LONG AGO, WHEN the world was just as unfair as it is today, villagers gathered at nights and told each other stories. By the light of the fire, they spun and chattered and passed on stories that had been floating around for centuries, or perhaps even longer. Nobody could read, everybody worked hard, and at night they continued their tasks, the constant labour disfiguring bodies, crippling hands, until spinning wheels became like crucifixes for uneducated women. To occupy their minds, these early tales were bawdy and unrestrained, designed to take both listener and teller to another place. Never originally intended for children, in John Updike’s words they were ‘the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples’.
It was only later, much later, that an aristocratic Frenchwoman would call these stories conte de fees or fairy tales. Like any cultural product involving oral transmission, these stories varied widely, but certain key traits persisted. There were magical reversals of fortune: the poor became rich, evildoers were punished for their deeds, and in the end the protagonist enjoyed a life of ease. As fairy tale scholar Marina Warner notes, the schematic characterisations, such as ‘Prince Charming’ or the ‘beautiful princess’, meant that you could slip yourself into the lead role, easily imagining the story was about you. They were blank slates to write your fears and desires. Not surprisingly, fairy tales became incredibly popular, spreading virus-like across the world, intermingling through a combination of publication and oral storytelling.
Despite the many years that have passed, traces of agrarian societies still permeate these narratives. This is a magical world of kings and princesses, brutal feudal succession and inheritance laws, poor servants, villages and royal hunts. It was an era when women often died in childbirth, leaving daughters to be raised by their father’s new wife: the evil stepmother. However evil and desperate are sometimes interchangeable, and without legal rights or independent income, many of these women would have few options, all of them unpleasant. It was a time when, if your husband or father died early, you were screwed.
Poor women and abandoned girls are not the only literary remnants of an earlier era. When you read these stories, pay attention to the many animals that populate the narratives. Notice the talking birds, human–animal hybrids, helpful cats, ravenous wolves, lizard footmen, animal brides and grooms or lecherous frogs. If you start to focus on animals, particularly those in the periphery of the action, a perceptual shift takes place. Like looking at a painting’s background, when your eyes return to the subject, it appears to have changed.
WHEN I THINK of fairy tales, I think of heroes. As children, alive with our first experiences of injustice, we paste our face onto the body of Cinderella, our detested cousin’s mug onto the despot. Hearts soar with the narrative arc: we listen enthralled as we transcend obscurity to become powerful. Preoccupied with wish fulfillment, the pleasures of being ‘big’, we barely notice the animal characters, brushing past them like strangers on the train. With the exception of charismatic entities, such as Red Riding Hood’s wolf or Beauty’s beast, we aren’t that interested, viewing animals as peripheral to the action. It would not occur to us to see the same story from their perspective, or to consider questions of agency and power: like sober people at a drunken party, they’re ‘just there’. As Lewis C Seifert, professor of French Studies at Brown University, points out, generally speaking we do not perceive an animal character as the literary shadow of a once living creature, an entity with its own set of needs, motivations and expectations.
A satisfyingly literal explanation for the frequent presence of animals in fairy tales is that they’re just part of their agrarian roots. In the past, tending domestic animals, breeding and slaughtering them, or hunting wild beasts were everyday events. The lives of humans and animals were much more closely entwined than they are now. People lived alongside animals, relying on them for warmth, clothing, transport, wealth creation and status. So it makes sense that these stories are populated with animals. If we take this view, animals operate to make the magical world more convincing, for what is a wood without a wolf?
The problem with this view, however, is that representation is never this straightforward. When we make a picture of something, either in words or imagery, it is mediated through the human filter of perception, telling us just as much about the individual creator and their cultural context as the object itself. In other words, culture is just the tangible product of what happens in people’s heads. So these animals not only signify themselves, but our human understanding of our relationship with other species: we fear the wolf, the tiger and the snake, but we embrace the helpful cat or the goose that serves us by laying golden eggs. Our use of animals determines how we imagine them, with the process of sorting animals into domestic or wild categories determining whether they are represented as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is, after all, nothing intrinsically wicked about a predator species, other than it has the potential to eat us.
It becomes clear at this point that representation involves an exercise of power. If an image tells us about the relationship between the viewer and the thing being represented, then the pivot point of this act of imagining is power. Past racist and sexist images clearly illustrate this, as well as campaigns to disenfranchise them; there’s a very good reason anti-discrimination campaigns begin by creating imagery that communicates equal and inclusive power relationships. So when we read fairy tales that contain representations of animals, they implicitly communicate how we should relate to these creatures, which is governed by our perception of their status.
