I’m looking for my fairy tale ending, holding on for my Fairy Godmother or even hoping fairies show up and wash the dirty dishes in the sink. I don’t believe in fairy tales, although a part of me wants to. My inner child perhaps?
Yesterday, thanks to a gussied up Google home page, I learned it was the 388th birthday of Charles Perrault, the Fairy Godfather of the literary genre, the fairy tale. Not being much of a fairy tale aficionado (princesses hold little appeal to me), I had thought the genre began with the brothers Grimm. Evidently, Perrault made simple folk tales fashionable at court and the fairy dust honors go to him.
If it is a simple matter of a courtly bard sophisticating folk tales, I might want to argue that the fairy tale genre is older than Perrault. Certainly the Lais of Marie de France, who was possibly the illegitimate sister of Henry II and abbess of Reading, could qualify as making stories of love and fables of animals popular at court in the 12th century. What of the stories of King Arthur or the folk tales of the Celts? Where do we define “fairy tale”?
Folk tales, or stories of cultural tradition, have been with us since the first telling of the rising sun or acknowledgement of a spirit world. What if the only thing that separates us from other species is our desire to tell and hear stories? Do ravens have tales? Do wolves howl bedtime lullabies? Do whales use sonar to explain the creatures in boats above the demarcation of water? According to scientific studies, human brains are hard-wired for stories. And a story is defined by people in a predicament and how they do or do not escape. Stories are how we learn what is accepted and acceptable in society. Stories are also where we push those limits and explore why we accept or reject what we do. Stories allow us to perceive the predicaments of others, sparking empathy and compassion.
What is a fairy tale but the simple formula for a story that has always been with us — it begins with the familiar “once upon a time” and ends happily ever after. The Disney franchise makes gazillions off of fairy tale princesses, and has even evolved fairy tales over successive tellings through the medium of movies. Ballet is another medium for fairy tales with epic dance interpretations of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia and the Nutcracker. Fairy tale motifs are even used in literature to create either realistic fantasies or to give realistic stories fantastical elements. Today, the villain might win over the princess as the genre evolves to consider new predicaments and outcomes.
As a child, my favorite fairy tale from among the Walt Disney versions was Robin Hood. I had the book and the record which I played over and over, listening to the songs and voices to imagined pictures in my head. It didn’t seem odd at all that Disney’s Robin Hood was a red fox, or Little John a big brown bear. For fairy tales, we suspend reality.
Only now does it occur to me I might have developed a bias against the profession of sheriffs because clearly the Sheriff of Nottingham was a big bad wolf. Subconsciously, did I think Cobb McCanles might have been the bully history describes him to be because he was a sheriff? Yet, my research into the profession expands my understanding. As a sheriff in antebellum North Carolina, Cobb had to be tough, but also smart. He had to hold himself to high standards and be accountable to the highest government in the state as a tax collector. He was accountable for those who didn’t pay their taxes, and he had to provide exact amounts when he collected. Often, he had take people’s property if they refused or couldn’t pay taxes, which could have put him in dangerous situations.
It’s interesting Cobb would have held a position that required enough popularity to be elected four times, yet be unpopular for what he was tasked to do. He was a big man, a sporting man who wrestled in the skull and knife duels of his time (think 1850s MMA), and he was self-righteous, believing himself to be an authority by his position. He lived large in life and probably created many silent enemies. None spoke out against him until he left the politics of North Carolina which had taken a direction he couldn’t uphold. He left for Nebraska, but must have carried with him that sheriff’s demeanor. Was he the big bad wolf?
The fairy tale that evolves from the 1861 incident at Rock Creek finds a hero in another — Wild Bill Hickok. In fairy tales, typically you can only have one hero. History answers, yes, Cobb McCanles was the big bad wolf and Hickok the dashing hero who saved the day. Consider this passage by historian, William E. Connely:
Wild Bill and McCanles were both men of destiny — strong, fitted to stand in the forefront of the advance of the frontier, to hold the lead of civilization into new lands. By his courage, his intrepidity, his iron will, his marvelous achievement Wild Bill won fame. By his strength of character and his tragic death McCanles won fame. One was the knight of the Middle Ages strangely out of time. The other was the freebooter with the daring to take what he wanted regardless of consequences.
Both will live on history’s eternal page.
Think a moment about the idea that we are hardwired for stories. Not logic. Stories. The stories that emerged to explain the incident at Rock Creek read like fairy tales with the knight overcoming the freebooter. The community needed a story to make the incident acceptable. And obviously, the American culture at large wanted heroes, and the Wild West was ripe with fairy tale potential.
