Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Naivety: the Seed to Masculine Adulthood

A common theme for this week's stories includes the notion that to become a man, a boy must be fearless. This is not all that uncommon in modern stories either; characters are often proving themselves to win the girl, fame, riches, etc. However, the character from our studied fairy tales often develop this fearlessness through naivety or outright stupidity. It isn't so much that they learn to be brave, but rather that they are just placed in trying or scary situations and driven by their own ignorance to the situation. The characters that are undergoing this "masculine transformation" in each of theses stories have a varying amount of success both in what they learn and what they are rewarded with, yet none of these stories seems to have a clear-cut moral for young boys seeking to become men. The point is simply that if you act on instinct rather than analyzing the situation, you will be successful (for the most part).

I found this vaguely similar to the feminine education that we've read about in previous stories this semester. Many of the protagonists survived or came out on top simply because they were a) beautiful and b) righteous and pure. Hardly any of these stories directly addressed how to outsmart a witch or charm a prince that wasn't interested in you using your own given talents; instead, some amount of magic and dumb luck was necessary in addition to the natural beauty and purity of the young girl. Like the early versions of LRRH in which the girl outsmarts the wolf in order to save her life, the stories of male growth that involve some failure or actual cleverness tended to give way to stories about successful protagonists with no real talents other than the uncanny knack of survival.

Its a gift and a burden

"A Tale About the Boy Who went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" is an interesting tale. The boy leaves home to "get the Creeps." What really got my attention was how he kept saying, "if only I could get the creeps!" as if getting them would solve all his problems. As a reader I find it hilarious that the boy wants to learn how to fear. To me he's screaming out "I need to conform, I want to fit in!" He wants to be like everyone even if that means being fearful.

I read the blissfully stupid boy as the richest of all the characters because his ignorance is a gift that allows him to achieve great things that other men can't. Its even more beautiful because he is not motivated by wealth or glory. I think that he is really just searching for a a means to relate to other people with "the creeps" as his vehicle. The beauty of the ending is that he remains ignorant. If he were to become aware of his great potential he would most likely lose his gift and become just another cowardly man.


"The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" can be referred to as somewhat of parody of the typical fairy tale and all of its hidden cultural values. Although the hero of this story is a youngest son, he does not fit the usual character of such a son, who normally achieves his goals with the aid of magical helpers. Accomplishing his task with his own skill and courage, he fits more in the mold of a heroic character.

During his stay in the haunted mansion, the younger son comes across a multitude of corpses. His act of cutting down the corpses to let them warm themselves is similar to the test of compassion that many fairy tale heroes face, but where the act typically wins the hero a gift or a magical helper, here it is merely an incident, perhaps a parody of the more typical plot lines of many popular fairy tales.

The boys "lack" of fear stemmed from his ignorance of the cultural norms we are told to fear. This tale points us in a direction asking us to question if values or traditions we previously held important due to society telling us we should are really as correct of important as they appear. Are all of our unconscious or intense fears truly all mental? Have fears been instilled into us without legitimate reasons supporting these irrationalities? It seems as if there may have been a hint to the general public to take a deeper look into the public fluff we have been presented with throughout our lives.

"Clever Hans"

The story “Clever Hans” is a different take on this particular tale type of boys going on quests and then undergoing a transformation to adulthood. The story is similar to “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was” in that the main character is a young boy that simply has no common sense and seems pretty stupid. In this story, instead of being ignorant about what it means to be afraid, Hans is ignorant about how to treat a girl named Gretel, who is also his future wife. The tale begins with Hans’ mother asking where he is going, and he tells her he’s going to Gretel’s house. When Hans gets to Gretel’s house, she asks if he brought her anything; he tells her no and instead says, “Want something from you.” Somehow, Gretel knows what it is he wants and she gives it to him. Hans puts the object in a place that doesn’t make sense, and his mother is quick to tell him of his stupidity when he returns home that night. She tells him the proper place to put that object, and he tells her, “I’ll do better next time.” The cycle repeats itself multiple times and each time Hans makes a mistake. He keeps putting his new item from Gretel in the previous place his mother told him to put the other object. He simply cannot figure out what he is doing wrong. Hans says he will improve the next time, but he never does. It’s interesting that Hans goes to Gretel’s house, and she apparently expects something from him, but we do not know what. Instead of bringing her something, he always demands something from her, and then he cannot take care of what she has given him. In the end, Hans takes his mother’s advice, but once again he does not understand what she means. Instead of exchanging glances with Gretel using his eyes, he thinks she means the eyes of their cattle and sheep. Therefore, he cuts out their eyes and throws them at Gretel, who he had tied up to a rope after his mother’s instruction that he misunderstood. Gretel becomes so fed up that she leaves. In this story, Hans starts out as an ignorant boy. However, he never learns from his mistakes or fights a brave battle to become a strong, desirable man. He is unable to figure out what he is doing wrong, and therefore he loses his bride and cannot make the transition into adulthood. “Clever Hans” is definitely a strange and entertaining story that does not seem to fit with the other stories (like “Iron Hans” or “Bearskin”) in its tale type.

