It’s been a long time since I did a Princess of The Week; a series where I look beyond Snow White and Beauty, to the Awesome heroines who are just as strong and adventurous as their male counterparts Last time, we looked at a dragonslayer and a woman who used her wits to become the Sultan.
There’s truth to the idea that it takes more intellectual energy to be successfully deceptive than to be senselessly sincere.
It’s also true that there’s a difference between being ‘good’ and ‘nice’. Being ‘good’- standing up for what’s right in the face of adversity- is laudable. Being relentlessly ‘nice’ – tolerating bad behaviour for fear of being ‘mean’ or ‘starting trouble’- is not; it’s intellectual and moral cowardice that should never be rewarded. Unfortunately, in fairy tales, it often is.
It’s a delicate balancing act to walk the line between being ‘nice’ and being ‘a doormat’ or ‘a complete moron’, and so often in fairy tales not only do the leads fail to walk this tightrope; they fall, crash and drag the beams that held up the tightrope down on everyone else in the vicinity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DARWIN AWARDS
In Little Snow White, the titular heroine falls for the same assassination ploy not once, not twice, but THREE times in the original. Three.With her lemming- like skills of self preservation and her prince’s questionable behaviour around women in coffins, I worry about their future children. Here’s hoping that seven fairies come along and bless their kids with something more useful than ‘song’ and ‘music’ this time, otherwise the kingdom’s future leadership is in trouble.
THE MAN WHO MADE THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS BLOOM OR THE RSPCA’S MOST WANTED
It’s not only women who are susceptible to the trope of ‘passive niceness’. Things only gets worse in the Japanese tale, ‘The Man who made the cherry blossoms bloom’; the old man knows his neighbour abuses his dog at every chance he gets, but he lends his dog to the neighbour anyway because he is ‘a kind man’.
His neighbour beats the dog to death. But is the old man deemed to be guilty of ‘criminal neglect?’ No, his only crime is ‘kindness’, so why should the old man learn anything from his actions? All he needs to do is keep on letting his neighbour walk over him and defile his pet’s memory over and over again until magical karma solves everything.
FINALLY! A FAIRY TALE THAT AGREES WITH ME
The examples above are stories where being ‘nice’ means being relentlessly stupid or passive, which isn’t a good message for adulthood. It may work for getting kids not to bicker with each other or talk back, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.
However, there is a brilliant antidote to this message- and that antidote can be found in the little known Iraqi tale of ‘The Honest Man’.
This tale is subversive right from the word ‘go.’ From its opening paragraph it begins:
‘There was once an honest man, upon whom fortune never smiled. His wife deceived him, his sons robbed him, and when his beard was white he found himself without either money or honour.’
We have the similar set up to your Cinderellas, your Princess Hases (a fairy tale I’ll look at in another post)… your poor good person being relentlessly abused by the people around him.
He then goes and asks his friend at the local suq what needs to be done about it- and his friend advises him to go on a pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of a holy man. This introduction of a potential supernatural moral guardian, a sort of ‘fairy godmother’ or ‘divine parent’ if you will, would usually mean that magic will make the world right without him having to do anything.
On his pilgrimage, the honest man meets various creatures who tell him their tales of woe and he promises to pray for them. His most notable encounter is with a talking lion with a massive headache. When he meets the prophet, the prophet tells him how to solve all the problems of the various people he encountered. Simple enough. But when he gets to the lion’s dilemma things get dark:
“His case is also easy,’ answered the Imam.”All that he has to do is is to eat the head of a fool, and he will instantly be cured.”
Uh oh. I can see where this is going. Things get even darker when the honest man finally asks the Imam to help him with his own problem :
“Go in peace,” said the saint [probably with an evil smile] “I have already told thee that which is necessary to end thy troubles.” [emphasis mine]
Whoa! What kind of saint is this man?
After this point, the honest man travels back home and helps everyone he met on the way. Each time, he’s rewarded with a vast amount of riches, but each time he refuses to take the reward for some senseless reason.
Finally, he encounters the lion and tells him what the prophet told him. You can guess what happened next.
Needless to say, this was the end of his streak of bad luck.
After reading this story, I was pretty surprised by the ending . After all, in any other fairy tale the honest man would be the hero. Why wasn’t he here?
The point of this tale is not to discourage people from being kind and honest; in fact, every time the honest man helps someone, karma rewards him with worldly wealth. He’s offered a big sum of money for helping the brothers and he finds an expensive pearl after helping the fish. Clearly, his kindness is rewarded.
But the honest man’s problem isn’t compassion; his problem is that he’s too stupid to make the most of his situation. He complains that ‘fortune never smiled’ on him, but the truth is it does but his own stupidity causes all his blessings to be undone.
It is arguably laudable that he rejected the brothers’ inheritance, because it didn’t belong to him. However, it got ridiculous when he threw the pearl the fish spat out back into the lake. The pearl belonged to no one and throwing it back into the lake was of no use to anybody. He was offered good fortune but he tossed it away like trash because he was too stupid to seize the opportunity.
The honest man was given every opportunity to change his fortune. However, each time he proved to be the undoing of every gift fate threw at him; he was so stupid, so incapable of changing that in the end, the lion did provide him with the only way that could end his woes.
The moral is ‘being nice is good, but don’t be a moron’. And that’s a moral we can all get behind.
‘The Honest Man’, Folktales of Iraq, Edited and Translated by E.S. Stevens, Dover Publications, Inc
Little Snow White, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain
Cinderella, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain
‘The Story Of Princess Hase’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki, Bibliobazaar
‘The Story Of The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki