Wednesday, May 05, 2010

How fairy-tales lost their charm

As a child, fairy-tales fascinated me for only one reason: the evil stepmother. Cinderella had one, and so did Snow White. Sleeping Beauty was cursed by an evil witch, and so was Rapunzel. The wicked old woman was omnipresent, and I was intrigued by her. Now, however, I pity her. Her position is so understandable. She doubtlessly must have been a beautiful young woman once, earning all the admiration and, possibly, whistles. Way past her prime now, he only people who look at her are the servants, and that’s probably because they’re expecting a raise (silly them). Adding insult to injury, an impertinent young girl steals all her thunder. Every living soul is gung-ho about her; the King’s messengers can’t stop staring at her; and she’s perfect at every darn thing, including scrubbing the floor and growing her hair. As if these were not reasons enough to hate the so-called heroine, her family keeps getting in the way. Cinderella’s father died without writing a proper will, and you can’ blame her stepmother for keeping everything for her sadly ugly daughters, who were almost certainly discriminated against by their stepfather. But does anyone mention that? No. Cinderella is beautiful, you see, so she’s the wretched lass and she’s always right. End of discussion.
Sleeping Beauty’s parents did not invite a very accomplished enchantress for her birthday, and she was rightly angry. Rapunzel’s father stole carrots (or was it rhododendrons?) from the old woman’s garden. Surely forced imprisonment is no more a crime than thievery is? And surely an innocent little curse is not supposed to have such ramifications? The most virtuous ladies from Hindu mythology kept doing it (the cursing, I mean) and it always turned out to be for good. Not so for the poor fifty-something women of fairytales. Unfair, I cry myself hoarse.
I have strayed from my point. Which is, I recently read a fairytale. It was called The Prophecy of the Stones, and some of it did feel lifted straight from Harry Potter. But it was published in 2002, much before Rowling introduced the concepts that were similar. Be that as it may, this was traditional fare: ancient prophecies, lost identities, knights in shining armour, insurmountable evil et. al. I must consider the fact that it was written by a thirteen year old (originally in French). Very, very laudable. For once, the world of fairytales seemed desirable, not because of the knights, but because of pre-written destinies and happy endings. It feels so nice not to blame yourself for anything that happens and stoutly say, “It is written, and it’s all for the best.” Easy life.
Wait, there’s an anticlimax. Along comes a book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and all my starry-eyed dreams seem lowly and idle. Because, guess what, this book is about punctuation, and it’s very funny. It actually comes with a—gasp!—punctuation repair kit that includes stick-on commas. In an age when “your” and “you’re” can be freely interchanged (Bhagwan, uthalo), and when saying, “She went their” does not call for a death penalty, this is just what you need.
Lynne Truss, the author, says, “While other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons, getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was listening to a quiz [on the wireless] called Many a Slip, in which erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose. […] Around the same time, when other girls were attending the Isle of Wight festival and having abortions, I bought a copy of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage and covered it with sticky-backed plastic so it would last a lifetime.” Soul sister. Tweak that a little for me and it becomes, “When other girls were watching Dill Mill Gaye, I was reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.”
I suddenly see my destiny—climbing up signboards with whitening fluid and a permanent marker, and damaging other people’s private property. If I do get caught and am tried, I will look the judge in the eyes and say, “It is written.” Maktub.


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