For as long as we have been able to stand upright and speak, we have told stories. They explained the mysteries of the world: birth, death, the seasons, day and night. They were the origins of human creativity, expressed in words but also in pictures, as evidenced by the cave paintings of Chauvet (France) and Maros (Indonesia). On the walls of these caves, the paintings, which date back to around 30-40,000 BC, tell us myths or sacred narratives of the spirits of the land, the fauna of the regions, and humankind’s relationship to them.
As humanity progressed, other types of stories developed. These were not concerned with the mysteries of the meaning of life but with everyday, domestic matters. While they were more mundane in the issues they explored, such tales were no less spectacular in their creativity and inclusion of the supernatural.
These smaller, everyday stories, combining the world of humans with fantastical creatures and seemingly impossible plots are now classified as fairy tales or folk tales. Such tales, originating in pre-literate societies and told by the folk (or the average person), capture the hopes and dreams of humanity. They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage.
Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong. Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete. Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo. When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed and Christian morality intervened, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.
Despite these changes, it is apparent that fairy tales are still needed today, even for grown-ups. In an uncanny, sometimes inexplicable way, we consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them, despite advances in logic, science and technology. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the tellers, we are the greedy consumers.
‘Fairy tale’ princesses and ‘wicked witches’
The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, has been cast – like her life – as a fairy tale. Throughout the year, she has been commemorated in articles with headings such as “a troubled fairy tale”, “beyond a fairy tale”, and “just another fairy tale”. While these articles have endeavoured to deconstruct the familiar narrative, they have not been entirely successful.
The notion of a fairy tale princess has also characterised the coverage of Princess Mary of Denmark and Duchess Catherine of Cambridge. Even after 13 years of marriage, our own “Aussie princess” is described as living a fairy tale, evident in 2017 media stories with titles such as “Princess Mary and Prince Frederik’s fairy tale royal romance”. Likewise, Kate, once a commoner, now a princess, has featured in articles titled “Prince William and Duchess Kate’s fairy-tale love story” and “Kate’s Most Royal Fairy Tale Gown (To Date)”. As the titles of some of these stories show, they also feature the mandatory prince charming (William), or the prince who is revealed to be not-so-charming after all (Charles). Others extend the fairy tale formula to include wicked stepmothers (Di’s real life stepmother) and wicked witches (Camilla).
Is such recourse to fairy tales merely a media stunt to sell stories packaged in an easily consumable, gossip-laden snack box? Or do these articles reflect that deep-seated compulsion of ours to tell and, in turn, to listen to stories? The answers are “yes” and “yes”. But let’s forget the media’s role and look at the more interesting latter point.
Many fairy tales began thousands of years ago, the age depending on the tale itself. Beauty and the Beast has its origins in the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Greek novel, The Golden Ass, from the second century AD.
In this tale, the beautiful Psyche is visited at night by an invisible lover – hearing only a voice – whom she is led to believe is a monster. While recorded by the novelist, Apuleius, the story is almost certainly much older; perhaps having its origins in myth and ritual, and handed down by word of mouth.
The research of Dr Jamie Tehrani has unearthed an early date for Red Riding Hood, which he has traced back to at least 2,000 years; not originating in Asia, as once believed, but most likely in Europe. Other tales studied by Tehrani have been dated to as early as 6,000 years ago.
Fairy tales are excellent narratives with which to think through a range of human experiences: joy, disbelief, disappointment, fear, envy, disaster, greed, devastation, lust, and grief (just to name a few). They provide forms of expression to shed light not only on our own lives but on the lives beyond our own. And, contrary to the impression that fairy tales always end happily ever after, this is not the case – therein lies much of their power.
They helped our ancestors make sense of the unpredictability or randomness of life. They repeated familiar experiences of unfairness, misfortune, bad luck, and ill-treatment and sometimes showed us how courage, determination and ingenuity could be employed even by the most disempowered to change the course of events.
Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, tells how a chance encounter with a stranger (an old man who provides magic beans) can bring about terrible danger (meeting a giant) but also terrific good fortune (acquiring a hen that lays golden eggs). The tale also celebrates how a poor boy can make the most of an arbitrarily dangerous situation that could have gone either way – being eaten or becoming rich – through his bravery and his intellect.
Fairytales also celebrated unexpected good fortune and acts of kindness and heroism, thereby reinforcing – even restoring – our faith in humanity. As tales of the folk, they not only entertained, but reflected the turmoils and triumphs of the lower classes, and enabled them to fantasise about how the “other half” lived.
Cinderalla and social criticism
But tales of kings, queens, princes and princesses – of which there are many – are not only a means of mental escape for the poor. They are also a means of social criticism.
In Cinderella, as recorded by Charles Perrault, the two stepsisters may have every material possession imaginable, but their cruelty renders them grotesque. And, of course, the lowly Cinderella triumphs. In the German version, Aschenputtel, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, the fate of the stepsisters is very different. Whereas Perrault’s version has the kindly Cinderella forgive them, the Grimms – clearly working from another tradition – describe how they have their eyes plucked out by pigeons!
