Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (intro part four)
The Sword Decides!
Introduction: part four
A Different Kind of Translation, continued:
The format of a story—not its paragraphing style, but the skeletal shape into which a fiction is introduced—will deliver engagement or fail to, depending on whether the form has storytelling in its bones, or a didactic message, outwardly clothed as a story.
Growing up, I had a Grimms’ Fairy Tales (Grosset and Dunlap), fifty or so adventures with especially nice line-drawing illustrations, that I read cover-to-cover dozens of times. We also had in the house a little book of Hans Christian Andersen.
Many of these I don’t remember. Most of the ones I remember, I didn’t like.
Andersen put a lot (a lot) of religion into his work, and had the off-putting Victorian habit of instructing children in their duty towards the preservation of their souls.
Dante made Virgil his guide in hell, restricted by his church’s doctrine that the unbaptized could not exist in heaven; Andersen made the Little Mermaid, however sympathetic a character, unable to ascend from Fairyland Purgatory. Although God is all powerful and all knowing, he chose to create beings without souls, while the system demands his knowledge that souls would be a future requirement for salvation. Christianity superimposed on the magical realm is logistically problematic.
Let’s look at a few plotlines from Andersen:
“The Brave Tin Soldier”: Admonished by a goblin, “…don’t wish for what does not belong to you”, after he dreams of marriage with a paper-doll dancer, the soldier is made to suffer in several ways, finally melted in the fire; the doll, innocent altogether, is burned to ash after blowing into the stove.
“The Fir Tree”: Not appreciating his life in the forest, he wants to be a Christmas tree. He is stripped of his comforts one by one, burned for firewood at the story’s end, expressing a regret discouraging, but not very relatable, to a child: “Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! But now it is too late!”
The Little Mermaid kills herself (throws herself into the sea, to dissolve into foam), rather than kill the prince she loves, because that’s the lump-it-or-leave-it deal on offer, if she wants to be a mermaid again. The spirits of the air lay it out for her:
“…you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul…
…every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, [italics mine] our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!”
And the amazing, “The Red Shoes”: Karen, a little girl adopted by an old woman, gets a pair of fancy red shoes; the old woman’s inability to see the color, the cause of the “inappropriate” purchase. Karen wears them to her confirmation, later to communion, and thinks of the shoes rather than her prayers.
Quote, Angel of God: Dance you shall,” said he, “dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall, from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance—!”
…Then she knew that she was forsaken by everyone and damned by the Angel of God.
“The Little Match Seller” (usually referenced as Match Girl) patiently and pitifully lights a few matches, has a few visions, then lays down to die.
This laying-down-to-die embracing of essential injustices, some characters’ fates on little provocation even gothically abusive, spawned my childhood impression of the Andersen stories: that the characters lacked gumption, lacked resourcefulness, were bereft of a fundamental faith in themselves. Their solutions to their problems were wretched; the problems themselves were arbitrary; the punishments cruel and unusual.
Not (not having the vocabulary for it) that I articulated these impressions. I just much preferred the freewheeling world of the Grimms. Grimmland characters usually win. Many are hustlers or entrepreneurial thinkers, many solve their problems on their feet, by outwitting an opponent; while coveting a fortune is almost never punished in Grimmland—it’s usually the precursor to living happily ever after.
Didactic framing, then—a thing found often in literary novels and quite often in genre—forces the character’s fate. The didactic plot plugs in events…setbacks, temptations…that are not, for a person situated as the character, the likeliest of occurrences; and frog-marches the character to choices that ignore many readily taken options.
In life, a lot of sins get no just desserts. The sinner gets a nice piece of cake, instead; his supporters argue about whether the thing in question can really be defined as a sin. We don’t love this, but our knowledge of life intervenes when a story asks us to believe in characters who don’t fight fate, or whose fates seem (by some guiding hand) over-determined.
(more to come)
(Andersen quotes, public domain. Source: Gilead)
The Sword Decides!
(2020, Stephanie Foster)