Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Fairy tales ancient and modern

Spending the weekend with my granddaughter Aya has reminded me of the potency of fairy tales. And that led me on to thinking about some of the modern fairy tales that float around us.

For instance, there’s a widely recounted fairy tale about how President Ronald Reagan (the one with Alzheimer’s) won the Cold War. Of course, like most fairy tales it has a basis in truth – after all, the Soviet Union began to fall apart on Reagan’s watch. Reality, though, tends to be more complex than fairy tales suggest. The Soviet economy had been rotting from within years before Reagan came to office. Economic decline was one of the major forces behind the massive programme of reforms Mikhail Gorbachev launched when he was Soviet leader. And the final collapse of the Soviet Union which followed took place in 1991, nearly two years after Reagan left office.

In turn, all these reflections led me to wonder about where the traditional fairy tales came from. Were they perhaps also based on mis-remembered reality from which most of the complexity has been excluded? This is clearly an interesting question that I felt deserved some research.

It is perhaps not well known that the great ducal library at Kleinzauberdorf has an extensive collection of manuscripts, including a series of letters to a seventeenth century courtier from his brother, a widower who had been fortunate in his second marriage and lived in a market town some fifty miles away. The following is my own translation of one of these letters, and I apologise for any awkwardness of style, for which I and not the original should be held exclusively responsible.

It seems to me that the letter casts an interesting light on one of the most popular stories.

My dear brother

It is with thanking that I write to you for all the hard work you have been doing for getting my daughter admitted to the university. This was very kind though I fear not likely to be rewarded with success since, though I love her dearly, I must admit that she is perhaps not gifted with an intellect to match her looks and did not, as they say, invent hard work.

Though of course that is not seen by her that way, since she is sure she has to do all the work around the house, and my wife’s daughters from her first marriage, who really do help a lot, she accuses of leaving everything to her. But so it is with children, not so? Why we make them I do not know – twenty minutes fun if you are lucky, then twenty years of sorrow.

But I really love her dearly.

Anyway, it seems the problem of the university is completely gone away. Now instead of your help in this regard, I will be asking you something completely different, to come to a wedding no less. She is to marry, and to marry well: the prince, son of our Grand Duke, will marry her. Is that not wonderful? Who would have thought it? And it is so quickly too. They met it seems at a dance and he liked her very much.

This is most pleasing to me. But of course she has great good looks. The prince is not one that is seen by many as a deep thinker but perhaps this is a good thing. Some find my poor little daughter a little strange. Even I think that it is endearing that she talks to the animals in our barnyard, but it worries me when she says they reply to her. Talking to animals is a nice trait of delightful children; hearing animals reply is perhaps more a sign of paranoid schizophrenia.

Indeed, she has some tale of the animals how they took her to the dance.

What is strange is that the prince chose to marry her because her foot fit a particular shoe he found on the steps after the dance. In my experience, it is best not to enquire too closely into garments left behind after dances. And also it is never easy to know what makes a marriage good. I have a good marriage behind me, alas, and thank my stars every day to have made another such since the lamented death of my late wife. In each the success was based, surely, on other things. But I don’t think shoe size was a factor in either.

Still, she and her prince maybe will find this is enough for their joy. I am encouraged by the way he gazes at her with eyes of rapture but which, I suspect, have little else behind them. She calls him her Prince Charming. I suppose a prince who does little except play polo and talk to plants has a certain charm, even if not to me. Fortunately I am not called on to marry him. And if his plants talk to him like her animals talk to her, perhaps they are really suited.

My brother, can I admit something a little shameful? We are all very glad that she has found such a happy match. But we are also somewhat glad to see her leave our little home. Her constant complaints about having to scrape the grate and sweep the yard – when all she really does with a broom is dance around to the sound of birdsong – are a little disruptive to the peace of our household. I think that there is relief among us all that she at last is moving out.

But I am sure you will join me in wishing her great happiness, with just the same sincerity as we all feel. And I shall of course send you your invitation to the ceremony as soon as the date is confirmed.

Your loving brother

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