One of things Sci Phi Journal does with their stories is append a little “Food for Thought” section at the end where they unpack a little of the point of the story. I think this is a little bit risky, personally. After all, there are plenty of people that will read a story and enjoy it for what it is. But if Lord of the Rings had a note at the end telling you what the story’s supposed to make you think about World War II…? Or if X-Men comics ended with a message that broke down exactly how that particular tale applied to, say, actual civil rights issues…? That’d necessarily be pushing it!
Now, Sci Phi doesn’t go that far, but for me it comes pretty close with this:
How does wealth and beauty affect our justice system?
You know, I’m not even going to attempt to answer that one. A half-dozen high profile miscarriages of justice pulse through my brain as I think about it. Maybe it does for you, too. But here’s the thing. We’re probably not thinking about the the same sorts of court cases! Of course, I read that and I’m not even sure which court cases I’m supposed to be thinking about right then. And it’s that supposition that really rankles.
The next one goes beyond flirting with a politically charged topic but instead tackles something much deeper:
In fairy tales ugly equals evil, is this attitude still prevalent today?
Now… I’m maybe reading too much into this, but it’s almost as if there is a really prevalent attitude running wild and the editor and the story writer agree that it’s not right and I’m supposed to read this and then I’ll be better or something. And that really rankles, let me tell you!
But never mind that. Let’s look at the first part of that question. “In fairy tales ugly equals evil.”
Is that even the case? And… who even comes away from fairy tales with that impression? I’m positively baffled that anyone would. Where does one even begin with something like this? Well, it’s safest to start with something real.
That is an objective fact. Something as hard and as enduring as the Pythagorean Theorem.
And fairy tales as most people tend to think of them are the domain of old wives. And these old wives have things they want to convey to children in an entertaining way. Things like… your stepmother wants to kill you. But they can’t just come right out and say that sort of thing, so you end up with these really freaky stories.
Now we don’t know who these old wives are, really, so this is all speculation on my part. But those times that they lived in, they were really tough. Survival absolutely depended on children acquiring virtues. The consequences for vice…? Well, it was just like today, but with tighter margins. So these old wives are telling and retelling and embellishing these folk tales and you end up with Cinderella being pretty and the evil stepsisters being ugly.
At least… that’s what I want to say.
And then I want to make the point that ugly people are bad in fairy tales because the old wives wanted to make vice unappealing to their listeners. Just like they made beautiful people good in order to try make virtue appealing to children.
But the old wives never really had to do that, did they? Sure, Disney went out of their way to make Cinderella the picture of beauty and grace. And the wicked stepsisters clumsy and goofy looking. But it isn’t like that in the Brothers Grimm version. There the stepsisters are “beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart.” Likewise, the description of the old woman from Hansel and Gretel doesn’t really dwell too much on how she looked. They instead the Brothers Grimm say that “witches have red eyes and cannot see very far, but they have a sense of smell like animals, and know when humans are approaching.”
Now that’s a funny thing because I’ve always had the impression that witches were just normal women that meddle in the occult. But this is something else entirely different. And here we have this incredibly famous story that I’ve never really paid close attention to… and right there in it witches are not even human at all! The beastliness of their red eyes and keen smell…? It’s not there to signify that they are merely “evil”. Witches are something else entirely: alien beings utterly inimical to humanity, dwelling on the borders of the domains of Law, awaiting their chance to do ill to whomever falls into their clutches!
Now, nobody really thinks of witches this way anymore. And yes, this is clearly a relic of a culture that ceased to exist a long time ago. But the people that told these sorts of stories were certainly keen on warning people about something. And this goes way beyond being a cautionary tale about not taking candy from strangers.
No, there’s something deeply significant about witches, something primal. And it’s strange, but people just can’t seem to let it lie, either. There’s something about this that offends them. And then they have to go fix the stories. Revise them. Flip the script. Reinterpret witches in entirely different light the way that this story does. So The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent both end up getting these makeovers as the old style witches just sort of evaporate.
When I ponder these things, I have an entirely different set of questions I’d like answered than the ones posed by Sci Phi:
What if the old wives really were on to something with this…?
And why do people go out of their way to suppress their perspective?