Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween musings, aka "I read books, so you don't have to"

Ah, the veil thins. October is rapidly becoming my favourite time of year – not least because I began this month sunbathing in my garden. (It’s as if the British weather said “You know what? Seasons are for losers. From now on, there are no rules.”) But the feel of crispy leaves underfoot, the scents of ripening apples and blackberries mingling with woodsmoke, and the slow drawing in of the nights... there is something delicious about the gentle sinking into Autumn and all the mellow fruitfulness it brings. 

Right now I am at work in my "subtle" Halloween costume - Alice band, blue dress with a white cardigan, black shiny patent one-bar shoes, and the pièce de résistance, THESE socks. 

The socks especially are a surprising hit with the menz (is it a schoolgirl thing?) but I notice they were also drawing admiring glances from several children on the walk to the office. The thought occurred to me that dressing in order to make children envious of your wardrobe is criteria I have neglected until now, but it's worth considering for the future. 

I've written elsewhere ( about my Christian beliefs and why I have finally come round to the idea of Halloween it's somewhat thanks to my obsession with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab ( that I have evolved from a sweetness and light kind of gal into one who is at ease with a little bit of gothic darkness.

For instance, is there anything more comforting than snuggling down with a hot chocolate and an antique horror novel? I’m not sure why I find Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles so soothing, but I think it’s the exaggerated, hysterical use of adjectives. A typical passage in one of these books is for the hero to describe, in long winded terms, just how horrifying, repugnant, and unnatural is the scene just behind the door. By the time they get round to actually describing the bloodcurdling sight, you find it’s not actually that scary after all. 

I think my favourite is H.P.Lovecraft, typical of the 1920s horror style he popularised:

"The church was scarce lighted by all the lanthorns that had entered it, for most of the throng had already vanished. They had streamed up the aisle between the pews to the trapdoor of the vault, which yawned loathsomely open just before the pulpit , and were now squirming noiselessly in. I followed dumbly down the footworn steps into the dark, suffocating crypt. The tail of that sinous line of night marchers seemed very horrible, and as I saw them wriggling into a venerable tomb they seemed more horrible still."

"....we were all descending an ominous staircase, damp and peculiarly odorous, that wound endlessly down the bowels of the hill past monotonous walls of dripping stone blocks and crumbling mortar..."

Are you squirming (noiselessly) as you read this....? The adverbs, they burn! I think the reason I enjoy this style is because it’s like fairytales for grown ups – creepy enough to give you enjoyable shivers, but “safe” (or is that “faintly ridiculous”) enough to not be overly scary.

Dracula: Strangely comforting.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” 
C.S. Lewis

It seems I am not the only one to be “into” fairytales – Red Riding Hood made a cinema appearance earlier this year, while there are two, count ‘em, TWO film versions of Snow White coming up next year. (Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron are due to star in Snow White and the Huntsman, while Lily Collins and Julia Roberts will be appearing together in Mirror Mirror.) I say, bring it on! The more the merrier. 

I recently read “The uses of enchantment,” by Bruno Bettelheim. Not everyone would agree with his (heavily Freudian) interpretation of the tales, but it is fascinating all the same. Read it and you will want your children to read the most dark, Grimm fairy tales around – as the sanitised Disney versions largely miss the point, rendering them useless (although I am still a sucker for a cleaning session involving helpful chipmunks.)

I always sing when I'm cleaning, in the hope that it will 
attract some rodents who enjoy bathroom chores.

What fairy tales basically boil down to is this: you want to have sex with your parents. Yes you do, don't deny it! Oedipus rules in fairyland, hence the ubiquitous storyline of a princess who suffers at the hands of her evil stepmother. Our heroine is always beloved by her father, but he remains powerless to rescue her from his wicked wife and, er, marry her. This is one reason why it's no good being politically correct and changing the evil step mother in a story to a biological mother – the whole point is that she is a usurper taking the heroine’s rightful place as daddy’s number one girl.  

Children relate to storybook heroes in other ways: For instance, every tale features a protagonist who has to proceed for some time in isolation. Bettelheim puts it thus: “the fate of these heroes convinces the child that, like them, he may feel outcast and abandoned in the world, groping in the dark, but like them, in the course of his life he will be guided step by step, and given help when it is needed." 

Bettelheim theorises that when children are prematurely forced to view reality in an adult way not allowed to have fairytales and imaginative play in their formative years –they will often retreat into a fantasy world in their teens, sometimes manifesting this with drugs or other reality-bending tools. (I'd hate to mention World of Warcraft here, but I can't help it. Although to be fair, the only reason I don’t play it because I'm afraid I'd really like it and while away my life on the computer. Which I'm totally NOT doing right now, obviously.) 

