“Ring around the Rosie,
Pockets full of Posies,
And we all fall down”
Aforementioned is the rhyme of a game that we all merrily played and loved as children. Little did we know that the seemingly ludicrous rhyme was a testament to the horrors of the Black Plague? We weren’t aware of the fact that we were singing about a disease that would claim lives of hapless victims in the midst of violent sneezing fits. The ‘Oranges and Lemon’s’ song allegedly arose at the time when Jack the Ripper was dominating the London crime scene (if true, it certainly explains the haunting – “remember me when I am dead, dead, dead, dead” refrain). It is absolutely mind-boggling when one unearths the sinister undertones of the stories and games that we so loved in our childhood.
All children, across generations have grown up on a healthy diet of fairy tales (narratives that combined ancient folklore with modern social morals). It is hard to find a little girl who didn’t yearn to be Cinderella, or a little boy who doesn’t wish to be Peter Pan. Fairy tales have played a pivotal role in inculcating good reading habits amongst the young. They have helped in lending certain richness to a child’s imagination. At the outset, fairy tales also seem to enlist virtues that every little girl and boy must attempt to emulate. The hero/heroine of a fairytale is always good, humble and obedient, and they get duly rewarded for their merits before the story draws to a close. However, if those of my generation move beyond the confines of the illustrated pages of the Ladybird books and the covers of the Walt Disney DVD sets, they would notice a darker and a more human side to these strangely perfect stories with bizarrely perfect protagonists.
The original versions of the fairy tales vary greatly from their Disney-ized counterparts. In one of the original versions of Cinderella, as penned by the Grimm brothers – the fairy god-mother never entered the scene. Her role was carried out rather efficiently by a pair of talking pigeons. In Snow-White, the evil witch was not the step-mother; she was in fact Snow-White’s real mother (the important theme of the story was that of parental jealousy). Snow-White’s future husband, Prince Charming evidently indulged in necrophilia, as is substantiated by his absurd obsession for Snow-White’s dead body. He bought the coffin from the dwarves and would have his servants carry it around wherever he went; he would stare at it continually and place it next to himself on his bed. There are believed to be two ending’s to this story, and in the more popular one, he kisses the dead-cold-lifeless corpse of Snow-White passionately and in the process, dislodges the apple.
When one observes the social implication of the stories, it becomes apparent that the one thing jarringly marked about fairy tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow-White etc. was the fact that the heroines were always startlingly beautiful. The villains on the other hand would either be downright ugly (like Cinderella’s step-sister’s), or their beauty would merely pale in comparison with the heroine’s, as the Evil Queen’s beauty did when compared to that of Snow White. The divide between good-beautiful and cruel-ugly reflects the vanity of a society that chooses to scoff at those who are less than extraordinarily stunning. It talks a great deal of the mindset toward beauty at the time in which the author wrote the story. And since the books are being read by children, the uninformed child would be quick to imbibe the same mindset and the same vanity, and would propagate it to their own children as adults, and then to their grandchildren and so on. They would thereby prevent this archaic divide from ever dissolving.
The protagonists of these fairy tales allegedly imbibe certain virtues that deserve to be rewarded. One may view Cinderella to be the embodiment of obedience and patience, resigning herself to all the whims and fancies of her sisters. Never disobeying, never complaining. What is truly remarkable about Cinderella was the fact that she never deemed it important to stand up for herself or to protect her own rights and interests. She never spoke out against the injustice meted out to her by her step-family. And as a ‘reward’ for her lack of good sense, she got to marry Prince Charming, and she lived happily ever after in a fantasy world where all her joy would stem solely from her ‘charming’ husband.
It is hard to pinpoint the virtue that the story of Snow-White seems to propagate. Her beauty caused her a great deal of strife. And her sheer stupidity put her in several near death situations; for despite all the dwarfs’ warnings to not open the door when a stranger knocks, she let the evil queen in, not once, not twice, but thrice. She miraculously survived all of the queens nefarious schemes – and for nothing more than ‘sheer luck’, she was rewarded by the fact that she had her own Prince Charming, who gracefully carried her off into the sunset.
The common thread between both these stories is that the female protagonist’s reward is always marriage. It almost seems to propagate the idea that the ultimate end of a woman’s life is to find her own ‘Prince Charming’. She goes through a series of obstacles, trials and tribulations – and if she emerges victorious – she is rewarded with the ringing of wedding bells. The stories also imply that once we women are safely in the arms of a man, all the shadows of evil, all the misery, all the woes would be left behind and we will live happily ever after.
Stories such as Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel have deeply misogynistic undertones and they portray women to be princesses trapped in towers, patiently awaiting a gallant young prince to trot along on his horse who arbitrarily decides to rescue them. At a more subconscious level, these stories claim that unmarried women lead miserable, isolated lives – the only respite coming from marrying well and being ‘rescued’ by a good husband.
Upon a closer study of fairy-tales, it becomes evident that younglings develop their primary notions of gender relations, vanity and virtue from these stories. And the very same children go on to build the society of tomorrow. A Catch – 22 situation emerges, when one wants doesn’t want to deprive little children of the joys of reading, but one also senses the danger in letting children adopt the age-old patterns of thinking that are celebrated in fairy tales. It is a dilemma unlike any other.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jinggle-jas/2264409851/]