Are we supposed to be curious, or aren’t we? From reading stories, I just can’t make up my mind. If I open the box to find out what’s inside I risk unleashing evils across the entire world. But if I don’t open the box, there might be a bomb inside. If only I’d opened that confounded box, I could’ve saved everyone!
Today I’ll take a closer look at some popular narratives which seem to discourage curiosity as a valuable character trait, some which encourage it, and some which do both.
Without the resources to do an actual count up, punishment for curiosity in fiction does seem gendered. It’s possible that if we took every single story in which a character is punished for their curiosity, more male characters than female characters are punished for it. But then, most stories are historically about men so we’d have to adjust for that first. It’s certainly the case that in the best-known myths and fairytales young (and beautiful) women are punished for poking their noses into affairs that don’t concern them, which would be fully in line with the ancient rules of patriarchy.
However, narrative doesn’t track along one linear progression from ‘super misogynistic’ to ‘super enlightened’. (We haven’t seen super enlightened yet.) All too often, those ancient tales, when retold for children, are repackaged with extra blame heaped upon curious young women.
No mention of the trauma of abandonment that must surely have resulted after being abandoned — twice — by your very own parents.
The truth is, Hansel and Gretel is the version that survived the best in the English speaking world. How many people know the story of Hansel and Gretel but have never heard of Hop O’ My Thumb? That certainly described me until I recently made an effort to read some of the lesser known fairytales.
Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Manzatotti
This tale is much kinder to mothers than to fathers, and far kinder to mothers than the Grimm brothers were. Here, the mothers stand up for their children while the fathers want to get rid of them. In Hansel and Gretel it is the other way around. There has been much psychoanalysis of that.
There are also elements of Tom Thumb in this tale (obviously, from the title!), though no mention in the actual story about Hop O’ My Thumb’s diminutive size. Nonetheless, almost all illustrators depict not only the titular character but also the brothers as very tiny.
I’m also reminded of Jack and the Beanstalk when the ogre arrives home to his cottage in the wood and sniffs out the children to eat.
His seven daughters are somewhat vampiric, with their pointy teeth. They have already started sucking on the blood of babies, we are told.
Hop O’ My Thumb is mute and a weakling, and his muteness is mistaken for stupidity. In my reading, this is one of the earliest fictional autistic characters. Non/late-verbal autists are often thought to be low IQ, but excel in certain things. I suspect Hop O’ My Thumb had a special interest in rocks or maps. His smarts not only saved his own life but the lives of his brothers.
Hop O’ My Thumb drops white pebbles along the path so the brothers and he can find their way back home. But his plan doesn’t work the second time after the parents deliver them further into the heart of the woods. So the plan is modified; they will knock on the door of the little cottage they come across, and ask for food and shelter.
The big struggle is not with the parents. I’ve noticed this happens a lot in stories from all eras: While Hop O’ My Thumb’s main (first?) opponents are his parents, he soon encounters a more obvious ‘baddie’ in the archetypal ogre who is almost like a metaphor for the badness of the parents. Though the parents are not ogres who cannibalise children, in a way they are. They’ve done the most terrible thing to their own children, leaving them to be eaten by wolves or die of exposure and hunger. So the big struggle happens instead at this metaphorical house in the woods, in which Hop O’ My Thumb tricks the hungover ogre into killing his own seven daughters rather than these seven abandoned sons.
When Charles Perrault wrote down the fairytales he’d collected from the wider culture, he ended each one with a summary which summed up the moral. In many cases, his take on the moral was pretty far from earlier tellings. Perrault wrote in a tongue-in-cheek manner — that much is clear. But as with any kind of humour, his basic beliefs about life and humanity shone through. Perrault was a man of his time. He joked about misogyny, but I believe he meant every word.
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD
When choosing a life partner, look carefully at his family.
Ladies, trust your instincts. If you think that old man next door is creepy, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Also, if your new husband treats you like a child and starts playing mind games with you, get out of there before the shit really hits the fan.
When arguing with the most important person in your life, be careful what you say. Words once uttered can affect your relationship forever.
When women are judged mainly on their looks, it’s not really all that surprising if the most beautiful daughter in a household is ostricised by her embittered female relatives. Nor is it surprising that these women, after a lifetime of discrimination, have become embittered.
It doesn’t matter if pearls and rubies fall out of your mouth; as long as you a beautiful your prince will find you. You don’t need to make any special sort of exertion; just leave home and go wandering through the woods.
HOP O’ MY THUMB
If your own parents are so nasty that they’ll take you and your siblings into the woods and leave you there to die in a time of famine, you don’t actually owe them anything after that. Make like a Scientologist and cut your ties.
If your father wants to ‘marry’ you, get the fuck out of there and everything will eventually be okay.
RICKY WITH THE TUFT
Although men need women to be beautiful (for ‘evolutionary reasons’ or whatever bullshit they feed you these days), women are not to expect their male partners to be equally good-looking. If you’re a woman, your beau can be the ugliest fucking bastard in the world, but as long as you really really love him, you’ll eventually realise, with no magic whatsoever, everything about him is hunky dory. In other words, women have to conform to the Beauty Standard, but men do not.
