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I’m going to start by saying that this post is a bit different from my usual posts in the regard that I’m discussing something sort of teeters at the edge of my expertise (and veers slightly away from the main topic of this blog from books to movies). Please don’t hesitate to argue with me in the comments if you disagree (respectfully, if you so choose).
I have a friend who absolutely loves Jacob Grimm.
This isn’t about his fairy tales – it’s about his linguist discovery (Grimm’s law) and when I told her he was an awful misogynist, she was disappointed (but unsurprised) to hear it.
I open this post with this because the Grimm brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob, are probably the most responsible party for the modern trend of revisionist fairy tales – if by modern trend, we’re talking about something that has been done aggressively, by many people, over the past few hundred years. Fairy tales are an interesting literary invention; they are living bits of literature, morphed from adult stories to nursery tales and back to adult stories with stunning ease. the villains shifting and changing as is popular by contemporary (whatever the time period) standards of villainry.
I talk about Grimm, because they have the most famous (although not the only) collection of fairy tales, which could be easily changed to “princess tales” or “fantasy tales” with ease, as only a small handful feature fairies. People are under the impression that the Grimms passively collected stories, wrote them down sans agenda, and went along their way; often Grimm’s collections are dark and adult and feature stories like The Juniper Tree whose codas of cannibalism and filicide are a bit shocking when examined against the saccharine buoyancy of Disney retellings. But that’s a myth; the nature of fairy tales is one of change, even when that change comes at a cost of promoting the morals of whoever is doing the retelling.
So let’s examine the recent Disney film, Maleficent. I’ve been known to dislike “villain narratives” because I often feel that the redemption of villain characters (particularly characters like Captain Hook, or the Wicked Witch of the West – sorry, all you Wicked fans – meaning characters who come from and exist predominantly in children’s literature) is a completely adult justification. In children’s books, children are often the protagonist and adults are the villain – in villain narratives, this deconstruction often paints the child as ignorant, misguided, or too quick to judge, which really defeats the purpose of the entire narrative (which is to strengthen the truth that to children, there is nothing more dangerous than an adult). In villain narratives, it is the opposite; there is nothing more dangerous to an adult who has had a complex and difficult life than a child (just look at Professor Snape). In other words: to be a villain is to be a victim of a story poorly-told, where children have been duped into cheering for the wrong protagonist. Once they grow up, they will learn that they were wrong all along, and change their tune. (You can see why I find this incredibly difficult to swallow – it essentially is a terrible game of “gotcha!” with the narratives of our childhood).
Maleficent, however, suffers a problem that Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West never faced: she was never meant to be in a children’s story in the first place. Sleeping Beauty and Briar Rose was, up until very recently in the history of its lifetime, an adult story (a fact that I’m sure many people are perfectly cognizant of). It existed in several forms, with the bad fairy who curses the princess generally doing so for having been snubbed by not receiving an invitation for the christening – something that modern readers may not recognize as a tremendous oversight, as christenings were often incredibly elaborate and involved social events. This can be seen as a variation on the good host/bad host trope that the Beast in Beauty and the Beast also suffers from, but that is a conversation unto itself. As it is, the bad fairy’s motivations are pretty clear – she wanted to go to the party, and without an invite, was relegated to party-crasher. Further, in most variations, that’s the end of the bad fairy’s involvement – she curses the princess and takes off, and the briars and brambles are put up by other fairies, or time, depending on the variation one reads. In fact, in many of the original tales, there’s an entire part of the story featuring an ogre mother-in-law (the next wicked woman on the train of wicked women intent on destroying this poor princess’s life) who wants to eat her, or her children, or both.
Disney boiled these elements down from both the Grimm and the Perrault retellings to create what was probably their most satisfying animated adaptation, with the most satisfying villain – an evil fairy who answered to no one, who did what she wanted, and who did it for no reason other than to be thoroughly evil.
And Disney, in a show of following the trend of retelling fairy tales from the villain point of view, then turns this on its head and gives her reason, inclination, motivation, and character depth – odd for a villain who turns into a dragon and tries to eat Prince Phillip while proclaiming that she has all the power of hell behind her. Why do that? Why Maleficent, who is so irredeemably bad, and who doesn’t call for any redemption at all?
One might give the argument that Disney created a female evil so intense from the legacy left to us by the Grimms, who transformed a great many ogres in disguise into wicked stepmothers, who did a great disservice to all women who were not virginal and young by making them wicked and jealous. Disney was only following suit, and now in this time of feminism and revisionism, are trying to sell a different story.
But I don’t think so.
I think, instead, that it has become harder to sell villains for the sake of villainy. We as consumers of media no longer buy that someone is evil for the sake of being evil because there has been movement away from the altogether religious belief that the devil is the devil solely for the sake of being the opposite of God. We no longer accept the Lucifer of the Catholic Church, who is pure evil for the sake of evil – we want Milton’s Lucifer, complex and smart and wholly misunderstood, angry with God. And so we want evil characters who have motive, who have reasons that we can understand and relate to.
All this brings me back to the Grimms. I personally do not particularly like the retelling of stories from the villain’s point of view (for the reasons I have stated above) but the fact is that this is not the first time that we have changed the cultural narrative to redirect the story to a different protagonist, and it won’t be the last. Fairy tales are unique in that every retelling describes the cultural values that are being touted at the time of their retelling.
And if that’s the case, what does sympathy for the villain tell future generations about us?