The Godfather

I'll go ahead and tackle a different tale. The "Godfather Death" story is just bound to have a bad ending from the start. Rejecting God - bad move. It seems the beginning is taking a turn for the better when the poor man rejects the devil, too, but then he somehow makes an even worse choice by choosing death. This first story is in itself a lesson. God is wise in his choice of distributing wealth, the first part seems to imply, and happiness is paramount - more so than material wealth or perceived fairness. One can be happy without earthly pleasures (the devil) or fairness (death). Instead he chooses the path of the rich and famous. This is what the poor man thinks will make a man happy, never knowing need.

So then we have part 2: death's godson becomes a famous power by teaming up with death. The boy tries to outwit death and, unlike the other stories that have happy endings, he fails. While normally failing life's tests would result in hardship (like the boy in Iron Hans being sent to the court as a pauper servant), here the punishment is death. There is no learning from messing up (clearly the verbal rebuke is not enough). You never win by trying to cheat death. You also learn that death does not hold its promises. There's not much of a realm of forgiveness here or chance for the boy to grow by learning from his mistakes. So the lesson is either don't ever make mistakes (impossible) or don't try to be tricky when the stakes are high - realize that a beautiful princess and the kingdom are not as valuable as life.

My comment on the growth process we see the boy go through is that it's rather short since death decided to blow the candle out, but I think lessons can easily be taken from it by those who heard or read the story.

“A Tale about the [Ignorant] Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear [Adulthood] Was”

The very second tale I ever read for this course (Week 1) was “A Tale about the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” and I do not think I shall ever forget it because it was just so peculiar. It has very interesting things to say about boyhood educational development, as well. Zohar Shavit writes [in “The Concept of Childhood and Children’s Folktales”] that by the nineteenth century when the Grimms were writing their tales, children had become a distinct people and that society had come to place a great emphasis on the education of these children. This is derived from the emphasis on teaching morals to child protagonists in many of the Grimms tales.

What is curious about “A Tale about the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” is that the father has no interest in educating his youngest son, who is written off as stupid. Certainly, the boy’s education comes from his own desire to learn about “the creeps,” which is strange because children are psychologically egocentric, so why would his father just let him do what he wants? A child does not know what he needs in life; in fact, the desire to do whatever you want without care is particularly child-like. Maybe the boy is stupid, but he obviously does think about at least something, if only himself. I actually think the boy is probably just ignorant, and there is a big difference between ignorance and stupidity. (Ignorance means you just do not know something, and stupidity means you have been taught something, but you just do not understand it, or you do not know how to apply it.) Again, I would argue in favor of the boy’s ignorance because his father has no desire to teach him anything. As he says, “Learn what you want. It’s all the same to me.”

I would say that this family is actually very backward. If many German (or Prussian, at the time) families were teaching their children how to read so that they could piously read the Bible (for example) and grow up to be well-to-do adults, then why does the father not care to educate his youngest son? To me, his son is quite resourceful. He survives three nights in a haunted castle with his resourcefulness. In a way, though, I think it is his ignorance that saves him. Because he hasn’t been taught what to fear, he has no fear. Is fearlessness stupid,” though? Why is it that fearlessness is coded as stupid in this tale? (In the Daredevil comic book series, Matt Murdoch is certainly not stupid, but he is also “the Man without Fear.”)

Also, why does he get “the creeps” because of the minnows at the end of the tale? Are “the creeps” tickles? Does the boy just need to be touched? Do “the creeps” indicate a desire on the young son’s part to enter the adult world? That is, do “the creeps” carry a sexual connotation that would mark a rite-of-passage from childhood to adulthood? Also, if “the creeps” indicate fear, then is the boy actually scared to enter adulthood? Is the concept of adulthood, then, “the creeps”? In either case, it all circles back to adulthood...

Comment away!

The Role of Iron Hans in the Prince's Development

The stories “Iron Hans” and “The Wild Man” both feature a young, immature boy who is taken under the wing of a mysterious beastly man. When I envision Iron Hans, the image that pops into my mind is that of a large Hulk-like creature with bulging biceps and wild, unkempt hair, stomping boisterously throughout the countryside and slaughtering innocent people left and right with his bare fists. After engaging on a killing spree, the beast-man is eventually captured and thrown into a cage, where visitors flock to come and gawk at the frightening specimen.

