Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Nature of Cinderella by Marie Rutkoski

Last week, The Los Angeles Review of Books started an article series:

LARB's YAC Lit publishes the first installment of Fairy Tales Revisited, a close look at a classic fairy tale, then and now. Today, Marie Rutkoski investigates symbolism and nature in the Cinderella tales of yore, and later in the week, Sarah Beth Durst, Deborah J. Ross, and Sarah Skilton review modern retellings.

The first article is The Nature of Cinderella by Marie Rutkoski and I enjoyed it. Oh, we are getting some thoughtful articles about fairy tales in the media these days. Love!

I haven't had time to consider and record my thoughts on this article, so it is time to simply share since the days are passing. I am blockquoting a larger portion than usual, but I'd love to have your thoughts! As I read this, I suddenly realized I am drawn to the Grimms' Cinderella over Perrault's due to the more natural elements. I prefer the tree on the grave although I adore fairy godmothers as a rule.

This emphasis on nature may be due in part to a focus on transformation. Margaret Atwood, considering the influence of fairy tales on her writing, asked, “Where else could I have gotten the idea, so early in life, that words can change you?” Fairy tales are rife with transformation — from beast to handsome prince, from dirty scullery maid to well-dressed princess. It is perhaps no coincidence that nature in the Cinderella stories facilitates transformation, for nature itself is a changeable thing, from season to season, from a sunny day to rain, from an egg to a flying bird in a matter of weeks.

In the Cinderella stories it seems that nature serves an even greater role: as a source of power. While some Cinderellas are more in charge of their destiny than others, many of them get what they want by simply asking nature to provide. Marissa Meyer, when writing Cinder, went to great lengths to reverse this paradigm, and render her version of Grimm’s tale unnatural. The result is that her cyborg Cinderella possesses greater independence and power. In an email interview, Meyer said, “My main character's greatest assets (in my opinion) are her intelligence and resourcefulness, as shown by her ability to fix broken machinery and technology.” Manipulation of technology, the creation of energy out of inert objects, is indeed different from calling on the powers of nature.

In Cinderella stories, nature often functions in the place a fairy godmother, a figure we have come to think of as almost requisite to fairy tales. Although “Donkeyskin” does feature a fairy godmother, (one who is somewhat inept, and dispenses questionable advice on how the princess might escape her father’s lust), this character is largely absent from most versions of the tale. Instead, nature steps in, either in the form of fish bones in “Yeh-hsien,” or the hazel tree and birds in Grimm’s version. This parallelism between nature and the fairy godmother takes on intriguing significance when we consider the etymology of the word “fairy.” It comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fegan,” meaning to join or bind. “Fegan” suggests a sense of compulsion, and in most older versions of Cinderella, we can see how nature aptly fits these meanings, compelling the story toward its narrative end of a very particular kind of binding: the union of marriage.

The effect, I think, is to make nature seem to be in collusion with love. One message in some versions of the tale, particularly Grimm’s, is that love is like a force of nature, and nature will take its revenge on those who stand in its way. Many of the various cruel stepmothers and stepsisters meet violent ends. While Lin Lan’s ugly stepsister Pock Face is boiled in oil due to her own choice, in several tales her counterpart is punished by animals. The stepmother and stepsisters are pulled apart by wild horses in a Filipino version, and in the Grimm’s tale, birds pluck out the stepsisters’ eyes.

Such punishments, of course, are doled out in order to give readers the satisfaction of revenge without casting the protagonist in a negative light. Cinderella doesn’t blind her sisters; the birds do. The princess can have her happily ever after with no shade of guilt. Similar strategies are at work in other fairy tales. In Grimm’s “Snow White,” for example, the wicked stepmother is invited to the wedding dinner, and while she does not want to go, feels oddly compelled. Iron slippers heated over coals await her: “she had to put on the red hot iron shoes and dance in them until she dropped to the ground dead.” Interestingly, no one seems responsible for this punishment. In the original German, the tale’s end is carefully ambiguous. Snow White doesn’t make the stepmother go to the feast or put on the slippers — no one does. It simply happens, much in the way that someone standing in the full force of a hurricane’s gale will be pushed by the wind.

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