Fairy Tales and the Problem of Men

Marina Warner – who is generally awesome and, amongst other things, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck in London - writes, in ‘Once Upon a Time – A Short History of Fairy Story', that:

“All the favourite and famous fairy tales today are girls stories… But while the stories’ views of femaleness and femininity have been thoroughly shaken up, assumptions about maleness and masculinity have not been interrogated as enterprisingly – there’s been a general reluctance to address the question, and a general retreat from even thinking about boys and fairy tales, probably because doing so leads into very deep waters about what society expects from young men – and these are proving hard to plumb.”

She goes on to remind us that around half of Grimms’ fairy tales star a young hero; and she suggests that the principal reason for the disappearance of these particular fairy stories is that they became “irredeemably tainted” by the Nazis, who used the stories as “a kind of how-to guide to being hard”.

The consequences of this are simultaneously straightforward and difficult to fathom: young men – young boys – no longer have access to an exceptionally valuable repository of guidance on how to prepare for life; but how can we possibly assess the specific consequences of this?

Warner gives us a clue:

“While the fairy tale genre generally ignores patient merit, it does concern itself with the downtrodden and the ill-used, and a central part of its consolations derives from fate’s twists and turns.  The odds are stacked against everyone, more or less equally, and everything can change, suddenly, without rhyme or reason.  The impenetrability of destiny and the helplessness of humans in the grip of chance count among the sharpest messages of fairy tales, and the exploratory tools, psychoanalytic or other, blunt themselves on their mystery.”

Perhaps, had they been better prepared – had they received these sharp messages when young - there would not be so many furious and dangerous men in the world.

Time to dust down Grimms’ forgotten tales, perhaps?


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