Why is there a question about happy endings?

I was just at Transporting Tales, which was held yesterday on a very grey, windy, cold, wet day. It was rather nice to be snug in the Glen Eira Town hall talking about fairy tales! However, I will tell you about that later as I’m off this afternoon to give a paper on princesses at the Australian Children’s Literature Association Conference and I still have to check that all my slides are in order and… you know, get dressed so that I’m not delivering a paper in my pyjamas.

However, this is something close to my heart. Before I headed off to Transporting Tales, I saw a piece in the guardian, “Should children’s books have happy endings?” Seriously, I thought, that’s a question? Still? This has been a debate raging for a while in children’s literature and I find it particularly frustrating. Surely there is room for books with all kinds of endings? And what is so wrong with a happy ending, anyway? Sometimes things do work out. People achieve their dreams on the odd occasion. In the article, Robert Muchamore writes:

Happy endings necessitate a black-and-white world. But what is the mindset of a child who has grown up exposed only to goodies, baddies and happy endings? A hundred years ago, young men queued at recruitment offices to fight the evil Kaiser. Today, they watch online propaganda, switch fast-food uniforms for Kevlar and head for Iraq and Syria. After childhoods crammed with clear-cut villains and happy endings, is it any wonder they’re conditioned to believe in fighting for justice and that ultimate happy ending: the promise of eternal life?

I would profoundly disagree. Happy endings can occur in a world of greys as easily as an unhappy ending can occur in a world of black and white. Happy endings can provide hope and motivation to make positive change. They can also provide comfort. Meg Cabot wrote a wonderful blog post about this issue, in which she articulates how books about trauma and misery might be attractive to some teens, but as a teen herself, handling a number of serious issues, she wanted an escape from that and she found it in romance fiction with all its happy endings. I think the ‘fight for justice’ card is a little overplayed too – I’m not convinced that reading a book with a happy ending will prompt any teenager to sign up to the military. I’ve read a lot of books with happy endings and I can assure you, I myself have no desire to sign up. This goes beyond fiction and involves a great many political and social factors. Fiction can provide a possibility of the happy ending. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. And those happy endings aren’t all about eternal life or the ultimate justice – many happy endings are about finding a family, celebrating friendship, healing old wounds or simply discovering that the hero is going to be okay after all.

When I began my journey into children’s lit. scholarship, I read a lot of articles deriding novels like Pollyanna, but the thing to remember is that the heroine had to journey through grief, loss, despair, loneliness and disability before she could find her happy ending. There was a reason she had to play the ‘glad game.’ Don’t look at the happy ending and judge the book by it.




Live-Action Cinema and the Fairy Tale

I recently went to see Maleficent with the Monash Fairy Tale Salon – spoilers ahead! I will admit, I went in prepared to hate it. I didn’t hate it as much as I hated Snow White and the Huntsman (the skirt ripping scene was about it for me as far as that film went). In all honesty, I’m always wary of tales told from the villain’s perspective. The greatness of the fairy tale villain is villainy. A film that situates the villain as the sympathetic figure loses the oomph of a truly vicious villain. Maleficent in the Disney animated film is incredible. She is filled with malice and snark. She is wicked in its most absolute sense – hence her name. While there are glimpses of this Maleficent in the new film, there are only glimpses. Her glorious wickedness has been stripped away and instead she’s a woman wronged by a man, a woman who becomes a surrogate mother to his child. I found that disappointing. Even more disappointing, King Stefan isn’t even turned into a glorious villain to make up for the loss. There is no sense of why she’d love him and why he would then turn into such a raging megalomaniac. The film seems to suggest that all human men are greedy and violent.* That’s it. And they aren’t even very good at it. King Stefan turns into a crazed version of Miss Havisham without the wit and bitterness.

Perhaps most awful of all, the fairy godmothers turn into bumbling, comic relief. I love the fairy godmothers of the animated feature. They are small, funny, but incredibly powerful! Little old women who can squabble over the colour of a dress one moment, the next help a prince defeat an evil dragon. In Maleficent, they are simply incompetent and foolish. They aren’t even allowed to soften Maleficent’s death curse – Maleficent does that herself and I’m not even sure why.

As Louisa, one of our group, pointed out, Aurora doesn’t even sleep that long under the curse. Louisa has written a marvelous review about the loss of time in the film that you should be able to find shortly through the salon’s blog. Indeed, Aurora in the animated film is a wise, kind young woman – she is not simply happy and bubbly. As Louisa pointed out, bestowing a blessing of happiness on her may have in fact been a curse – she became a cardboard cutout of a character.

It wasn’t all gloom, however. I did love Diaval. I would watch an entire film about him. Witty and yet tragic, his magical transformations make him one of the most true fairy tale figures of the film.

