The Quality of Fairy Tales, Part I

I love fairy tales.

Now, it’s no secret that I love all the trappings of fairy tales: fantastical settings, castles, magic, etc. But what I love most are not these trappings. What I love most are the illogical unexplained plot points, the sheer whack-a-doodle-ness, the timeless-Everyman quality of them.

Let me explain. I’ll even do it in three parts. (See what I did there, tying into into the whole three-is-magic fairy tale thing?)

Part The First: The Illogicalness of Plots

Example: Rumpelstiltskin (or Tom-Tit-Tot)

There is so much crazy going on in this story that it boggles the mind.

1) The miller (or his wife, depending on the version) makes up a nutty story about their daughter spinning straw (or flax) into gold.
Um. Why? He/she’s embarrassed the king overheard them complaining about the daughter’s laziness/greediness. So that’s the story they go with: straw into gold. Not that this would ever come back to bite them…

2) Unless said girl produces spun gold from straw, the king will behead her.
The really nutty part of this is that he’s engaged to her. But unless she spins a roomful of straw into gold (overnight, no less!), he’s going to kill her. What a winner of a fiance (not to mention a great ruler). Eeek.

3) The strange tiny old man wants her BABY.
How insanely CREEPY is that? Why does that part of the story not disturb people more? What on earth does he want that kid for? Anything I can think of is extremely disturbing. This story should scare people waaay more than it does. Little creepy old men who roam the earth looking for hapless maidens needing gold spun in exchange for babies? YIKES.

4) The resolution of the plot by the king overhearing a crazy song (wherein the villain reveals his secret name) and the king subsequently conveniently relays it to his wife.
I remember reading this part of the story as a kid and totally not buying it. Seriously? Try a little harder, storyteller.

I have a book by Vivian Vande Velde called The Rumpelstiltskin Problem that contains six different inventive, dark, often humorous, retellings of this story. She feels the same way about Rumpelstiltskin that I do. In the forward, she compares the oral tradition of fairy tales to the game “Telephone” where you whisper stories back and forth until they make no sense. She says, “That’s how I feel about the story of Rumpelstiltskin–it makes no sense.”

This is why I keep coming back to fairy tales, why I love fairy tale re-tellings like Robin McKinley‘s Beauty and Spindle’s End, and Jane Yolen‘s Briar Rose (among the many I have in my collection). It’s why I’ve got a reference section devoted to fairy tales and non-fiction works on them like Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Katharine Brigg’s wondrous Encyclopedia of Fairies. Reading these stories provokes questions that I want to answer. I want to know why the evil fairy even cared that she wasn’t invited to some dumb baby’s christening in Sleeping Beauty, why on earth Cinderella didn’t just tell the prince her name the first night of the ball, and yes, creepy as the answer might be, why on earth did Rumpelstiltskin want to steal some baby?

To be continued…

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9 thoughts on “The Quality of Fairy Tales, Part I

    • Starr the geekyartistlibrarian says:

      Heh heh, and that’s my mom!
      I wonder if Tina Fey’s mom thinks HER daughter is the funniest in the world? Hmmm.

  1. Claire says:

    “She feels the same way about Rumpelstiltskin that I do. In the forward, she compares the oral tradition of fairy tales to the game “Telephone” where you whisper stories back and forth until they make no sense.”

    ^LOVE that. And it’s so true! Which makes sense, as most folklore was orally passed down (and no doubt tampered with) for generations upon generations before being collected in any way.

    P.S. We should have a party at which we play Fairy Tale Telephone. Someone starts with “Two lost children get trapped by a witch and must escape before she eats them,” and by the end, it’d be “Two sloths with mittened wraps can’t itch their scrapes on board a sea ship.”

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