Such stories of fantasising about a royal life and simultaneously despising it may have functioned as an emotional release similar to the ancient Greek experience of catharsis (the shedding of anxieties through watching outrageous tragedies and obscene comedies).
Taking the fascination with Diana’s life as a fairy tale, for example, we still employ the cathartic release of the genre to interrogate her and, for those of us so inclined, to find some meaning in the Di phenomenon. From the romantic courtship, to the wedding of the century and that dress, to motherhood, glamour, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, alienation and a new love cut short by an early death.
Some, of course, have criticised the warm, fuzzy emotionalism that has sprung from the fairy tale of Di’s life. If it is not to your liking, there are more robust tales with powerful messages of resistance and resilience. In tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Donkeyskin, the young protagonists are persecuted and abused by predators.
There is much to complain about in these tales from a politically correct or feminist perspective. They are violent and subversive: Gretel pushes a witch into an oven and in Perrault’s version of Donkeyskin, a king wishes to marry his daughter following the death of his wife. But they are more than narratives of abuse. They are also about courage and ingenuity on the part of the young survivors.
Donkeyskin, variants of which are extant in English (Catskin) and German (All-Kinds-Of-Fur), champions the bravery and inherent goodness of the young heroine who dresses in the skin of a donkey and leaves the palace in order to escape her father’s desires. Her subsequent life as a servant, filthy, humiliated, reviled and renamed “Donkeyskin” by her fellow servants, never crushes her soul.
Within the fantasy and the convenient appearance of supernatural assistants or a romantic ending, both of which feature in Donkeyskin, these stories are powerful reminders that evil exists in the world in the form of human beings – but it is not definitive or unconquerable.
With the publication of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, artists and illustrators were the first interpreters of fairy tales. Visual responses have ranged from famous works by Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac to Maurice Sendak and Jan Pieńkowski.
More dissident responses have included the photographs of Dina Goldstein, whose Fallen Princesses series (2007-2009) is an astute response to the Disney princess phenomenon of unattainable, debilitating images of femininity and romance in bowdlerised versions of the original tales. Here, Goldstein critiques the superficiality of the princess stereotype, reminding us that it is as facile for children as the Diana fairy tale dream is for adults.
Before Goldstein, photographer Sarah Moon also challenged the dilution of fairy tales in the modern west through her provocative (sometimes banned) interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. In this powerful rendition, Moon takes her child reader back to the original and raw meanings embedded in the tale through her exploration of the theme of the human predator in the symbolic guise of the wolf.
Moon’s decision to return to the terror and drama of the Grimms’ version is testimony to the need to challenge the dilution and contamination of the tales. Even the Grimms were guilty of adding and subtracting to the material, particularly when it came to the insertion of overt Christian morality. Equally if not more so, the Disneyfication of fairy tales has stripped them of the power and the pain to which Moon returns.
Writers and poets have also responded to the tales and, like Moon, have regularly sought to return them to their once formidable status. Women authors in particular have created powerful, sometimes heartbreaking – but always real and truthful – new versions.
Among the thousands of old tales in new clothes is the literature of second wave feminists, including the suite entitled Transformations (1971) by renegade poet Anne Sexton, who takes the domesticity of the original tales and mocks, ridicules, cherishes and – literally – transforms them. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a magnificent collection of retellings of famous fairy tales, is full of female empowerment, sensuality and violence in a tour de force that both reinstates the potency of the stories and re-imagines them.
Novelist, poet and essayist, Margaret Atwood also transforms the originals. Her response to The Girl Without Hands, which tells the story of a young woman who agrees to sacrifice her hands in order to save her father from the devil, in a poem of the same name is a profound meditation on the continuation of both abuse and survival.
The fairy tales first preserved by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm – retold, bastardised, edited, annotated, banned and reclaimed – belong ultimately to the folk who first told them. And the folk continue to tell and retell them. Closer to home than the Black Forest, a new show at the The Ian Potter Museum of Art contains work by international and Australian artists, including Tracy Moffatt and Sally Smart. The show returns – once again – to fairy tales to express social concerns and anxieties surrounding issues such as the abuse of power, injustice and exploitation.
Fairy tales are, indeed, good to think with, and their retellings shed light on cultural, societal and artistic movements. Both children and adults should read more fairy tales – both the original and the transformed versions, for they are one of our cultural touchstones.
All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed, is on from Thursday 23 Nov 2017 to Sunday 4 Mar 2018 at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne.
In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.
Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).
These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.
Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.
Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.
The man and the work
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.
He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.
Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).
The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.
But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).
Virtues and vices
In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.
When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.
Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:
Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.
This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.
The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.
When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.
An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.
Man or god?
After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).
The description of the emperor Nero is particularly memorable:
He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…
The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.
