can see into the future, then it is the task of narrators and poets to offer alternative utopias when the current models have become obsolete and emptied of their meaning.
Indeed, the most important fairy tales in the oral tradition were subtly and deeply political in meaning, not at all reassuring but disquieting and challenging, meant to intervene in the unfairness of the social order. (We have a hard time remembering this, surrounded as we are by prissy Disney princesses whose only ambition in life is to dress in pink, find a husband and have loads of children.) As a matter of fact, the happy ending is quite a recent invention, a product of nineteenth-century bourgeois censorship: the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm spoke of evil mothers whom they transformed into stepmothers, of young girls who discovered the world (and sex), and not of little girls sent into the forest by reckless mums, no less saved by hunters; those stories were about poverty and violence, but also cleverness and solidarity. They were the “artistic” product – one that was constantly updated and actualized in spite of the apparent supra-historicity of the “Once upon a time” – of a community and its dynamics, something that is essentially hard for us to understand, given our reigning individualism and the idea that the work of art is unique. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, the folktale is a way of connecting people to their own nature and history, creating a continuity with the past, so as to better project themselves into the future.
So, community and nature – that is, the relationship with the other (in flesh and blood) and with the ground we tread on, two elements that have very different characteristics now, even if only from the times of the Brothers Grimm: forests have essentially become metaphors, and most social ties travel via the virtuality of Facebook. Why, then, do we continue to read, write and rewrite fairy tales? And has their function perhaps changed? As stated previously, the fairy tale contains utopian elements, but its need to become history will never occur, if people don’t learn to be their own masters, active and conscious members of the community.
I am especially thinking of women who, despite their great struggle for emancipation, are still the victims of father-masters, violent husbands, women who fool themselves into thinking that they possess their own bodies, and are still second-class citizens. Bodies that, just like in the past – in the days of “Once upon a time” – are still the ground where the battle is fought: but today, besides the fact that Cinderellas, Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites are no longer solely interested in getting married, they want to talk about the oppression they have suffered, and claim the right to finally choose for themselves. Just as the Romantic novelists and poets had felt the need to draw from folktales, as well as to invent others for the purpose of developing new models to elaborate what is real, there are many women writers of fiction and poetry who have, in recent times, “reread” traditional fairy tales, developing alternative and subversive versions.
Alicia Ostriker says that these women have “stolen the language,” they have had “the ability to decode stories we thought we knew, revealing meanings we should have guessed.” Benjamin reminds us that the narrator is a craftsman of communication who gathers experience in all its richness and then transforms it for the listener (despite the fact that he was only referring to male narrators). The German scholar was well aware of the fact that the public is part of the future of the story: but this takes for granted a capacity for listening that has, by now, been lost.
The earliest women storytellers (first among them Dorothea Viehmann, the main source for the Brothers Grimm, who was named in the first editions and then forgotten), poised somewhere between the village and the woods, between rules and instinct, used the folktales to introduce young women to the world, by way of a true and proper sentimental education. As Barbara Lanati wrote, “The transition from the oral to the written folktales indicated their ‘educated’ retreat upon themselves. It implied their canonization, and consequently the need to read such tales according to official pedagogical and interpretative parameters.” (It was no accident that the Grimm brothers spent most of their lives compiling a dictionary of the German language.) End of the fun part: roles and tasks having been redefined, women’s healthy curiosity and thirst for knowledge was severely punished, their capacity for independent thinking minimized.
And in its passage from the female storyteller to the male writer, the folktale became an instrument of indoctrination in which, Lanati goes on, women “wore the body that men had sewn upon them,” and to all effects became, while the main characters in the story, excluded from it. Here, then, lies the need to restore the old roots of the tale, of the explosive and revolutionary strength buried under the crinoline, the fire under the ashes. Writing becomes a gesture of “revision,” according to Adrienne Rich’s felicitous definition, having the ability to penetrate an old text with a new critical direction, of revealing meanings that were latent but stifled: an act of survival (cultural, but biological too). And since new meanings need new forms, what's better than poetry to start this revolution?
“an egg without / cracks, with a compass / for her navel.”