Small children often feel dumb and inadequate compared with everyone else, which is why many fairy tales start with the hero being considered stupid, eg Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk, etc. Children love Cinderella and Snow White because they reinforce the belief that being put upon and made to do chores means that you are actually envied for your beauty and general wonderfulness. But Bettelheim indicates that they also feel that they deserve dirtiness because they figure if they were that great, their parents would never criticise or disappoint them. 

Bettelheim (whose book was published in 1976) also put paid to the common rumour that Cinderella's slippers turned from fur to glass because of a mistranslation, what with the words for fur and glass being similar in French. He points out that the original story featured birds alerting the prince to the ugly sisters’ bleeding feet – which would have been obvious if the slippers they had squeezed into were glass. It seems that Perrault knew exactly what he was doing when interpreting the story and changed the fur into glass simply because he wanted to.

Whether you take it with a pinch of salt or not, Bettelheim’s take on sex in fairytales is fascinating. While we can all see that the story of Little Red Riding hood being stalked by a slobbering wolf could be interpreted as a morality tale for young women (no, don’t tell him where you’re going, you bimbo!) who knew that the frequent appearance of frogs in tales also symbolises sex? 

Take the story of The Frog King, for instance. If you’re unfamiliar with this story, the gist is that a princess accidentally agrees to letting a frog sleep in her bed. She tries to renege on the deal but after a few weeks the frog wins her over – and turns into a prince. (Surely there is a market for a grown up fairytale in which women start out with a prince and he slowly transforms into a hairy, smelly, moody beast? Only kidding, fellas.)

Says Bettelheim "It must be conveyed to children that sex may seem disgustingly animal-like at first, but that once the right way is found to approach it, beauty will emerge from behind this repulsive appearance." 

(Freud believed that children NEED to find sex repulsive, otherwise the oedipal longing would make them want sex with their parents. Yes folks, it was apparently the only thing keeping incest taboo.)

The “animal-groom cycle” continues in Beauty and the Beast – it’s only when she decides to break the oedipal ties to her father and return to the beast that she decides that actually, she would quite like a bit of action with him.  

Things get a little more *out there* in Bettelheim’s interpretation of Jack and the beanstalk. Apparently this is all about children masturbating and fearing "the ogre" (eg, parents) will find them out. Despite the fear, they also enjoy the feeling that they stealing some of their parents' power over them. (Incidentally, there is a similar theory that children like squishing about in their dirty nappies before alerting their parents to their need for a change. It is quite literally their “dirty little secret”. Hope I haven’t put you off your tea).  The beanstalk story (let’s not even get into phallic interpretations of that one) reassures them that they will not be destroyed for their daring. 

Bettelheim warns against bowdlerised versions of the story which justify Jack’s stealing with a backstory of the giant first stealing from his father. It isn’t a story about retribution, it is meant to be about achieving manhood. (The white-washed version features Jack gaining independence from his mother only to obey orders from a female fairy, which also rather misses the point...)

 Excuse me while I indulge my primitive oral fixation.....

Other themes recur frequently; deep sleeps symbolising rebirth and the time of rest that must precede it. (This time of seclusion can also work as protection. For example, Sleeping Beauty gets her first symbolic period and is immediately hidden from would-be suitors by deadly brambles.) 

The lesser known story of "The fisherman and the Jinny” tells of a jinny (let’s just call him a genie, shall we?) who sits in a bottle for hundreds of years. He starts out by thinking that whoever lets him out will be lavishly rewarded... but as the centuries unfold he gets angrier and angrier until he's decided that he will KILL whoever lets him out (our fearless fisherman, who tricks the genie back into the bottle). Bettelheim points out that "this is exactly how a young child feels when he has been "deserted." First he thinks to himself how happy he will be when his mother comes back; or when sent to his room, how glad he will be when permitted to leave it again, and how he will reward mother. But as time passes, the child becomes angrier and angrier, and he fantasizes the terrible revenge he will take on those who have deprived him.” 

Without addressing this explicitly, the story can offer the child relief regarding his “bottled up” feelings.  

Through fairytales, children learn that before the happy life can begin, the evil and destructive parts of our personalities must be brought under control.

Bruno Bettelheim was an extraordinarily sensitive psychoanalyst and has put together a fascinating read – and makes an invaluable contribution to the studies of child development.

If you’re interested in more analysis of old tales, you might like Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is long-winded (I think all psychiatrists like to repeat every paragraph at least three times, to make sure you really get it) but it does offer some fresh insight into traditional stories. (It's also very long; the sense of relief and achievement when I finally finished it was unbelievable.)

Also Neil Gaiman fans – if you haven’t read Snow, Glass, Apples, the last short story in his book Smoke and Mirrors, please do. As his intention, you will never see Snow White the same way again.

No comments:

Post a Comment