Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.
Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.
How big is this utopianforest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)
Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.
None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:
In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.
This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.
These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:
Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.
These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.
In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.
Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.
Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.
(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)
So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.
Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).
One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.
All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.
The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.
If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.
THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.
Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.
Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.
With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.
Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.
Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.
“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”
SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH
The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.
A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.
There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.
Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother. They mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877
The era in which oral folktales became written fairytales was also the era in which children’s literature as a whole began to develop.
How did oral tales change once they became written-down stories?
First, the main audience shifted, notably, from the peasant class to the monied classes. Main characters were previously adults; now they were children.
Oral folktales focused on empowering the oppressed, and tended to centre on class struggles. For this reason they appealed particularly to the lower classes. As they became written fairytales, and so became the domain of the educated classes, class struggles were usually replaced by adult-child power-struggles: the child became the central focus of the story, rather than the peasant.
This meant the ideology also shifted. Oral folk tales were often ribald. Now they became didactic, emphasising upper-class manners:
Zipes points out that, as writers appropriated the oral folk tale, they ‘converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners’ for the socialisation of children according to the social codes of the time. Thus, ‘writers of fairytales for children acted ideologically by presenting their notions regarding social conditions and conflicts, and they interacted with each other and with past writers and storytellers of folklore in a public sphere’. This point probably applies to all children’s books (and literature as a whole)
Most importantly, perhaps, the content of a tale was affected by the fact that storytelling was a dynamic process between narrator and listener. When retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the storyteller would grab the child at “All the better to eat you with!” The child listener would probably react in a variety of ways, changing the story slightly with each retelling, perhaps pouncing on the storyteller in turn. The ability to turn the tables affected thee ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The children being told the tale were not harmed, and neither was Little Red Riding Hood, who managed to outwit the wolf in the oral tradition. It was only after being written down that Little Red Riding Hood lost her autonomy.
Another fairy tale perfectly suited to the oral tradition is Rumpelstiltskin, which is very old. Guessing the little man’s name turns the story into an interaction between storyteller and audience.
More recently, Spike Milligan wrote in the oral tradition. His story Badjelly The Witch is perfectly suited to adaptation for radio — the version I grew up with.
Below, Philip Pullman explains the extent to which oral tales vary depending on a variety of factors. He conveys the idea that fairytales were always meant to evolve. Fairy and folk tales are not meant to be set in stone forever, unlike the Gutenberg Press, which froze English spelling in time:
A fairy tale is … a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs. Another accident might affect it too: a good tale might find itself in the mouth of a less than adequate teller.
That matters a great deal, because tellers vary in their talents, their techniques, their attitudes to the process. The Grimms were highly impressed by the ability of one of their sources, Dorothea Viehmann, to tell a tale a second time in the same words as she’d used before, making it easy to transcribe; and the tales that come from her are typically structured with marvellous care and precision. […]
Similarly, this teller might have a talent for comedy, that one for suspense and drama, another for pathos and sentiment. Naturally they will each choose tales that make the most of their talents. When X the great comedian tells a tale, he will invent ridiculous details or funny episodes that will be remembered and passed on, so the tale will be altered a little by his telling; and when Y the mistress of suspense tells a tale of terror, she will invent in like manner, and her inventions and changes will become part of the tradition of telling that tale, until they’re forgotten, or embellished, or improved on in their turn. The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that fairy tales came from the oral tradition:
The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.
But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.
Sure enough, some fairy tales did not come from the oral tradition. Beauty and the Beast is the stand-out example of that. I have seen these referred to as ‘literary fairy tales’ to distinguish them from ‘oral fairytales’, in which ‘oral’ is assumed.
Header painting: Henry Herbert La Thangue – The Harvesters’ Supper
Giants are big. That’s their defining feature. Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story. Because of their massive appetites, they also happen to be big.
The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the big struggle of power between fathers and sons.
Ogre stories are about food and power, about food in the right place and who puts it there, and vice versa. This concern has grown, as monsters have proliferated and their appetites been ever more luridly dramatised, so that fading and monstrosity have begun to coincide in meaning: from the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
When you think of an ogre you have probably been conditioned via modern narrative to code him male. But go back to antiquity and we find fearsome female creatures who very much fit the description of an ogre.
An excellent example is the reproductive demon Gello. Reproductive demons are coded femme because they concern themselves with wreaking havoc for babies and their mothers. They kill babies, take them, eat them. Gello was thought to have been from the island of Lesbos. She died as a virgin then, because she was cut off in the prime of her life she remained incomplete. The state of incompleteness is a dangerous thing to be. It means you’ll come back and haunt people once you’re dead. So Gello did just that. She hung around as a ghost and ate babies in a rather extreme case of lateral violence.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GIANTS IN STORYTELLING
It’s hard to think of an example of a good ogre, but giants in storytelling are often shown to be not so bad — simply misunderstood, out of place.
