The June/July 2013 issue of Verily features the article “The Villainess Mystique,” in which Alexandra Petri contemplates whether telling the backstories of fairy-tale villains hurts the story. Here, in this online exclusive, Petri ponders some other dilemmas presented by the fairy-tale genre.
Fairy tales, like myths, do not have villains, strictly speaking. They have antagonists. They have goddesses with chip on their shoulders. That is all. They oppose you at every turn, but it's arbitrary, not vindictive. One of the most depressing things about ancient myth is the creeping suspicion—that comes over every hero from time to time—that the gods are just doing this out of boredom. Our slights cannot possibly make them suffer all that much, and their punishments so grossly exceed the crime.
The thought of applying fairy tale logic to real life is terrifying. To survive a fairytale, you should do the exact opposite of what seems sensible in ordinary life. It is the only way to make it out intact.
Actions that in fairy tales would get you turned to stone, are things we do six or seven times in the course of an average commute. We step on insects, spurn beggars, and ignore old crones who ask us for directions. We may not sneak into gardens at night to steal plants, but that is only because no one craves vegetables these days. We still steal WiFi. One suspects that they would gladly demand our firstborns for that.
If you want to survive a fairytale, always be polite. Make certain that the first thing that meets you when you come home is something you do not care about at all. I cannot tell you how many lives have been ruined by people carelessly allowing their favorite daughters or firstborn sons to meet them at the door.
If you want to survive a fairytale, always take the casket that looks ugly on the outside. Never tell your friends from home about your new living arrangement. It raises more questions than it answers, and then the Bear By Day/Prince By Night with whom you have forged a pleasant relationship will be whisked away to a castle west of the moon and you will have to wear out a pair of iron shoes to find him. If you want to make it out alive, you must never cease to be vigilant.
If you want to survive a fairytale, avoid spindles. Never, as a general rule, eat an apple. This goes for myth and religious stories, too. Nothing good comes of eating apples. Never eat any fruit of any kind. Pomegranates land you underground for the rest of your life. Apples, at best, boot you out of Eden. At worst, you're stuck slumbering for years while princes and huntsmen come and fumble at your lips. Be polite to the fauna. Be polite to the flora. If ever an old man asks you to carry him up a hill, do it.
If you fail in the smallest particular, you will be punished, and it will be far more unpleasant than you deserve. The things that people in fairy tales get punished for are omissions of the most ridiculous kind. Things that, in actual life, are just good parenting, in fairy-tale land turn out to be Horrible Acts of Treachery That Will Destroy Your Family. Neglect to invite the evil fairy to the christening, as any good parent might? Whoops, your daughter will prick her finger on a spindle and slumber for a hundred years.
Why do these villains have such a chip on their shoulders? Let’s just say it’s a part of their villainess mystique. Read “The Villainess Mystique” in the June/July print magazine.
Artwork by Terra Grasser