Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.
New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.
Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:
messengers of deities
mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)
Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.
The Stone Scale of Evil was created by Dr Michael Stone, an American psychiatrist and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry. It was built to be useful when diagnosing murderers, but we can use it to think about fictional characters. We are not obliged to spend a decade earning a doctorate before diagnosing fictional criminals, which is nice.
Do you agree with my examples?
Those who kill in self-defense and do not show psychopathic tendencies
Header illustration: Fortuné Méaulle’s (1844 – 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 – 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)
Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.
To a modern audience, what makes a setting feel ‘fairytale’? What is it about the tone, style and plot? I argue here that what makes a fairytale setting feel ‘fairytale’ is mostly the ‘fairytale logic’.
Just as we know, almost intuitively, that a particular narrative is a fairy tale when we read it, it seems we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it.
Jack Zipes (1996)
[Fairy tales display a distinctive quality] in the sense of a characteristic, instantly recognizable feel or style […] recognizable in the level of structure and content as much as language.
If you haven’t read Wheel On The Chimney (1954) by Margaret Wise Brown and Tibor Gergely, the Internet Archive has a video of a man reading it, against a backdrop of the most unsettling, grating, unpleasant muzak you’ve heard in your life.
Worse, this retro children’s story evinces a troubling conflation between blackness and villainy which publishers more commonly avoid in contemporary children’s books.
The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)
Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.
“Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.
If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.
Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.
That, folks, is peak monster.
Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.
At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.
Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) was a German animator who should be more widely remembered for her influence on art and animation. Reiniger was a pioneer of silhouette animation. She made over sixty films. Eleven are considered lost and fifty have survived.
I believe in the truth of fairy-tales more than I believe the truth of the newspaper.