The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Intro to Repetition, Pt. 2: “Gritty” Fairytale Retellings Are Weird


(Nothing against you if you like the kind of fairytale adaptions that have adjectives like “gritty” or “dark” on the book cover or DVD case. Everyone has their own opinion.)

So in the last post, I said a lot of words that amounted to “myths are important because they help us grow up.” What Campbell said about mythology and other ancient stories – that they function as rites of passage – makes a lot of sense when used to explain why the monomyth has stuck around so long and clings to so many of our best stories, even in the 21st century. But he goes a little deeper into that, with this short chapter about the two opposite points of the storytelling spectrum, or two sides of the same storytelling coin, or maybe just the two main parts of the story that make it all work the way it should.

I feel like Campbell foresaw the recent rash of Dark Retellings that litter our Books-A-Million newsletter updates.

Comedy as satire is acceptable, as fun it is a pleasant haven of escape, but the fairy tale of happiness ever after cannot be taken seriously;… (28)

And, look, I get the impulse. Disney’s Cinderella, for some inexplicable reason, decided to ditch the limb removal motif from the ending, as they did with the blinding-by-birds one, and their version of Tinker Bell has nary a murderous whim. It’s natural, I think, to want the guts back in the stories and then some. When you get older than Sleeping Beauty’s target audience, you start to realize that not everything is solved by a stranger’s circumstantial kiss (okay, nothing is). There’s nothing wrong with that – I think Campbell might even say that this view is right:

The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved. (27-28, emphasis mine)


But the problem, he continues, isn’t in the fairytale’s happy ending. It’s in our shallow, reductionist conception of the fairytale’s happy ending – as it always is. (It’s the monomyth, so to speak, of human failure.) We say, “You don’t get the real world,” to Disney movies, and maybe we’re right, to some degree, but we miss the fact that our phraseology is wrong. “The physical world,” “the immediate, political, social world” is what we really mean. But those specifics don’t exactly equate to “the real world.”

[Fairytale’s divine comedies of redemption], in the ancient world, were regarded as of a higher rank than tragedy, of a deeper truth, of a more difficult realization, of a sounder structure, and of a revelation more complete.
The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. (28, emphasis mine)

Nice! We don’t get “the real world,” either. The people who first started telling the fairytales, though, did, if just a little more than we do.

In the previous post, Campbell claimed that mythology’s highest purpose is to function as a rite of passage, and I claimed that that rite of passage was a move from dependence on the physical to appreciation of the spiritual, of the more-than-this. This appreciation, essentially, is what Campbell says is the result of Tragedy and Comedy working together – both the “gritty” and the “happy ending” sides to fairytales and myth. We have to accept that the world, as our bodies know it, is kind of crap, because it’s true. Tragedy – along with what I think we’d probably call some sort of realism now – makes us confront the truth of the real world. It’s probably why Gritty Fairytale Retellings got a toehold, because when we see “dark fairytale” our reaction can boil down to something like Oh, a fairytale that tells the truth about reality. It’s a legitimately attractive concept.

But while a lot of fairytale retellings can grab onto that “real world” blood and grit, it takes a more nuanced grasp of fairytale to get Campbell’s “transcendence of the universal tragedy of man” thing. They get tragedy’s purpose in fairytale – “the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms” – but not comedy’s purpose, “the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible” (28).

The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject [within the fairytale], is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest – as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. (28)


I’m not saying that none of the Gritty Fairytale Retellings have achieved this, or even that few of them have. I can name a handful of books and movies that I think did really well, balancing both sides of the coin. It’s just that the Make Fairytales Dark Again urge can be reductionist – maybe even, at the edges, a little immature, because it comes from a state of dependence on the physical. If all we want out of our fairytale rewrites is “more dismemberment,” we devalue what fairytales can really give us – this world, and a spiritual one.

And fairytales are way too much fun for that.

I’ll let Broseph take it from here.

The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power. …The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity. (29)


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