Reading The Brothers Grimm.

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Sept. 22 2005 7:18 AM

Fairy Tales in the Age of Terror

What Terry Gilliam helps to remind us about an ancient genre.

Brothers Grimm poster

In The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam invites us into the woods to witness the murder of Little Red Riding Hood in a setting of such breathtaking allure that we experience a double jolt—one administered by the girl's terrifying death and the other by the magnificent landscape in which she perishes. The dark blend of horror and fantasy on-screen is enough to make adults wonder anew just what were, and are, the "uses of enchantment," as Bruno Bettelheim called his book about why children need fairy tales. In an age when beauty has been separated from art, when horror has migrated into lowbrow entertainment, when cynicism has driven out wonder, and when the grand narrative style has given way to postmodern pastiche, we still hunger, especially in times of social and cultural crisis, for the primal and unforgiving emotional experience delivered by narratives like the ones told by our ancestors. There is transformative power in terror, as life has lately taught us, and we count on stories to keep us from forgetting that—a kind of story that has become harder, not easier, to find.

A film about fairy tales and about the two men who collected the traditional German tales that migrated across the Atlantic to become part of our folklore, The Brothers Grimm delivers a startling reminder that the narratives started out as adult entertainment—violent, bawdy, melodramatic improvisations that emerged in the evening hours, when ordinary chores engaged the labor of hands, leaving minds free to wander and wonder. Fairy tales, John Updike has proposed, were the television and pornography of an earlier age—part of a fund of popular culture (including jokes, gossip, news, advice, and folklore) that were told to the rhythms of spinning, weaving, repairing tools, and mending clothes. The hearth, where all generations were present, including children, became the site at which miniature myths were stitched together, tales that took up in symbolic terms anxieties about death, loss, and the perils of daily life but also staged the triumph of the underdog. There Jack could slay the giant and escape with his treasured hen, Rapunzel could use her tears to restore the sight of the man who fathered her children, and Puss in Boots could outwit an ogrelike monarch to advance the fortunes of his humble master. Beneath the horror was always the promise of revenge and restitution, the exquisite reassurance of a happily-ever-after.

Beauty, horror, wonders, violence, and magic have always tumbled thick and fast through fairy tales. Folk raconteurs gave their audiences what they wanted, indulging the desire for audacious eroticism, hyperbolic fantasies, and casual cruelty. For those gathered around the hearth, Little Red Riding Hood was not necessarily an innocent who strays from the forest path. In tales that formed part of an adult storytelling culture in premodern France, she unwittingly feasts on the flesh and blood of her grandmother, performs an elaborate striptease for the wolf, and manages to escape by telling the predatory beast that she needs to go outdoors to relieve herself. Firmly rooted in the familiar, she introduces us to the great existential mysteries, in a miniature and manageable form. Her irreverent behavior, effortless mobility, willingness to take detours, and daring resourcefulness modeled possibilities for those lingering at the fireside.

In the great migration of fairy tales from the fireside to the nursery that was finally accomplished in the course of the 19th century, "Little Red Riding Hood" was twisted, pretzellike, into a cautionary tale, warning small children not only about the dangers of straying from the path but also about their own unruly desires. Charles Perrault's version of 1697 shows us a Little Red Cap who never emerges from the belly of the wolf, and her story becomes a platform for teaching children many lessons, among them the fact that "tame wolves / Are the most dangerous of all."

Framing fairy tales with platitudes about obedience (those efforts continue today in the anthologies of children's literature produced by William J. Bennett) and settling them in the nursery could not strip them entirely of their power to shock and enthrall. If the Grimms took pains to eliminate raunchy folk humor from the narratives, they insisted on keeping the violence, in some cases intensifying it and surrounding its effects with an intoxicating verbal shimmer. J.R.R Tolkien was fascinated by the "Juniper Tree," one of the more ghoulish tales in the collection, and referred to the scene in which a stepmother decapitates her stepson as "exquisite and tragic." He was not alone; P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, found the story "beautiful," even though what follows the scene of decapitation is a description of how the boy is chopped into small pieces and served up to his father in a stew. Disavowing the notion of fairy-tale whimsy, Tolkien and Travers are stirred by childhood memories of how the violence in the stories can tear us apart but also restore us to life through the knowledge, wisdom, and experience they impart.

