Sunday, July 6, 2008


"Once upon a time..."

As far as opening lines go, it's the opposite of original. It's formulaic and trite. But it's also a ritualistic opening that cues the reader into a familiar state of expectation.

On one of my first ever visits to The Strand (I have vague memories of cutting my afternoon solf├Ęge and composition classes at music school and taking the subway downtown - notable because it was my first time taking the subway alone), I found the unedited versions of the stories of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I was both horrified and fascinated to learn that Cinderella's stepsisters had cut off their toes and heels so that they could fit their feet into the slipper, and that they were found out only when their bloodied white stockings were noticed and pigeons came to pluck out their eyes.
And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.
But the story that captured my imagination and broke my heart was Andersen's The Little Mermaid. For those of us who watched the Disney version, we know the story. A beautiful young mermaid princess saves the life of a young human prince and falls in love with him, and trades her voice for legs.

But what Disney edited out, was that part of the spell that required the little mermaid's tongue to be cut off, and that while her legs were beautiful and her gait graceful, every step she took felt as though she were walking on countless knives. And, of course, that the feckless prince chose another to love. (Men. SO typical.)

Bruno Bettelheim, in his book, The Uses Of Enchantment, writes that children can well tolerate such violence and evil, because it affirms their understanding of and satisfies their desire for justice. Good triumphs and is rewarded. The evil are horribly punished.

I don't know anything about child psychology. Hell, I don't know anything about children at all. And I read the original versions of these fairytales when I was around 12, not 5, so I can't even point to my own experience and claim that as a small child I wasn't adversely affected by the brutality.

So I'll content myself with saying that as an adult, I wait, with great expectation, for the terrible beauty and fierceness that follows the words: "Once upon a time..."


Bartleby said...

Great post... I can just imagine you hunkered down in the bookstore, reading the just-discovered originals with wonder and probably horror.

For what it's worth, I think kids can handle even graphic tragedy in stories as it is so distant to them, whereas a sense of justice is closer to their daily lives ("That's not fair!").

As for your own great expectations, I have no doubt they will be met in due course. Meanwhile, just be home by midnight.

C-Belle said...

This was supposed to be my response to MrsCooper's comment on your post about how media depictions of violence give birth to real life violence. But as I started writing, something else came out.

I have a great joke about the "by midnight" thing, involving Cinderella. Will tell you when I see you later this month in NYC.

MrsCooper said...

I have babysat a number of children to come to this conclusion that they are more resilient than I’ve expected.

I remember bringing my nephew to Snow White’s cart ride in Disneyland a few years back. To my surprise, it was dark and creepy (actually scary) and, the sound effect didn’t help much either. So, I decided to put my hand over my nephew’s eyes so to avoid causing any permanent psychological damage on him. He quietly peeked through the gap between my fingers. I had to reassure him that the things he saw had nothing to do with reality in life. So far, he seems fine and normal.

C-Belle said...

So far...


MrsCooper said...

Yes, so far, he’s traveling independently to dark places (with a different kind of sound track) called “The Clubs”…

C-Belle said...

In graduate school, I made some extra money by teaching Princeton Review test prep classes - SAT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT prep. I had this one SAT class and I had asked each of the students to tell me something about themselves. One student said that he liked to go clubbing.

"Clubbing?" I asked him what he had against baby seals. We both stared at each other thinking, "WTF?" until I figured out what he meant.