I love fairy tales. I’ve always loved fairy tales. Growing up, I devoured fairy tale books, with special emphasis on the Disney movies, with their beautiful princesses. My personal favorite was Disney’s Cinderella. I saw it once when I was a child and then, in a pre-video era, all I could do was replay endlessly in my memory the wonderful scene when Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a princess’s ball gown. When I saw the movie again as an adult, I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but I needn’t have feared. The movie was as charming as I’d remembered, and the transformation scene was a perfect piece of animation (and, rumor has it, Walt Disney’s own favorite animation moment):
The message in Cinderella couldn’t be more clear. First, be beautiful. But if you can’t achieve beauty, at least be a patient Griselda, one who tirelessly toils for cruel tyrants, with the promise of future reward.
That’s the theme in the majority of fairy tales that originated in the old world: be good, be passive, and some deus ex machina figure, usually magical, will come and rescue you. Passivity is the name of the game. In one fairy tale after another, the lead character, usually the youngest child of at least three siblings, prevails by virtue of being nice.
The other way to prevail in fairy tales that started life in the old world was to use guile. My favorite in this genre is The Valiant Little Tailor:
A tailor is preparing to eat some jam, but when flies settle on it, he kills seven of them with one blow. He makes a belt describing the deed, “Seven at one blow”. Inspired, he sets out into the world to seek his fortune. The tailor meets a giant, who assumes that “Seven at one blow” refers to seven men. The giant challenges the tailor. When the giant squeezes water from a boulder, the tailor squeezes water (or whey) from cheese. The giant throws a rock far into the air, and it eventually lands. The tailor counters the feat by releasing a bird that flies away; the giant believes the small bird is a “rock” which is thrown so far that it never lands. The giant asks the tailor to help carry a tree. The tailor directs the giant to carry the trunk, while the tailor will carry the branches. Instead, the tailor climbs on, so the giant carries him as well.
The giant brings the tailor to the giant’s home, where other giants live as well. During the night, the giant attempts to kill the man. However, the tailor, having found the bed too large, sleeps in the corner. On seeing him still alive, the other giants flee, never to be seen again.
The tailor enters the royal service, but the other soldiers are afraid that he will lose his temper someday, and then seven of them might die with every blow. They tell the king that either the tailor leaves military service, or they will. Afraid of being killed for sending him away, the king instead sends the tailor to defeat two giants, offering him half his kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage. By throwing rocks at the two giants while they sleep, the tailor provokes the pair into fighting each other. The king then sends him after a unicorn, but the tailor traps it by standing before a tree, so that when the unicorn charges, he steps aside and it drives its horn into the trunk. The king subsequently sends him after a wild boar, but the tailor traps it in a chapel.
With that, the king marries him to his daughter. His wife hears him talking in his sleep and realizes that he is merely a tailor. Her father the king promises to have him carried off. A squire warns the tailor, who pretends to be asleep and calls out that he has done all these deeds and is not afraid of the men behind the door. Terrified, they leave, and the king does not try again.
Old world fairy tales do not feature epic battles of good against evil, or even minor battles of good against evil. They abandon the heroic tradition of Greek dramas or even the mighty warriors of the Bible. Instead, they present a world of little people who prevail because of good deeds or guile.
Different scholars have theorized that fairy tales originated to keep children in line (hence the emphasis on passivity and good house-cleaning skills as the way to achieve worldly success) or as fireside stories, often quite ribald, that peasants told each other during long, dark nights (explaining the tales that featured otherwise insignificant people prevailing through stealth and guile). Regardless of origin, the net result is a genre that instructs children that assertiveness and self-reliance are much less important than submitting to tyranny with good grace and being sneaky when possible.
American-born fairy tales are vastly different. Of course, I use the phrase “American-born” advisedly. Because America is a nation of immigrants, we imported our fairy tales too, which explains why every American child is conversant with Cinderella, Snow White, and Aladdin. Nevertheless, Americans did create their own canon.
To begin with, American children dined on political hagiographies of our first leaders, with Parson Weems’ delightful, and untrue, stories about Washington leading the pack. These tales focused on distinctly American virtues: being honest, straightforward, and physically brave, virtues that are the antithesis of the trickery or downtrodden apathy in European tales.
American tales also dreamed big. We had the imaginary Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill, whose size or energy literally changed the landscape in which they lived. Real figures, such as Johnny Appleseed or Davy Crockett had their actual exploits mixed with a large dollop of artistic license, and these tales opened up the West for Americans. Popular literature imagined dynamic, self-confident young people who made their own way in the world. They had help, but it wasn’t magical. Instead, it came from people who were attracted to the hero or heroines can-do spirit and gave them a helping hand. (Louisa May Alcott and Horatio Alger were masters of this genre.)