In both stories, a foolish young prince fishes the key through the bars of the cage, allowing Iron Hans to free himself. The beast-man proceeds to kidnap the boy, who winds up getting lost and taking up work in a royal palace as a gardener’s assistant. A bit later, war seizes upon the kingdom, and the prince sees an opportunity to establish a name for himself. He gains fame in battle and manages to score the hand of the king’s daughter.

On his own, however, the prince is essentially useless. In these tales, Iron Hans is instrumental in the boy’s education and development. Without his guidance and support, the prince would surely remain a clumsy, bumbling buffoon who can barely keep himself from falling into the spring. Emerging as a sort of endearing, gentle mentor-figure—a far cry from the barbaric Hulk we saw before—Iron Hans bestows valuable gifts onto the prince, such as a gallant steed to aid in battle, and it is only with the beast-man’s unexpected assistance that the boy is able to emerge as a valiant fighter and secure a marriage with the princess.

In addition, at the end of the tales, just as the prince is getting married to his new bride, Iron Hans enters the wedding hall and graciously bequeaths his treasures and riches onto his newly-married student. Furthermore, he explains that he had been transformed into a wild man by some nameless magic spell but that this spell has now been broken. Interestingly enough, we never learn the nature or circumstances of this spell—why was Iron Hans condemned to assume a barbaric guise, and what did he have to do in order to become re-transformed? Although these questions are never answered, we might safely conclude that Iron Hans’s active involvement in the prince’s development somehow freed him from the shackles of beasthood.

Overall, it seems to me that all the credit and glory is wrongfully awarded to the prince, who is exalted as a war hero when in actuality it is Iron Hans who was the true orchestrator of the battle’s successes. Basking in the glory of his newfound fame, the prince fails to even acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Iron Hans, his mentor and teacher. Instead, he lets the people naively assume that he is a mighty warrior. At the end, then, when Iron Hans embraces the prince and expresses his gratitude, it seems somewhat backward. Shouldn’t the prince be indebting himself to Iron Hans, not the other way around?

Clever Hans- Had to learn the hard way

Clever Hans is an interesting fairy tale. The story is comprised of mostly dialogue and there is little description. The repetition in the story is the aspect which I wish to focus on in the education of a boy prompt. The story is about a boy who continues to go to his friend Gretel's house for something. Every time he goes to her house she, being a "typical" needy woman, expects something from Hanz. Instead, he asks her for something and she seemingly randomly chooses an item for Hanz to take back. However, nearly every time (except once- the knife) he journeys back with the object it is lost or hurts him in some way. His mother informs him that he must learn to decide which method of transportation is best suited for the object he is transporting. However, he always utilizes her suggestions with the wrong items and therefore continues to lose his item. He seems to shrug off his loss because he knows he will have the chance to get another object and try again another time.
However, Hanz finally learns his lesson when Gretel offers up herself. He, taking his mothers advice about transporting a cow, locks her up in a stall, and shockingly pisses her off. I dont know, i guess girls back then didnt like being treated like cows- wierd. And again, very shockingly, she does not run into his arms when he saves her from the shed he put her in in the first place. This story exemplifies the lesson: "you dont know what youve got till its gone." Now gretel is gone and maybe hanz will learn not to treat girls as objects and to use his head a little more often- this may be a stretch but perhaps thinking for himself... i dont know it could work.

Everybody's Special! No, seriously.

In the story, A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, things turn out a little different from most of the stories we've read. As we talked about in class, a character who is described as "stupid" and unable to "learn nor understand anything" somehow gets to marry a princess and be the hero. So how should we understand this story? One in which the shining knight is a total doofus?

I look at it as a tale for the rest of us. If you're born to peasants and are more familiar with crop planting than dragon slaying, here's a tale where you can succeed without be extraordinary. In fact, the hero' stupidity is his strength. He isn't smart enough to realize he's supposed to be afraid. He shoves a fake ghost down the stairs. He tells real ghosts that he'll hang them again if they don't leave him alone. He wins the king's daughter by spending three nights in a haunted castle.

In summary, by being too much of an idiot, the hero becomes rich and a king. The moral here seems to be working with what you got. Stupidity can be an asset. Stubbornness as well. Thus, everybody is a little bit special. If you use what you got, and even if it's not a lot, things might just end up as well for you as they did for the hero.

As for his wife, it's interesting that she is the one who gives him the creeps at the end. I'm not sure what to make of that. Is it saying marrying an strong woman a good thing? Let me know what you think in the comments.

-Matt P.