Fairytale Commentaries for the 21st Century

Nobody can do away with reviews in fairytale celebrations here at JL. For such an occasion, I handpicked several well-known fairytales that have some relevance to modern daily life. True, I’m more keen to grab you an article from the World Economic Forum so that you get the kind of life advice you’ve been painstakingly Googling for. Yet, if a work of literature stands the test of time, it usually means that it contains something indispensable.

Green beans (Pixabay) - English Fairytale: Jack and the Beanstalk
Green beans (Pixabay). Most Jack and the Beanstalk illustrations depict the beans and beanstalk as green.

English Fairytale: Jack and the Beanstalk

Joseph Jacob’s version

If I had to review it seriously, I would thus comment:

This version’s Jack starts off with quite a solid voice demonstrating his optimism and wit. However, it ends too sloppily. What a bummer.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the fairytale, I find that many of us are Jack. Now we know that Guantanamo Bay banned it. Is it because this more popular version does not moralise against theft? Could it suggest to inmates that theft may be rewarded rather than punished?

Unfortunately, theft can be and is rewarded. If you Google, but have never downloaded for free copyrighted movies, music, software, textbooks or whatnot, I must take my hat off to you. Too often, we think of the creative conglomerates as the Ogre (or Giant). Aren’t those things often overpriced? Come on, a paperback novel is cheaper than a calculus textbook. However, denying the makers their contract wages doesn’t make us more moral people.

Red rose (Pexels) - French Fairytale: Beauty and the Beast
Red rose (Pexels). This triggered the following love story.

French Fairytale: Beauty and the Beast

English translation of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s version

This story is one of many fairytales which seem to carry the moral that the real worth of a person lies not in the appearance, but also in the heart. Another notable one is The Ugly Duckling.

Interestingly — and perhaps perpetuating a cherished myth — storytellers back then often beautified the good people. Bad people looked and acted ugly. I think it was since The Picture of Dorian Gray that people began to doubt appearances. Nevertheless, recently the idea of judging books by their covers has made a comeback. As Milton Friedman puts it, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” Similarly, people nowadays seem to judge people by their appearance much more. All communication experts emphasise that first impressions make or break deals. The nonverbal accounts for at least 70% of all communication.

Moreover, although the characters are called only by their role in the story, we are not distracted by this unseemly feature. The maiden protagonist is not called by some girl’s name — just Beauty. The Beast who turns out to be a prince has no name or formal title either. Yet it is still possible to get caught up in the story. An enjoyable story can get away with being imperfect.

Naked king in procession (Pexels) - Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale: The Emperor's New Clothes
Naked king in procession (Pexels). Oh look, no one can even talk about the King’s skin tone either!

Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale: The Emperor’s New Clothes

This story still amuses me. When I first read it, I wondered: how can anyone have the guts to call the naked clothed?

But as I grew up, it turns out people actually do it!

For example, people:

It’s sad and infuriating simultaneously. Worse still, notice that in the fairytale, the first people who lied to the Emperor about the weaving progress were those loyal to him. They trusted in a comfortable relationship with the Emperor more than their own naked eyes. As much as I hate to say it, people do pursue their self-interest first. On top of that, everyone’s self-interest relied on pleasing those who could feed it. Sorry, but true. I would have loved to prove my point with certain political examples, except that most of us want the popular tales more than the evidence-supported one.

I’m sure some of us would still be staring at the paragraph above and coming up with shoddy counter-arguments…


In Conclusion, The worth of Fairytales today

Thanks to films, we often associate fairytales with the too-good-to-be-true. The harsh reality:

    • “True love” today is the ex-spouse tomorrow;
    • Sociopaths are charming bad people; and
    • Evil, injustice and lies often prevail.

(Shakespeare seems keener to explore these darker themes than popular children’s stories!)

Despite these superficial drawbacks, upon careful study, we can find enlightening parts of the human condition in them. Whatever the genre, literature that lays bare the human condition survives the test of time.

Writer, artist, musician, mathematician

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