I have a lot to say about fairytales and I think fairytales have a lot to say to us.
Two years ago, I sat in on a panel about fairytales at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Tampa, Florida.
The panel was chaired by a small, elderly woman with large glasses. A young woman stood up during the questioning portion and asked about the binaries that are glaringly present in fairytales.
“Why should we be so invested in stories that tell of little boys that wear blue and little girls that are princesses and must be saved?” she asked rather angrily.
The old woman straightened up in her chair. I could tell that she was anticipating a question like this. In fact, her little frame seemed to spring forward.
“Think of fairytales as tales of wholeness. The prince is not a man, the princess is not a woman. Perhaps, the prince represents more male-centric characteristics and the princess represents traits associated with women such as sensitivity,” she said as she peered through her coke-bottle glasses.
“By the end of the story, we have a complete person.”
There is one fairytale that I have always been drawn to, titled “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” by Hans Christian Andersen. The tale is about a frustratingly prideful girl, Little Inger, who is ignorant of her actions. On the way to meet her mother, who she has not seen for a year, Little Inger wears her best dress and cleanest shoes to declare how “fine she had become.” She carries a loaf of bread that was gifted to her by her employer and once she comes across a stretch of mud on her journey, she throws the bread down and uses it as a steppingstone so as not to dirty her “fine new shoes.”
The weirdness of this story is the true hook. The young woman slips into a marsh of sorts: “She went down to the Marsh Woman, who brews down there. The Marsh Woman is an aunt of the elf maidens, who are very well known.”
Little Inger happens to visit the underground brewery when the devil and his great-grandmother are visiting (why Andersen chose the “great” grandmother is also beyond me). And lo and behold, “This Little Inger went to hell!”
After Inger arrives in that “endless antechamber,” she must listen to all the people she knows say nasty things about her; well, not necessarily nasty, but maybe just a little bit truthful. She is only struck by sorrow when somebody calls her “Poor Inger.”
I find it interesting to break down these moral tales. Here I am in my chair yelling at Inger that flour is in short supply, that food is more important than dirtying your shoes. But I can’t get through to Inger, I am just the reader, listening.
When Inger is alone in hell, stuck to the ground “as if fastened by a loaf of bread,” she is the one who must listen.
Sure, Cinderella or Snow White can be considered tales of wholeness. Snow White, “who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood,” has a chance at being complete once she meets the prince. But how do you explain this strange story about a very pretty but awful little girl who, using her privilege, tramples a loaf of bread that “draws her as an amber bead on a slender thread” into a hellish brewery where she meets a Marsh Woman who makes “the meadows reek in the summer?”
I guess it’s sometimes easy to say that we can consider fairytales these wonderful stories of wholeness. There are times when I do feel whole. But right now, I feel quite the opposite. We must not accept that something will change as if we are Snow White, waiting in her tower for eternity. All this waiting, waiting to be whole, waiting for the prince; the waiting is wrong. If you took a bite from the poisoned red apple, figure out a way to come out of it.
Do not tread on the loaf. If you only hear your voice echoing in the antechamber with Little Inger, both of you looking up, stop waiting. Sitting idle down there, brewing, is not the right thing to do. Little Inger should have gotten filthy, to the point of being unrecognizable, crossing that marsh to her mother, carrying the loaf as if it were her own child. Instead of feeling bad for herself, instead of perking up at the mention of sympathy, then feeling angry: “They ought to have brought me up better,” Inger thought. “They should have beaten the nonsense out of me, if I had any;” Inger should have fought for her own awakening. Reading is not just reading, and Little Inger does not just exist on the page. Reading is a form of listening, and listening becomes awareness.