Defeated giants inspire a certain patronising affection, as mirrors of a buried and superseded ancestry […] and they enter the comic repertory of entertaining tales. […] Paradoxically, it is the monsters done to death by heroes who survive gloriously, narrated again and again as part of their murderers’ destinies.
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Giants in World Myth
I wonder why Africa and South America are the only continents without widely recalled tracks of giants.
Let’s go right back to inferno’s giganti (Virgil’s Dante), who strike terror in the poet. Dante (the character) names Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. Ephialtes was one of the Titans who rebelled against Zeus. Also, Zeus defeated the Titans with his thunderbolts.
In Norse mythology, jots are ‘huge, shaggy beings of a demonic character who dwell in a distant dark chaotic land.
The order of the monstrous belongs to a horrible, frightening past. We continue to be fascinated by giants and we like to summon them to mind in the present.
Giants and ogres have been superseded in popular storytelling. Though immortal, they’re always in the throes of defeat. However, the story of the big struggles that overthrew them is rehearsed again and again. Often in contemporary storytelling The Corporation stands in for The Giant.
Celtic gods, who were supplanted by Christian saints, are a kind of giant.
The Nephilim, (from Genesis) are the heroes of days gone by, the offspring of gods coupling with the daughters of men.
Atlas (one of the deposed Titans) foreshadows the Catholic giant St. Christopher. Christopher is literally Christo-phoros, the Christ-bearer (suggesting he was big and strong).
Further back in time, beings were thought to grow larger than today (we see it in contemporary stories such as Jurassic Park). The New World was imagined as a haunt of giants. (Did people suspect dinosaurs even before dinosaur bones were unearthed?) People imagined men with one eye in the middle of their chests, who shaded themselves from the sun with a single, gigantic foot.
Paranormal giants: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie (Aboriginal Australia, who goes by a similar description to a Hobbit, with big, hairy feet.)
As mentioned, most cultures have giant myths. My home country of New Zealand had Kiharoa and Matua, among others:
There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a big struggle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.
There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.
Jakob Grimm commented that ‘In the giants as a whole, an untamed natural force has full swing, entailing their excessive bodily size, their overbearing insolence, that is to say, their abuse of corporal and mental power.’
Seven-mile boots (or seven-league boots) are an element of European folklore. They allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.
English Fairy Tales
In The Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Albion is a mighty British giant, defeated with all his giant cohorts and his brothers Got and Magog, by the founder of London, Brutus. (Albion is most remembered.)
Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable
When Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself stranded on the island of Lilliput, he has no way of knowing that this is just the first of his encounters with strange and unknown people, including the giants of Brobdingnag.
In real belief from around this time, giants were thought to exist, and expected to bark like dogs. Some iconic giants even had the heads of dogs. Did you know St Christopher had a dog’s head before he was converted from paganism to Christianity? (Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.) He was depicted as a kind of Anubis, the jackal-headed ferryman of lost souls, from Egypt. Perhaps his hallucinations were inspired by this imagery, but the sixteenth century explorer Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) said he heard giants barking when he sailed past Patagonia.
When Gulliver spoofed the long genre of travel writing, he sure had brilliant material to work with.
CONTEMPORARY GIANTS IN STORYTELLING
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman— Inspired by the Norse myths, Neil Gaiman takes readers on an epic journey with a boy named Odd and his animal companions as they try to save Asgard, the Norse city of the Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl — Visit a gigantic piece of fruit and the oversized insects that live inside it. One of Dahl’s most well-known stories, this book is a starting point for reading the rest of his works.
The BFG by Roald Dahl — This story is more obviously about giants, anthropomorphised. The giants draw on a long history of the cannibalistic ogre. I Kill Giants, the film
Giants And Symbolism
Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great shortcoming.
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Giants are often depicted as hairy.
REAL LIFE GIANTS?
Mark Hall is an American scholar who has compiled global records of the existence of giants. He argues that gigantopithecus is another species of primate who were largely wiped out by us (as the Neanderthals were). But he also argues a few of them survive to this day. He describes them as we have long described giants in storytelling, conflating them with ogres:
far-dwelling — living in areas inhospitable to humans. (Dahl used this in The BFG.)
The Cardiff Giant mystery became one of 19th-century America’s biggest scams. See how George Hull fooled the masses when a large statue was uncovered on his farm.
Sometimes the risk-taking [of carnivals] is no masquerade but, as in bullfighting, places the participants in real danger: on feast days throughout Catalonia, confraternities form troupes of acrobats to build human castells or towers, living giants composed of eight or more tiers of men, girls and boys climbing one above the other, gripping thighs, backs and shoulders, until at the end the whole perilous edifice is crowned by the anxaneta, a small child who shins up to the pinnacle, which towers 40 feet or more above the ground.
No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner
Wilt Chamberlain and André the Giant taking Arnold Schwarzenegger for a stroll
There have always been medical conditions which lead to large physical stature. One of the most famous is French wrestler. Unfortunately, real life ‘giants’ face real life discrimination, the result of millennia of negative storytelling archetyping (aka stereotyping).