Waiving the Magic Wand
Forging greater open-mindedness by subverting the conventions of fairy tales
By Amy T.Y. Lai
American attorney Katherine J. Roberts, in an issue of the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, studies the disciplinary function of fairy tales. In the 2001 article that she penned while still a law student, she likens the classical fairy tale to a legal script in the form of a judicial opinion, which is a judge's written explanation of a judgment in a case.
A judicial opinion – or for the matter, case law, which consists of past judgments or precedents to be followed as the law in similar cases – persuades readers with its clear, succinct narrative. Fairy tales, similar to some extent, create (as described in Roberts' article) "spheres of legitimate and illegitimate acts of violence". By legitimising the cruel punishments of villainous characters, such as the stepmother in Snow White and the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, and making their attempted murders of the good protagonists illegitimate, fairy tales have the ability to turn their readers into obedient citizens who behave just like the good protagonists.
Roberts argues that the fairy tale plays an even greater role in shaping lawful behaviour than the recorded law, because it lies at the heart of the children's literary canon and has a much greater claim to universality of influence than the works of famous high-brow writers. Not only do young children lack the critical faculties necessary to challenge the "truth" offered by these stories, but the jurisprudence of fairy tales maps onto a child's developmental phase of moral reasoning.
Each fairy tale typically contains only one single message, which is comparable to the "holding", or a decision, in a judicial opinion. Moreover, the fairy tale's strict concision of narrative, like that of a judicial opinion, has a low tolerance for ambiguity, which manipulates its reader to identify with its "good" characters and to condemn the "bad" ones.
Like judicial opinions that follow well-used formats, fairy tales have equally rigid structures that begin with "once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after". Both follow a "prohibition-violation" pattern, in which characters/defendants commit what are prohibited and therefore violate certain codes of law. Both appeal self-consciously to their own transformative forces, inviting their audiences to believe that everything will come to a just conclusion.
Roberts' analysis is insightful, particularly in light of the parallel evolutions of fairy tales and the justice systems. The early versions of fairy tales typically contain "an eye for an eye" version of justice. For instance, the witch in Hansel and Gretel is eventually put into the same oven that she has been preparing to cook Hansel alive. Such a version of justice mirrors the retributive justice found in the Bible and other early legal systems.
The humanisation of the justice system – namely the replacement of capital punishment and other forms of corporal punishments by imprisonment in most countries – is also reflected correspondingly in fairy tales. Hence, in subsequent rewritings of some of these fairy tales, extremely cruel punishments were often excluded and replaced by more humane treatments.
Towards the end of her article, Roberts points out how revisionist scholars, conscious of the fairy tale's power to reflect and change society, attempt to rewrite classical fairy tales and thus overrule their doctrines. Such attempts to forge new legal precedents bring to mind The Bloody Chamber, a 1979 book by British writer Angela Carter (1940-1992), which contains metafictional parodies of stories by Brothers Grimm. By rewriting Snow White, Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood, Carter challenges the gender stereotypes that have been perpetuated by these stories.
More specifically, Carter's stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolf, where the granny becomes the Big Bad Wolf and is eliminated, and where the girl ends up sleeping with a tamed wolf in the end, can be seen as deliberate subversion of "good" and "bad" stereotypes and conscious overturning of the formulaic "prohibition-violation" pattern in classical fairy tales.
In Roberts' words, Carter appropriates classical fairy tales and exercise her "magic spell" by turning those stories upside down. By waving her magic wand, she empowers her innocent, timid little girl, tames the wicked wolf, and exposes the wickedness of the granny, thereby setting up new rules that do not correspond to traditional notions of good and bad.
Nevertheless, over the past 10 years, there has been a growing canon of contemporary fairy tales where authors, in their attempts to challenge traditional doctrines, do not adhere to Roberts' fairy-tale pattern, such as its prohibition-violation rules and final judgment, in order to subvert their ideologies. By doing something different, these new ways of writing fairy tales sidestep the trap of prolonging an oppressive punitive system. Two such examples are King & King and And Tango Makes Three, gay-friendly fairy tales where their authors seek to challenge the entrenched heterosexism of classical fairy tales without waving the magic wand.
King & King, written by Linda de Haan and illustrated by Stern Nijland, is a contemporary fairy tale published in 2002 that affirms gay marriage. Yet its authors do not adopt the conventional classical fairy-tale elements that make it a legal script or judicial opinion in disguise. A prohibition-violation pattern is absent. It also contains numerous elements that would be seen as ambiguous and non-essential to the story.
Instead of a typical royal family headed by a king, it tells of a queen, who has ruled the country for many years and who lives with a young prince and a kitty in her palace. While urging her prince to get married so that she can retire, she reveals that she has married twice at the prince's age. Although the young prince ends up falling in love, not with Princess Madeleine but her brother Prince Lee, his choice is not portrayed as violating any social taboo.
The story does not begin with "once upon a time", and it justifies its gay-friendly ending not with "they (the couple) live happily ever after," but with "And everyone lives happily ever after." On the last page, the reader finds the two married princes, now known as "King and King", kissing and with a red heart superimposed upon their mouths.
Thus, the authors of King & King subvert the conventional fairy tale by including many unconventional elements, including single motherhood and alternative families. Most importantly, it lays out a gay-positive story with an ending that is gratifying for all parties, but without consciously constructing something like a judicial opinion that imposes a new legal or, worse still, punitive standard upon its reader.
And Tango Makes Three, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, similarly does not adopt the conventional fairy-tale elements. Published in 2005, the story takes the reader to a far more realistic setting: the New York Central Park Zoo. Here, zookeeper Mr Gramzay notices a pair of male penguins, Roy and Silo, doing things together all the time and believes that they "must be in love".
When Gramzay finds out that Roy and Silo imitate other penguin couples by building a nest of stones, he brings an egg to their nest. The two penguins take turns to sit on the egg until it hatches, revealing a female baby penguin, whom Gramzay calls Tango. Like all the other animals in the zoo and all the families in the big city around them, this family of three snuggle together and go to sleep. By revealing how Roy and Silo become "parents" of baby Tango, and by emphasising that the tale of Roy, Silo and Tango is based on a real story, the authors persuade the reader to embrace alternative families without having to resort to magic.
Gay-friendly fairy tales, like King & King and And Tango Makes Three, try to influence their readers and help bring about changes in existing laws that oppress gay people. Nevertheless, they do not adhere to fairy-tale formula or adopt new punitive systems and prohibition-violation patterns, where the conservative are punished and the liberal are rewarded and gratified.
The rewriting of classical fairy tales, a technique hailed by many postmodernists, ultimately pitches two opposing ideologies against each other and seeks to have one view prevail over the other. By waiving the magic wand altogether, these storywriters help to lessen or eliminate the hostile relationship that typically exists between the conservative and the liberal, and so bring about the same open-minded and peaceful attitude that they seek to endorse in their advocacy for a society that embraces diversity.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010