Evil and Fairy Tale’s Female Senior Citizens

This morning I came across Elizabeth Blair’s piece “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” It’s a valid question and one I’ve often contemplated (see Deb Waterhouse-Watson and my chapter here, for instance).

The problem is, we’re often saying the mean, old woman is a negative stereotype – or even evil. Actually, sometimes the mean, old woman just doesn’t care and gets on with what has to be done. Granny Weatherwax taught me that being liked shouldn’t be an object in life.

Nanny Ogg: “No one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat Garlick: “What’s to be afraid of ?”
Granny: “Us.” 

Granny: “I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.”

Yes, Terry Pratchett! It was a little rough this semester. I was teaching The Wee Free Men just after his death and it was difficult to deliver the lecture without tearing up. I definitely read a good portion of his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, through a watery haze. I’m just incredibly grateful that he gave us a last novel with Granny (by the way, it’s worth reading Neil Gaiman’s comments when you finish the book) and the novel, while not Pratchett at his most brilliant – it wasn’t, after all, completely polished – is an amazing farewell and leaves Pratchett’s readers with just a little more Granny-style wisdom to keep us going.

shepherds-crown-cover

Social media trains us to seek more and more ‘likes’ and to keep clicking ‘like’ even if we just give something a cursory glance and don’t hate it. In fairy tales, life is too difficult, decisions too momentous, to tackle with a click of a ‘like’ button. The old women of fairy tale know that not everyone will love them or protect them and they act accordingly. Granny Weatherwax is not always loved or even liked, but when the going gets tough, you need Granny in your corner, even if Granny herself worries that she’ll turn a corner and follow in Black Aliss’s wicked footsteps.

Not all old women in fairy tale are evil, though. Disney gave us Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three incredibly loveable old women.

3

One of the reasons I disliked Maleficent (2014) was that the film turned the old women into bumbling fools. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), they are a little silly, but there is no underestimating their power. They take charge when the baby princess is cursed with death. They can wield their wands to bake a cake or send a sword swift and true to defeat a dragon. Their magic and their generosity saves the kingdom.

And when old women are evil, they can be rather wonderful. One of my all time favourite, bad, old women is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). While we may be wary of the negative stereotypes attached to the old woman in fairy tale, I don’t think it hurts to occasionally celebrate her in all her snarky, reckless, insouciant glory. She reminds us we don’t always have to be liked to be incredible women. Indeed, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be wicked.

Yzmqa

When you discovered a favourite author… J.K. Rowling edition

I wasn’t among the first readers of J.K. Rowling. I caught up around Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s release, which involved a number of late nights reading the first three books before cracking open the most recent.

At the time I was working on my PhD thesis about Disney animated and theatrical musicals. My supervisor gave me a rather stern look: “I know you’re enjoying Harry Potter, but you should put it down and focus on your thesis.” I’m always a rebel. At the following meeting, I brightly smiled and handed him a short essay comparing Harry Potter and Simba from The Lion King. He chuckled.

When I started teaching children’s literature, of course, the Harry Potter books were an essential part of our curriculum. I was actually teaching the first generations who grew up with Harry Potter. When the last book was due to come out, we held a symposium and compared notes about waiting at Borders for our books and how we clutched our Hedwig plushies, which came with the book, as we started reading.

So, Harry Potter has really been with me throughout the start of my academic career. I still teach Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is my favourite volume of the series. I’m not actually a great fan of the films, although I enjoy them well enough, so I’m always surprised these days when people identify the films before the books. It just seems wrong. Harry Potter is about books. Harry Potter is about those amazing, halcyon days when it seemed everyone on the planet was reading the same book on the same day.

The influence of Harry Potter is still being felt. Anthony Gierzynski, with Kathryn Eddy, has published Harry Potter and the Millennials (covered in i09), which examines the political influence the series has had on a generation:

Specifically, the evidence indicates that Harry Potter fans are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans; fans are also less authoritarian, less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active, and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration.

Indeed, the series has prompted much activism and charitable behaviour. The Harry Potter Alliance, for instance, is a brilliant gateway to these activities, as is Lumos, which works to free children from institutions. As J.K. Rowling herself has said, “Isn’t it time we left orphanages to fairytales?” Indeed.

I’ve also loved the creativity of fans in creating stories, art and even knitting patterns inspired by the books. To end this post, here is my completed Ginny’s Cardigan with its pattern of owls on the back.

Ginny's Cardigan

Ginny’s Cardigan

Maybe I should make some butterbeer for Christmas?

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.