Fairy tales once elicited what Richard Wright has described as a "total emotional response." In Black Boy, an autobiography of growing up in the Jim Crow South, Wright evokes the memory of having "Bluebeard and His Seven Wives" (a fairy tale whose implied audience is clearly adults) read to him by a schoolteacher named Ella: "My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me. … I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me." Like so many young fairy-tale protagonists, Wright found himself experiencing a shudder of pleasure and fear, standing "at the gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land." And it was literally forbidden: Ella, who was boarding at his house, sneaked the story in, but this was long before Bettelheim had enlightened Americans about the therapeutic power of fairy tales to strengthen young superegos. For Wright, the maturational effect was a sound beating (Wright's grandmother denounced the tale as "devil's work") and a lifelong engagement with stories, whose power to change us—not least by frightening us into imagining alternate realities—had once overwhelmed him. Wright's experience gives us pause about our endless efforts to invent child-friendly fairy tales. Were our ancestors on to something when they included children in their communal storytelling practices?

A Grimm reminder ... Click image to expand.
A Grimm reminder ...

Fairy tales have not vanished from the world of adults, but today they often take the form of cultural debris, fragments of once powerful narratives that find their way into our language to produce colorful turns of phrase. In the media, we read about a Goldilocks economy, about the Emperor's new clothes, and about Sleeping Beauty stocks. In popular sendups of the classic plots, the purpose is usually to mock the values found in the earlier variants, whether it is the virtue of selfless industry or a lack of vanity. Julia Roberts plays a latter-day Cinderella who moves from rags to Rodeo-Drive riches in Pretty Woman. Anne Sexton gives us a Snow White who is described as both "dumb bunny" and "lovely virgin" as she falls into her comatose state. Not surprisingly, a parodic idea of wonder also gets enlisted to promote consumerist fantasies. Kim Cattrall makes her way through the cobblestone streets of Prague, wearing a red dress, red hooded cape, and red heels in search of a man with the good taste to drink Pepsi. This modern "use" of fairy tales depends on undercutting precisely their original power to give us a bite of reality, to confront us with monsters that seize us, and sink their teeth into our most vulnerable parts. In The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam gets us back to the raw emotional power of the originals, with his mirror queen, whose beautiful face shatters into pieces before our eyes, and with his gingerbread man, a gob of primal muck that emerges from a well to revel in chthonic glory as he swallows a child.

In a scene from To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf captures the elusive hold that fairy tales have on modern sensibilities. When Mrs. Ramsey reads the Grimms' "Fisherman and His Wife" to her son, the tales of old are likened to "the bass gently accompanying a tune, which now and then ran up unexpectedly into the melody." The plots are still there, tugging on us as reminders of the hard-won wisdom that enabled our ancestors to cope with their collective anxieties and fantasies. They continue to haunt us, yet we never quite embrace them or abandon them completely.

Too anxious about the trackless future to trust in the clarifying energy of wandering in "once upon a time," we are in danger of losing our willingness to resurrect wondrous narratives that first transfix us with the terror they arouse, then engage our intellectual powers, provoking forms of curiosity that lead us to consider possibilities—what could be, what might be, what should be. These tales reveal the double face of wonder, restoring the pleasures of fascination, yet at the same time inciting us to reflect on the dark fears and desires embedded in that fascination. In returning us to the gnarled roots of the Grimms' tales, Terry Gilliam opens a gateway that takes us back to the enchantments of a long time ago but also leads us forward into the mysteries of the here and now, this time with an ancient road map in our hands.

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