That notion of the pushing, striving, dynamic American hero got a spectacular boost when Hollywood came into being. Old Hollywood quickly discovered that American audiences craved big stories, with big heroes. Western movies impressed upon Americans that America’s fictional heroes didn’t succeed because they sat around waiting for magic to appear; they succeeded because they blazed trails, fought battles, civilized the wilderness, and generally took control of their own destinies.
World War II movies also emphasized Americans’ fighting spirit. We didn’t have endless movies about our victimization at Pearl Harbor. Instead, movie after movie celebrated America’s fighting spirit, both at home and on the battlefield. We had an enemy, said Hollywood, and we valiantly met in on the field of battle.
In the 1970s, Hollywood started feeling terribly guilty about the cultural imperialism in these tales and came up with the anti-hero. That played well to a guilty middle class, but was never a dramatic trope that had legs. The anti-hero works only if he acts . . . heroically. Americans want the little guy to win because he’s got guts. The artsy crowd may enjoy a Dog Day Afternoon, but ordinary Americans want to see little ole Luke Skywalker take on the empire, intrepid Indiana Jones fight bad guys the world over, or (with a big thank you to the British woman who dreamed him up) Harry Potter and Co. face off squarely against evil, and win through a combination of virtue and martial skills (all nicely packaged in some sparkly magic gimmicks).
The recent staggering success of The Avengers is just one more indication that Americans want their fairy tales to be proactive. The characters in The Avengers are pretty (it is Hollywood after all), but their attractiveness — an attractiveness that has generated a staggering $1 billion in ticket sales — comes about because they are strong and aggressive. They defeat the evil alien force by rock ‘em, sock ‘em, beat ‘em up action. There is no room for negotiation, house cleaning, or even guile here. The only “goodness” that counts is one that is folded tightly into loyalty, patriotism, and physical bravery.
The Left is busily trying to chip away at these classic American virtues. Leftist movies have failed at the box office, but the Leftist challenge to the American virtues of physical bravery can be seen in the Left’s wholeheartedly embrace of the anti-bullying campaign. Many have asked why bullying has seemed to be on the rise in recent years. I think I figured out the answer when, in a casual conversation with my kids, I mentioned “school-yard fights.”
I got a surprising response to that throw-away line: “What’s a school-yard fight, Mom?”
“In the old days,” I said (just like a fairy tale), “when kids, especially boys, would get into fights, they started hitting each other.”
“Did they get suspended?”
“Maybe. But what usually happened was that they’d start swinging at each other. Everyone in the school yard would instantly circle them and start hollering ‘Fight! Fight!’ Then, a teacher would wade through the crowd, saying ‘Come on, everyone, break it up. Break it up now.’ The teacher would then wade into the fight, separate the two kids, shake ‘em out and, more often than not, tell them to stop fighting. And that would be the end of it.”
“That would never happen today.”
(Incidentally, I am not talking about gang fights, which are a form of urban warfare. I’m talking about the old-fashioned elementary school playground battle, where two little kids settled the matter with some kicks and punches.)
No, it certainly wouldn’t. The focus today is on the bully. The bully gets suspended and the bully gets counseling. Kids are told that, if they get bullied, they should immediately get teachers involved. Good kids know that any type of self-defense is dangerous, as it could lead to suspension.
I hate bullying. I was bullied when I was a child and, I’m sad to say, when I had the opportunity, I immediately turned around and bullied others (verbally). I had a sharp tongue and wasn’t afraid to use it. But that sharp tongue was my self-defense. A well-timed insult, especially one that raised a laugh from the audience, deflected the bully and kept me safe. I never ran to the teacher. I got a reputation for being somewhat mean (which was partially deserved), but people left me alone. Had I been a boy, I might have punched someone and been left alone.
My point is that the best way to deal with bullying is two-pronged: First, create an environment in which bullying is frowned upon and mutual respect is the order of the day. This starts at the top, with teachers and administrators. In too many schools, however, teachers and administrations treat students with condescension, disdain, arrogance, or fear. Second, teach the victims how not to be victims. If you take away the targets, you take away a lot of the bullying. If students see themselves as warriors, not victims, bullying will become a much less enticing activity for those who are naturally inclined to dominate cruelly those around them.
I can already hear people saying that, if you emphasize the warrior spirit, our schools will start looking like a gladiator camp. Au contraire. If you emphasize brutality, that’s true. But if you emphasize the honorable side of the warrior, one that sees him respecting widows and orphans (so to speak), our schools will actually be much more civil than they are now. I’ve never known nicer kids than those who are martial arts black belts. They have a quiet self-confidence about them, that makes it unnecessary for them to lash out. Moreover, their peers respect them, and feel no need to test them.
It times to take the European Leftism out of our fairy tales, and reinstate an American ideal that involves honor, strength, and the willingness to fight for what’s right.