There is a tendency for us, as a modern day civilization, to believe that many of the problems and social aberrancies we hear about are only recent issues. Serial killers, serial rapists, pedophilia, child rapists… the list goes on. But the truth of the matter is these kinds of aberrant behaviors have long plagued mankind. One need look no further than the bible, which from a historical standpoint, documents the deviant tendencies of mankind quite thoroughly. But we can find evidence in other kinds of tales as well. Fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Donkey Skin, much watered down from the originals, still retain at their hearts, the moral or lesson of the story. In Hansel and Gretel, the moral is don’t wander off, and don’t accept sweets from strangers. This was perhaps meant as a warning to children, to protect them from sexual predators and other dangers. And while the watered down version of Donkey Skin is said to have a moral of staying steadfast to your duty, no matter how hard, there is a disturbing element to the story. How is it right, after all, that a father should wish to marry his own child? This highlights a very old history of sexual abuse by parents or other family members, and highlights the fact that it is only recently those women and children can find protection from such abusive behavior. (For a very well rendered re-telling of Donkey Skin, see Robin McKinnely’s version Deer Skin. But be warned, her version is for adults, not children.)
I bring all this up because I recently watched two lovely renderings of two timeless tales, Beastly, a modern day version of Beauty and the Beast, and Red Riding Hood. The moral of these stories is obvious. Or is it? In Beastly, a vain and handsome prince, aka class president, unwittingly insults a witch who then curses him. Made hideous and unsightly, he is rejected even by his own father, and is doomed unless he can find a kind hearted woman to love him despite his obvious flaws. It reminds us of the very old theme that beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone. Of course, it also shows that we must look beyond of the surface of things to find the real truth, and that we should take nothing at face value. For those who are wise enough, no tales are needed. Still, in a modern day society where being thin and beautiful or muscular and athletic is the epitome of success, such cautionary tales like Beauty and the Beast are as important as ever. Especially in this era of Internet bullying, anorexia, and plastic surgery gone wrong.
In Red Riding Hood, the tale stays truer to the original telling, at least in time period, although it was altered quite a bit from what I remembered of the classic. If we look at the original legend, a young girl goes to grandmother’s house. She is told to stay only on the path as she walks through the woods, and again, not to talk to strangers. Interestingly enough, in the original, Red Riding Hood encounters the “wolf” (really a euphemism for sexual predator, or perhaps, simply a man who would seduce the woman and dishonor her), and after resisting his charms, she reaches her grandmother’s house. Only to discover, of course, that the wolf has gotten there before her and taken her grandmother’s place. Hmmm, what could that mean? Perhaps, just as the story suggests, the “wolf” has been stalking her for some time and knows her habits. Or perhaps the “wolf” is really someone known, an uncle or grandfather, and has long threatened Red Riding Hood. In any case, in the version of Red Riding Hood I watched, the moral is that those around you may not be what they seem, even those closest to you. Everyone has secrets, and it is wise to remember we may not even know ourselves or what we are capable of. And it also points out that we should not be too quick to turn on those around us when faced with the possibility of a “wolf” in the fold. Very often he or she is the one person we never expected, and too often it is the weak or different who become the victims of our fear.
Both movies are good. If I had to choose a favorite, I would say Beastly. It was more true to the classic, modernized to give it relevance, but still a wonderful tale. Perhaps I like it also because it wasn’t an insipid cartoon churned out by Disney (who has finally gotten more with the times if Tangled is any indication), but a real story about the human tendency to judge only by outward appearances, our idolization of beauty to the point of disregarding unsightly behaviors by those who are beautiful, and about realizing that beauty itself is not the real truth. (I also liked the fact that it was the prince who needed rescuing, not the princess.) But I do not discard Red Riding Hood completely. I enjoyed the story and liked the twist to it that breathed new life into a tale I never really cared for that much to begin with. In truth, I’d like to see more fairy tales, told as they should be. Because those classic legends were not watered down versions meant just for children. They were stories to remind adults of very basic truths, moral teachings told in the oldest and greatest tradition. In a modern day where ancient deviant behaviors are as alive and well as always, we need the reminders and warnings. That is, if any of us pay attention.