The history of fairy-tale selection and adaptation has given far more prominence to male beasts who are afflicted with monstrosity, and then has held up the promise of redemption through love for them: the beast himself from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, who is restored to his human shape, or ‘Riquet a la houppe’ (Ricky with the Tuft’), in one of Perrault’s stories, who teaches the giddy heroine to love him for his mind, in spite of his looks. In more recent interpretations, such as the film of The Phantom of the Opera, or Mask, and The Elephant Man (directed early in his career by the aficionado of the macabre, David Lynch), the ‘monster’ solicits sympathy in the midst of exciting distress, horror and alarm.
A crucial distinction between Renaissance grotesque and [the] Counter-Enlightenment derivative can be made in terms of the response. […] The grotesque style has undergone a change and expanded its reach. The treatment of monsters in fairytales, first fora n adult readership in the late seventeeth century, and progressively for a young audience thereafter, has contributed decisively to this shift in taste. The anti-heroes of popular stories, like the ugly suitor in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of 1697 (Ricky With The Tuft), of the hissing Great Green Worm in marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s tale of that name, offer a vision of the monstrous redeemed by the grotesque. Fantasy beasts may ape human beings in order to mock them, but representations stage their presence in order to think with them, through them, about what it means to be human,
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
CINDERELLA; OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER
You’re more marriageable if you’re both charming and beautiful. Even better if you’re rich, but two out of three will suffice. You may even attract a prince. But do you really want a husband who’s chosen you for your beauty, your lifelong acculturation as a compliant doormat, and your smaller than average feet?
The Foolish Wishes, recorded by Charles Perrault, is also known as The Ridiculous Wishes or The Three Ridiculous Wishes.
This exact fairytale passed me by as a kid, but there are no shortage of tales about characters who are granted three wishes by some sort of genie/supernatural being. I’d find myself thinking, “Don’t waste the last one! Just wish for more wishes!” I wonder if everyone listening to these stories thinks exactly the same thing, but I’m put in mind of my neighbour, who told me recently that when he was made to attend Sunday school as a boy, they were required to pray, but they weren’t to pray for selfish things such as ‘growing an inch taller over summer’ or ‘a bike for Christmas’. Their prayers had to be altruistic or they wouldn’t ‘work’.
I think perhaps there are some cultural parallels between the nature of religious prayer and fairytale wishing: They must be altruistic and they must come from a good place.
Content Note: After reading this story you may find you never feel the same way about black pudding again. Also, if you live in Australia, you may think of black pudding whenever you see a black snake.
Wasteful Wishing is a common trope of modern comedies. Wishing for food items is a common one. No doubt fairytales such as this one have been influential in the emergence of this trope.
Well, he realises he has been very foolish, saying things he doesn’t mean. But if he leaves his wife looking like that there will be no use them living in a castle, so he must use his remaining wish to get back to life as it was before, which compared to this doesn’t look so bad now.
“So the woodcutter stayed in his cottage and went out to saw logs every day. He did not become a king; he did not even fill his pockets with money.”
WISHES IN MODERN WESTERN CULTURE
By ‘Western’, I mean of the type found on Pinterest. On Pinterest you’ll find memes such as this:
Wishes haven’t gone out of fashion. Sometimes the advice sounds very much like something straight out of a fairytale (or inside a fortune cookie):
But one step on from the ‘make a wish’ advice is to be proactive in making plans for yourself:
But take a look into identity and left wing politics and you’ll finally see acknowledgement that, best laid plans aside, some people are more privileged and are therefore in a much better position than others to ‘follow their dreams’. You can’t follow your dreams, after all, if you’re missing teeth, face racial/sex discrimination, are in poor health and work for minimum wage in three jobs looking after your four disabled children.
These days, modern children are probably most likely to have encountered Puss In Boots in the second Shrek movie. The most resonant scene for us all is probably the bit where Puss is revealed to be a manipulative little bastard, making his eyes big and cute in order to get what he wants. I admit, it’s a real triumph of animation.
This is the bowdlerised early reader version I read as a kid.
Of the modern, bowdlerised Perrault fairytales, Puss In Boots remains relatively unchanged compared to others such as Sleeping Beauty, in which the entire second half gets cut off (for obvious reasons, when you read the original!).
Puss In Boots is your classic trickster archetype. Sometimes in fairytales the trickster(s) are minor characters. Take the tailors in The Emperor’s New Clothes as an example. They come to town, create mischief then leave. In this story the trickster is the main character.
We also have a classic underdog in the character of the ‘third son’. According to old inheritance customs, the entire family fortune would be left to the eldest son, with the implicit understanding that the eldest son would continue to run the farm/business intact but share his profits with the rest of the brothers and the women. In practice, this didn’t always happen of course, and so third sons would have often felt gipped. (I often wonder how regularly the women felt equally gipped, or if their acculturation meant their lower expectations in life allowed them to feel a little more content.)