I think that’s the problem with a lot of contemporary, live action adaptation of fairy tale. They aren’t real fairy tale. They attempt to become dark, to become like Lord of the Rings. It is a curse Stardust happily avoided and that is a great fairy tale film of recent years. The films of the 80s, like The Princess Bride and Labyrinth, likewise balanced humour with tragedy and villainy. Who needs a Maleficent wronged by a thief when you can have Jareth, the Goblin King, who is deliciously wicked, yet somehow emotionally needy too? The villains were complicated inherently – they didn’t simply ‘turn’ evil as a result of outside forces. That made them so much more interesting and entertaining. The use of puppetry, also, beats out CGI for me.

I have been reading with increasing worry about the film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, too. i09 recently posted a story about it. Mind, one of the things that amuses me is how often people assume it is Disney sanitizing the ‘original’ Grimms’ tales. Actually, the Grimms were the first to start cutting out the sex. Sondheim actually added in much of the sex and violence of the musical. Disney is simply taking it out again, which is disappointing. I fear I’ll be muttering under my breath once again when I go to the cinema to see it.

* There’s really only one human woman in the film, the Queen, and she dies off screen after barely speaking.

The Inaugural Australian Fairy Tale Society Conference

The one thing I hate about writing conference posts? There are so many great papers and you want to discuss them all, but you also have a pile of marking to catch up on, papers to review, feedback to provide in your normal day to day life… so I’ll do my best with a quick post!

Reilly McCarron and Jo Henwood put together an incredible day, bringing together storytellers, authors, academics and artists of all sorts. As our fabulous MC, Jackie Kerin, said, we’re now ready to take on the world with our tales!

I was particularly thrilled to finally meet Kate Forsyth, whose Bitter Greens deals with the Rapunzel tale. It’s a work of historical fiction featuring one of my favourites, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I think we were a little like excited school girls on the final panel, both enthusiastically speaking to the tales of French women like La Force, d’Aulnoy and Lhéritier! And Kate mentions Basile, too, in her novel! Can’t get better than that, right? Do read it!

It was also great to hear Danielle Wood, author of Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls and the forthcoming Mothers Grimm. I was a little suspect of Mothers Grimm, I admit. I always get slightly squinty-eyed when the topic of motherhood and the Grimms comes up! But I love Danielle’s take on the ‘good mother.’ It’s wicked, in more ways than one.

Carmel Bird gave a terrific keynote that spoke to the ‘great lie’ that informs Australian Fairy Tale. I’ve dealt with the topic before and I know how difficult it is to address and she did an amazing job.

It was so great to hear about early attempts at an Australian fairy tale tradition, too. Belinda Calderone, who steers the Monash Fairy Tale Salon, raided the Monash Library’s rare books collection and uncovered some notable gems. I think she inspired a few people to go and explore their libraries and rediscover the tales hiding away there. Robyn Floyd gave a marvelous account of one of those early fairy tale pioneers, Olga Ernst, wearing a period-inspired ensemble that sort of distracted me because her puffed sleeves would have been the envy of Anne Shirley! Teena Hartnett then performed one of Ernst’s tales about the fire elves and she injected a good dose of vernacular that I think is the trick of bringing these tales back to life. Indeed, I think there were a few fire elves in the building… there may have been a small incident with flame! Jo Henwood also gave a performance of a tale about an Australian Thumberlina that had some terrific references to local Sydney locations and botanicals. It’s fantastic to hear the storytellers do what they do best! It’s one of the ‘treats’ of working in the field that we get an excuse to listen to wonderful storytellers. Tobby Eccles did a great job of speaking to just this issue and how important it is to recognise and catalogue these oral tellings.

Sarah Gibson also expanded on her work on the Re-enchantment project. It’s still growing! There’s an e-book now that you can download on iTunes. I was particularly enthused by her take-away that there is no single way of interpreting tales. I have to admit, when you’re wound up in trying to make your own stand, you do sometimes forget that other people will see things differently! (Her enthusiasm for Shaun Tan also made me happy!)

It was something of a privilege to be on the final panel, even if Jackie was mischievously encouraging me to spark debate by being pro-Disney!! We were discussing cultural editing and I think that panel could have gone on the whole day if you had have left us to it!

All in all, it was a brilliant day and if I’ve forgotten to mention anyone or anything, it is only because I’m in a rush and it’s all still sinking in! Plus I very cleverly left my conference pack with Belinda, because I didn’t have room in my overnight case… so I don’t have all my reminders with me! However, the new AFTS website will be up soon and I’m really looking forward to keeping in touch with everyone and continuing about fifty different discussions that were begun.

PS: Apologies if I did pass my cold on to the entire Australian fairy tale community. Of all the times to come down with a cold…