Fairy tales are enormously popular, everyone knows these stories, they’re foundational in terms of literacy, and play a major role in internalising gender roles. Jack Zipes, a key figure in the world of fairy tale scholarship, writes passionately about their memetic appeal, asking why are we hardwired to absorb and repeat these narratives? And there’s an enormous power in numbers. If you think of an aligned genre, such as romance writing, the readership levels are staggering. When you have a popular genre, reinforcing conventions regarding human–animal relationships, the force becomes apparent. This is a cultural live wire that won’t stop being relevant any time soon.
And representation involves an exercise of power. Acts of representation affect how we treat real animals. The act becomes an action, with an image not only telling us how we think about animals, but how we should engage with them. This is a cyclic notion, where representation both reflects and pre-empts actual experience, and our treatment of animals guides our imagining. Therefore, if we regard animals as pieces on a human chessboard, our literature will reinforce this perception. It is strangely liberating to look at any work of art, and ask the question ‘who has the power to picture another’?
WHILE REPRESENTATION TEACHES us how to see animals, it also expresses fundamental understandings about how we view ourselves. The line between humans and other animals, the so-called ‘species barrier’, is like a semi-permeable membrane. We use representation to picture our relationships with animals, but we also use animals as a mirror for the self.
One of the ways literature does this is by emphasising, through the process of anthropomorphisation, the human qualities within an animal; for example, a representation of a kind dog is contrasted with his brutish master. When we search for animal attributes in the human, this stream flows in the other direction. Indeed, it seems that we are wired up to look for the beast in the man, the man in the beast. Particularly in schematic literary forms like the fairy tale, this is a potent device that neatly communicates a great deal of character information. Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf is at once a ravenous animal and a sexual predator, and all the scarier for it. It’s a strange case of the animal object humanising the two-legged subject.
Anthropomorphisation is often communicated via metaphorical thinking and language. Metaphor operates by looking for similarities and differences between entities; effectively, it’s how we sort and categorise information about the world around us. We understand ourselves via a constant, though largely unconscious, process of thinking: ‘I am like…’ or ‘I am not like…’ Thus when we use metaphorical language, such as ‘busy as a bee’ or ‘like a pig’, we are reinforcing our own identity through negation and mutuality, as well as how we feel about bees and pigs. And while we define ourselves with and against many things, animals are deeply entangled with what it means to be human. Simply put, we see the best and worst of ourselves in animals.
While looking for ourselves, and others, in animals is a compelling discourse, it is just one of the ways we discover our humanity. Fairy tales are part of a long literary tradition that uses animal characters as an emotive counterpoint to human ones. Fairy tales often set up an animal entity alongside a powerful character, acting as a litmus test of human virtue. A common pattern features the protagonist helping an animal, with a reward, often supplied by the creature, soon following. As Marina Warner observes, this threshold test of kindness is a neat, shorthand way of indicating that the character is worthy of fairy tale largesse. It conveys the comforting message that any fool can triumph in an impossible quest, just as long as he stops to pat the cat along the way. As ever, our treatment of the most vulnerable speaks volumes about our character. In the magic world of fairy tales, where power relationships are often inverted, compassion brings conquest.
WHAT THEN OF the proliferation of human–animal hybrids in these tales? Or the many, many stories in which a human turns into an animal, or vice versa. There is an extensive cycle of ‘Animal Groom’ tales, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince, where a nobleman is magically transformed into an animal, only to be redeemed by his true love’s touch. These have often been interpreted as didactic tales designed to ease young women into marital roles. The underlying message is that it is a woman’s duty to civilise her new husband, and that her efforts in doing so will be rewarded by a worthy partner: one who is no longer brutish, indecorous and unclean. While this is a sensible interpretation, rooted in both the historical context and psychological subtext of arranged marriages, there are however other ways of looking at these tales.