Another important cultural difference between antiquity and now: Clothes really did make the man. They were super expensive. Even today we judge each other on our clothing, but even up until the early part of last century, people had one or two sets of clothing and had to really save up for them, much like buying a car today. Judging someone by their clothes and footwear was therefore a fairly accurate way of assessing their wealth and social standing. In fairytales, boots are what separate humankind from fairy-like creatures (which includes this talking cat.)
Charles Perrault himself was very influential in the court of Louis XIV. This was a period in which fashion was very important.
Various modern depictions of Puss In Boots share instantly recognisable commonalities, notably the thigh-high boots. This comes from influential illustrator Gustave Doré.
This particular tale is also known as The Master Cat, though modern audiences are unlikely to know the story by that name.
Puss’s master has died and he is given to the youngest son who doesn’t want him. Indeed, the son plans to eat him and sell his pelt. This bit is omitted from earlier versions, in which a sympathetic young man is not permitted to even consider eating a cat (much less a talking one, because that would be tantamount to cannibalism). In any case, Puss’s shortcoming is that he belongs to a poor family and his life is in danger. He’ll need to work his own way out of this mess.
According to Jacob Grimm, Puss shares many of the features that a household fairy would have (Teutonic Mythology).
Being a cat is also a shortcoming, because although he seems to be part human (talking) and wishes for the trappings of human luxury, he still has the body of a cat.
His first opponent is his master who plans to eat him. But Puss quickly mollifies him. Each character he meets on the road becomes an opponent who trickster Puss has to fool.
The ‘Minotaur opponent’ is the ogre, who is obviously the most fearsome, being an ogre.
Ogres were remnants of Medieval and Roman beliefs in Orcus, a deity or at times also the dark and cruel aspect of the ruler of the afterlife who was lowered to the status of a shape-changing monster. It’s interesting to note that this ancient deity could live in a palace among humans and with human servants as though he were nothing more than another noble. Even more interesting to realize is that this same deity could fall prey to the deceit of a house fairy. Such ogres and hags were, of course, common in folklore as ancient deities peppered the land, terrifying and or ruling the remnants of the people who had once worshiped them. Such beings, while clearly magically and physically superior to humans, were more susceptible to arrogance much like we might imagine a faded sports star or some other person who has long since passed their prime would be.
He makes his first win (the rabbit) using only a sack, some bran and some juicy weeds.
After that he turns to stealing, lying, cunning, threats and murder.
I do wonder if the worry of having one’s clothing stolen while swimming in the buff is a widely held fear, much like that dream where you find yourself naked in public. The trope Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen has been used so much in stories since Puss In Boots that I figure it must be.
Once again, the revelation comes via the morals dished out by Charles Perrault after the story has ended. These two morals demonstrate perfectly a double standard that exists for men and women, in those days as well as in these; young men are advised to rely on their own ingenuity rather than upon inherited wealth in order to make their way in the world whereas young women (or perhaps the men who marry them off as chattels) are advised to question wealthy young men who come their way as wealthy appearance doesn’t equal inner goodness, and the wealth may be ill-gotten.
Some scholars would argue that Puss In Boots does not count as a fairytale for lack of a clear moral within the story itself. Aside from the typical story structure as listed here, Puss In Boots has:
transformation (the ogre turning into a lion and then a mouse)
typical fairytale elements such as repeated use of the number three
Cat and ‘Marquis of Carabas’ live in luxury inside the ogre’s house.
“The cat was made a great lord and gave up hunting mice, except for pleasure.”
Some versions of the story [not Perrault’s] have the cat’s master turn out to be [an ungrateful bastard]. For example, in an Italian variation, Pippo and the Clever Cat, Pippo promises his cat that for everything she’s done for him, she’ll live like a queen and receive an elaborate funeral when she passes away. Deciding to test this, the cat plays dead. Pippo’s wife is in tears mourning the cat, but Pippo simply says to grab her by the leg and toss her out the window. The cat gets up, curses her master’s name, and leaves. In the Russian version, sets fire to the master’s home first.
Because this is a fairytale and not something to be analysed literally, the reader glosses over certain problems with the plot. If I engage my brain while reading, I end up wondering:
How did Puss know the King was going to be riding past that exact part of the river at that exact time?
Why did the King keep riding and riding along the road, encountering peasants who’d been threatened by the cat?
Does the king travel with a spare set of fancy clothes in his cart?
When the princess first sees the third son he is actually butt naked. Could it not be this that she falls in lust with, rather than his fine clothes? (Anyone else thinking of the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and the producer’s decision to have Mr Darcy get out of the lake in a fetching wet shirt?)
Wasn’t the ogre’s home modified to accommodate a very large person? If so, how did the king not notice that everything inside the castle was huge?
Why did the ogre’s friends, due for a dinner party, not overpower the king, princess and cat while they were at the castle feasting? Surely they could have. That would’ve been the perfect opportunity, in fact. Then they could’ve ruled the kingdom for themselves.
How did the king not know about this Ogre before?
Dick Whittington and His Supposed Cat
The tale of “Puss In Boots” is so beloved and so well-structured that the real life figure named Richard Whittington had this fairytale folded into the mythology of him. The real Whittington wasn’t even poor, yet somehow he became a ‘rags to riches’ hero.