Here’s your cheerful reminder that we have a giveaway going on. It involves a wonderful signed copy of West of the Moon, and a folktale called ‘Clever Hans.’ Those of you who have read and commented on the tale tend to be universally bewildered by it. I don’t blame you. If this is a fairy tale, then we’re miles away from charming princesses and happy endings.
It’s not a fairy tale, not really. Folktale, yes. Fairy tale, if we follow Tolkien’s stringent definition, no. There’s no interfacing with another world, no brush of the eldritch, only a clueless duffer who can’t figure out how he’s supposed to act around girls and so ends up dismembering a bunch of sheep. Yes, it’s that weird.
In fact, it’s very much like another folktale that we’re all more or less familiar with: ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.’ I have a particular revulsion for that song, I confess, whilst adoring it as a cracking good time. An illustrated copy of the lyrics was available in the classroom library when I was a first year. I read it, delighted with the illustrations—a bewildered goat, a terrified cat. And then the song ended:
She’s dead, of course.
It was my first encounter with a non-Bowdlerised tale. I was appalled. It didn’t help that all the animals she had eaten were standing round her like mourners at a funeral. But, come to think of it, what else is supposed to happen when you swallow a horse? It seemed logical then. It still seems logical now.
I didn’t read it again. I preferred happy endings as a child. I still do, although I have a much broader definition of happy. In fact, there could be a certain degree of ‘happy’ in the death of the old lady—she’s rapaciously devoured the natural world from insect to mammal, and finally it rises up and crushes her. That’s eco-criticism begging to happen. That’s also thinking like an academic and not a child.
Which is the whole point, really.
I’m not going to say that I learned to really like un-Bowdlerised versions of ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly,’ and how much better they are. Everyone knows the old lady died—that’s the point. The whole song becomes a sort of ritual to see who can Bowdlerise the tale with the greatest aplomb.The best versions are the ones that creatively avoid or deny it—‘Perhaps she’ll die, but—she’s alive and well, of course!’ Here the happy ending is an inversion, a distortion. It’s amazing how subversive a good happy ending can be. I’m not sure where that fits into any pattern of retelling. But a happy-ending itself may be a form of anti-tale. This seems at least in Tolkien’s term for such things: ‘eucatastrophe.’
The book did help me understand that these stories change. They’re different every telling, depending not only on the teller but on the moment, the audience, the illustrator, the lighting. In some abstract sense the tale exists, we know it an can recall it from some atemporal sphere. In a concrete sense, it’s a patter of words and sounds, horses and flies, that exists only once, only in the telling of it.
Did ‘The Old Lady and the Fly’ teach me how to behave in society, as I believe ‘Clever Hans’ is able to? No, not really. Mister Rogers did that. Stories work differently these days. But it did teach me to respect the stories and their tellings, that no ending and no character in these tales is sacrosanct, and that sometimes no version is more shocking than the original.
Folktales are alive and well, of course.