I’m authoring an online course on fairy tales at the moment. Last week, I wrote the heroes module. I kind of love doing the heroes unit in a fairy-tale course because the students absolutely don’t expect the content.
Go up to someone on the street and ask that person to describe a fairy-tale hero. Seven out of ten people will say something about a handsome prince; the remaining three may bring up the Beast from Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin from, well, Aladdin. It is worth noting that by the ends of these Disney movies, the Beast and Aladdin have become, well, handsome princes. We don’t really have any other kind of fairy-tale hero any more. Every once in a while, a rogue with a heart of gold turns up. There’s also Shrek, but Shrek did start off as a deliberate deconstruction. If the handsome prince weren’t already regarded as the norm, Shrek wouldn’t work as a character.
I tell my students that the Disney films constitute a continuation of the storytelling tradition in filmic form and in a twentieth- and twenty-first-century American context, and I do actually believe that. However, I also believe that the almost universal association of Disney and fairy tales has caused us to lose a lot of rich material, which has been shunted aside for a very few stories with some very definite messages. This has all been observed before, of course. Volumes have been written on what the whole “Disney princess” thing has done to the brains of little girls. But also worth noting is that the concentration on princesses has obscured the vast amount of fairy-tale material out there, much of it not concentrating on princesses at all.
I could say a lot about stories in which the female characters actually did stuff. There are plenty of those. Yet today, I think I shall take a look at the heroes instead, simply because we tend to treat them as if they don’t exist. Disney has turned fairy tales into stories about girls dreaming of meeting pretty boys and living happily ever after. Those pretty boys have become our fairy-tale heroes. In the source stories, the pretty boys are mainly prizes for the heroines; many of them do very little. If you want heroes, you have to go to stories with male protagonists, which, conversely, tend to involve princesses only as prizes.
What can be said about fairy-tale heroes? Well…generally, they’re jerks. Don’t get me wrong: so are fairy-tale heroines. Most fairy-tale characters are jerks. It’s how they survive. The heroes tend to be underprivileged, sometimes to the extreme. They’re usually youngest sons. The rich ones are still regarded as useless because they have older brothers; the poor ones often spend all their time sitting in the ashes, pretending to be stupid. When the crisis comes, the older brothers are going to try and fail, whereapon the simpleton youngest brother, all covered with grime and never having worked a day in his life, will stroll in with a magic axe and win the princess without trying. That stereotype about heroes being good and kind and generous? Yeah, right. They’re assholes. They rescue princesses only if there’s something in it for them. A lot of the time, the princess doesn’t even need to be rescued; she’s just sitting on top of a glass hill waiting for a bunch of random knights to ride up and get her because her father has never heard of such concepts as “courtship.”
And then there are the real tricksters: the heroes who wander into the Other World and immediately start murdering giants. In many fairy tales, giants exist solely so they can be murdered by trickster heroes. The heroes tend to be kind of small and weak, so they’ll often just get the giants to murder each other. Occasionally, they get the giants to murder their own children. Heroines sometimes get in on this sort of thing too, but the heroes really go to town on those giants. If there aren’t any giants around, there are always the witches. The more subtle heroes treat the giants and the witches carefully and end up with supernatural goodies that they can use later in their stories, but the trickster heroes just go, “Hey, there’s a giant. I think I’ll trick him into strangling his seven daughters.” It’s all good clean fun.
If these guys run out of giants and witches, they tend to start in on their neighbours. A common trick is to fool the neighbours into murdering their grandmothers. Heroes are really all about the murdering. If I were in a fairy tale and had a choice between encountering a hero and the devil, I’d pick the devil every time. He has rules; the hero doesn’t.
Of course, it may not be his fault. A lot of heroes are born after their mothers accidentally sleep with: a) trolls, b) bears, c) elves, or d) bulls. Some women accidentally ingest bird poop that apparently has the power to impregnate them. It occasionally goes the other way around: a human man will impregnate a cow or a female troll. And every once in a while, someone just makes a colossally stupid wish, such as, “I would give anything to have a child, even if it were a hedgehog.” Take a look at the Grimm Brothers’ “Hans-My-Hedgehog” if you think I’m making that up. Hans annoys everyone he knows, demands his father buy him bagpipes, tortures and disfigures his first wife, and eventually lives happily ever after with a girl who spends the first part of their relationship terrified of him.
Oh…you thought these guys found true love? Ah ha ha ha. Silly mortals…fairy tales aren’t about true love. The Grimms made their fairy tales all nice and moral for little children, but what counted as “all nice and moral” two hundred years ago is not what counts as “all nice and moral” now. The Grimms’ story “The Brave Little Tailor” ends with the titular character tricking his way into marriage to a princess who is not at all pleased with him and tries to have him kidnapped. When that fails because the tailor uses his Intimidating Voice, they just stay married. Whenever mention of “true love” turns up in a fairy tale, odds are it has been inserted by a transcriber who feels that he or she has to justify all those princesses being handed out to peasant boys like candy.
I’m not complaining, incidentally. These heroes are far more interesting than the Disney princes, who ride around waving their little decorative swords and being good and kind and generous and very, very boring. When we come across characters who resemble fairy-tale heroes nowadays, we generally call them “anti-heroes” and imply that they’re contradicting thousands of years’ worth of stalwart heroes fighting for the Forces of Good. In reality, many of our anti-heroes can’t hold a candle to the murdering, princess-stealing bastards who gleefully pillage their way through our fairy tales. I guess it isn’t all that surprising that Disney leaves these guys alone.