Within literature, animals are often read as signifiers for the body. Representations that pair humans with animals tend to set up a mind/body, rationality/sensuality, male/female and control/subservience dichotomies. We like to think of the human psyche as being like a ‘strict but fair’ rider atop an unruly stallion, and our literature reflects this hierarchical view of mind dominating body. Cultural objects, such as books or paintings, frequently communicate our dominium over beasts, picturing us as benevolent dictators, wise farmers or loving pet owners. So an entity that straddles the species barrier, existing comfortably in neither human nor animal category, raises some intriguing questions. It is an entity that synthesises dominance and subservience, and by moving us beyond our usual frame of reference, disrupts power relationships. We know how to relate to a human or an animal, but can’t find a category to slot the hybrid into. Given the recent popularity of hybrids (vampires, werewolves, cyborgs, bio-tech beings and the like) it is worth asking what we can learn from these strange creatures.
A great deal of current scholarship is looking at the divide between human and animal, and trying to pick apart the many boundaries we’ve put between ourselves and other living entities. Writers as diverse as Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway and Peter Goldsworthy have engaged with these ideas, with a range of approaches, both creative and critical. Loosely bracketed as the emerging field of Human–Animal Studies (HAS) this disparate group includes academics, artists, activists, scientists and industry. Despite varying aims and motivations, a common interest is how we create and sustain the species barrier. If we read fairy tales from a HAS perspective, these ancient stories become sharply relevant to our lives today.
One of the key texts being explored by HAS thinkers is the ‘becoming animal’ sequences in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s influential work A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987). These extracts have received a great deal of critical attention, attracting various interpretations, yet remain difficult, compelling texts that resist literal or metaphorical readings. The writers insist that the process of becoming animal is real, but not an imitative one: we do not become an animal by pretending, yet neither do we sprout whiskers and grow a tail. An interesting, yet admittedly trivial, aspect of the whole debate is that Deleuze, a cult French philosopher, grew his fingernails long, reportedly telling a friend that he wanted to ‘write like a rat’. If we read these fingernails as the physical embodiment of inner change, as markers towards transition, the first steps towards hybridity, then the category-defying human–animal may appear in a new light.
A human–animal hybrid is the living embodiment of change, transformation and potentiality. By presenting an enchanted entity, one clearly not destined to remain in its present form, it privileges the process of becoming over the fixity of being. In other words, identity is no longer a given, we are no longer thinking in terms of established categories, and a whole world of possibility opens up. Categories are useful, they help us to understand the world, but they can also be limiting, shrinking how we see ourselves and other entities, including animals. When we no longer examine categories, our thinking atrophies, and with it our actions. Something like a hybrid reminds us that things are permeable, open to negotiation, in a constant state of flux: I am myself today, but this does not necessarily mean that I will be the same tomorrow. In this ability to imagine changed states lies power.
We have always used fiction as a platform to imagine other selves, live other lives, crawl into someone’s skull and see the world through their eyes. A good story transports you to another world and you return with an expanded sense of what is possible in your own life. In short, what begins as an act of imagination ends with empowerment. Within this literary tradition, fairy tales, with their strong emphasis on transformation, engrave a potent narrative arc on the reader’s mind. When readers encounter a fairy tale protagonist, they engage with this character, and try to slip themselves into its skin. Thus a hybrid protagonist forces an unexpected sense of empathy, as we struggle to connect with something that is both foreign and familiar. We are reading between categories. My argument is that this tension, this sense of difference, is the key to changing our perceptions, whether this is of ourselves, animals or the text.
Perhaps another way of reading hybrids demonstrates more clearly the value of departing from thinking in terms of established categories. While in the past, our conception of animals was more fluid, it is not the only schism to have opened up in how we see ourselves and the world. Our relationship with our body parallels our relationship with the animal: we see our body as an Other, something that exists at a distance, akin to property, a thing to be utilised – but lacking the full rights of an owner – not necessarily enjoyed. We no longer properly inhabit our own bodies. I would argue that this Cartesian mind-body split is fundamentally disempowering for women. A fairy tale hybrid, operating within a literary genre that appeals to women, folds together the signifiers for mind and body, human and animal, subject and object. By collapsing these categories, it potentially removes the space between ourselves and our skin. It opens up an imaginary liminal zone, a space where a transformative re-territorialisation of one’s physical self becomes possible. Like Deleuze’s fingernails, the physical manifestation of an internal shift, a fairy tale hybrid suggests transformative possibilities and dissolving boundaries.
If this all sounds suspiciously airy-fairy, then I’d like to close by noting two things. The first is the observation that if power does not start in the mind, where does it begin? And the second is an extract from Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz, 1979,) describing the moment when a woman metamorphoses into a tiger. Carter writes across the species barrier, embracing the moment mind and body become one:
‘And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.’