The descriptions of the bodies are also very funny. They undercut the divine pretensions of emperors, whose statues showed them in heroic nudity with six-packs that demonstrated their virility and likened them to gods. (Once again, not much has changed, as revealed by the images of Vladimir Putin’s shirtless hunting expeditions or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers).
Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.
His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:
When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’
Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”
Laughing at power
But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.
Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.
Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.
Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.
Recommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).
The link below is to an article that takes a look at why some people don’t like ebooks.
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Jeremy Hutchinson, who has died at 102, was one of England’s finest criminal barristers. He was counsel of choice for some of the most high-profile cases of his era. He defended the likes of Christine Keeler and Great Train robber Charles Wilson and also obscenity cases against novels like Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Later known as Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, his role defending Penguin Books after it published the unexpurgated version of the DH Lawrence classic is particularly memorable. It remains the landmark case in British obscenity law.
But look at the details and something extraordinary emerges: Penguin’s decision to publish 200,000 copies on the advice of Hutchinson and joint lead counsel Gerald Gardiner was a massive gamble. It set up a case that were it not for the incompetence of the prosecution could easily have gone the other way.
Obscenity and England
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only ever been legally published in abridged versions in the UK, starting in 1932. Though by 1960 the unexpurgated edition was sold in Europe and America and could be obtained under the counter in London if you knew where to go, Penguin co-founder Allen Lane wanted to publish a cheap paperback of the full thing.
The idea was to put it out at 3s 6d, the same price as ten cigarettes, to make it affordable for the “young and the hoi-polloi”. The excuse was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 45.
When Penguin consulted Hutchinson and Gardiner, the lawyers retreated to reflect. A trial under the new Obscene Publications Act seemed inevitable. The act’s first paragraph stated that material will be deemed obscene if it contains elements that tend as a whole “to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely … to read, see or hear” it.
The act included a new defence in cases where the offending segments were “for the public good on the ground that [they are] in the interests of science, literature, art or learning”. In consultation with several literary experts, Hutchinson and Gardiner felt most of the racy scenes and bad language – including (30) “fucks” and (14) “cunts” – could fall under this defence. Lawrence, after all, was one of the most highly regarded writers of his era.
Hutchinson was concerned about page 258, however, where anal sex crops up – albeit obliquely. It has Oliver Mellors, the lover in the book’s title, trying to divorce his wife Bertha Coutts and being accused by her “of all unspeakable things”. Clifford Chatterley writes a letter to his own wife saying that Coutts has aired details about her marriage to Mellors which are “usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence”.
But, he comments:
Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way’, well that is a matter of taste.
Lady Chatterley has pause for thought:
Connie remembered the last night she had spent with [Mellors], and shivered. He had known all that sensuality, even with a Bertha Coutts! It was really rather disgusting. It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether.
Her friend Duncan Forbes then makes light of it:
If he’s made love to his wife all ends on, hasn’t he a right to? She ought to be proud of it.
While homosexual anal sex between consenting men was legalised 50 years ago in the UK, the heterosexual equivalent became legal only at the millennium in England and Wales and was highly illegal in 1960. (The 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary celebrated legalisation with a pretty explicit scene between Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.)
Illegal acts could still potentially use the public good defence, but Hutchinson feared it made the case much harder to win. Gardiner and the experts at the meeting dismissed his fears. In these more innocent times, they were betting that the prosecution wouldn’t grasp the point and omit it from their case. Hutchinson agreed to go ahead and advised Penguin accordingly.
The defence called 35 professors of literature, authors, journalists, editors, critics, publishers and child education experts, and four Anglican churchmen. Each declared the book had sufficient literary merit to deserve publication for the public good. (Those less convinced of Lawrence’s genius begged off – Enid Blyton declared she had never read the book and “my husband said no at once”.)
Lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones cross-examined only 14 of the 35. He lost most of those rounds, and sometimes his temper in the process. It was only in his closing speech he said to the jury:
Would you look at page 258. It is a passage which I have not – and I do not think anybody has – referred to during the course of cross-examination, or indeed at any time during this trial. It … describes what is called the ‘night of sensual passion’.
He read out the whole passage remarking: “Not very easy, sometimes, not very easy, you know, to know what in fact he is driving at in that passage.”
It’s not clear how many jurors understood the passage; some were said to be visibly shocked. Certainly Griffith-Jones had missed the significance entirely, having referenced it only to underline the book’s general depravity. Mr Justice Byrne summed up with no reference to anal sex either. The issues were, he said, promiscuity and adultery described in words that were “normally obscene”.
The jury returned in three hours and found Penguin not guilty. Neither the clergy nor any of the other experts had been examined on anal sex and it is not clear whether they realised they were implicitly defending it or not. A watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel.
In the wake of this case, publishing in Britain became considerably more liberal. Had Hutchinson not agreed to advise Penguin to take that extraordinary gamble, things could have panned out very differently.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Technicolor – Inspiring Your Church to Embrace Multicultural Ministry,’ by Mark Hearn.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Leviathan,’ by Thomas Hobbes.