Problem is, we’ve accepted the tales as history. It’s near impossible to sift all the stories for facts and come up with the “real” story, but like those who tell alternative fairy tales, Rock Creek is a novel to offer alternative considerations, busting the myths of western villains, heroes and happy endings. The women involved were more than princesses on the sidelines.
While I wait for my own elusive fairy tale life, I continue to move forward, making headway against what feels like strong winds. Finally, the VA has submitted a formal document for my husband’s PTSD. I have to take time out of my packed schedule to sit in meetings with his advocate. Monday went well, and I felt some measure of validation, if not exhaustion. This will take time. Everything I’m doing at the moment will take time. I should be a monk by the end of it all. On top of everything, my head cold of a month ago decided to return like some medieval plague and dormant health issues decided to flare. I feel like Prince Charming, fighting the dragon, thorns and vines that hoard the prize.
Never do I feel like Sleeping Beauty. The disappointment of fairy tales is not that they aren’t real, but that the men are the ones who get to fight for what is right, for what they want. The women are sequestered and always waiting on songbirds to clean up their clutter. No wonder they are beautiful — they have time to coif hair, apply powder and dress with consideration. I look a hot mess these days, but I am the fighting prince, no sulking princess. I’ll author my own damn fairy tale in this life and one day up hold the elixir I get from writing, researching, reading, discussing and ultimately expressing what that all means. In a story, of course.
January 13, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) begin a story with, “Once upon a time…” Where you take the fairy tale is entirely up to you. Your character can break the traditional mold, or your ending can be less than happy. Elements of fairy tales include magic, predicaments, villains, heroes, fairy-folk and kingdoms. How can you turn these elements upside down or use them in a realistic setting? Write your own fairy tale.
Respond by January 19, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
No Happy Endings by Charli Mills
“Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were grieved…”
Sarah listened to Jesse read from her favorite book of fairy tales, their shared birthday tradition. Jesse now 18, and Sarah 89. Satisfied, Sarah dozed. Wasn’t she young once?
The young prince, fired for a gay adventure, set off for the woods. He rocked Sleeping Beauty in her cradle. Black hair like his, blue eyes like hers. The prince smiled. Don’t grieve…don’t grieve…
Sarah woke in her chair. Jesse finished the tale, smiling over the happy ending. Sarah knew better. Sleeping Beauty died in the woods.
Ranch News: Story selections and assignments for the Congress of Rough Writers Anthology Vol. 1 are underway. Notifications began yesterday and will continue as Editor, Sarah Brentyn, and I finalize the needs for each book section and analyze reader feedback on first-year material. Teams are assisting with editorial, education or publishing considerations to make this a collaborative effort we all can take pride in it’s quality and value.
I’ve launched a new weekly e-mail. This is not directed at writers here, necessarily, but you are welcome to follow. It’s a new tool for securing readers at Carrot Ranch and for our collective books. I will feature one Rough Writer and his or her book each week in the newsletter, giving each a turn at publicity. I will also feature three flash fiction. Don’t let the word “popular” put you off or turn on your competitive radar. Basically, it’s an editor’s pick as to three flash that go well together and can attract new readers. Once I train the monkeys (Mail Chimps) it will include a few other fun features. Again, the intent is to build up readership now that we have a solid base of writers and participants at Carrot Ranch.
There’s still time to enter the contest:
Our team of accomplished judges are patiently standing by and awaiting your submissions! Other than the judges, this contest is open to all Rough Writers and beyond. Please spread this contest if you can help out. It’s a great cause, only $15 to enter and a $250 first place prize with prizes for second, third and an overall grand prize randomly drawn from all who submitted to any of the 4 Paws for Norah Contests. You can use the icon to share and link back to the Contest Page.
In personal news, my first article is featured at the new and gorgeous Go Idaho magazine. It is subscription based but you can read up to two articles free each week and there are social media buttons below each article to share. Please tell me what you think of A Stone Castle in the Rockies.
In two weeks, Carrot Ranch goes live at the Library with Wrangling Words. The attempt is to build a similar supportive program for rural literary writers in northern Idaho.
Thank you for all your support and participation at Carrot Ranch. I hope we continue to grow, connecting to readers, engaging more writers, discussing process and stories, collaborating to the benefit of us all. I feel like I’m echoing Margaret Meade when I say, never underestimate what a small group of passionate writers can do with words.