Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Domestication of Dwarfs

Sooner or later, everyone weighs in on Disney.

Like almost every American born in the late nineteenth century, Disney fairy tales were a major and influential aspect of my childhood.  Though I was able to place them, growing up, alongside the originals, and for that, I am very relieved and grateful.

Walt Disney's re-imaginings of fairy tales are in many ways very significant, moving works of art.  Especially in the early motion pictures, with such scenes as a horrifyingly beautiful face staring, bloodless, into a magic mirror; a horned sorceress splitting her skin to reveal a hideous, fire-breathing worm; high-Gothic, stained glass windows unfolding a haunting story of a spoiled prince and a hag-turned-Fury

Still, there is something essential missing from Disney's versions that leads people in search of fairy tale purity, opening up an astounding world of murderous mothers, incestuous fathers, and bittersweetly-ever-after endings.

Some claim it is the perpetuation of submissive female stereotypes, or the happy lie of the American dream, or the inherent materialism and marketing woven within the plots themselves.

After some consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Disney leaves me unfulfilled, and wanting for a distinct and primary folkloric ingredient: that sense of other-worldliness, or just-beyond-the-surface, of step-upon-this-feather-and-cities-will-crumble subtext beneath most fairy tales that resonatse so deeply within, that we find it hard to name, or even recognize in the first place.*

I'll illustrate using the movies with which I am most familiar.

C.S. Lewis admitted that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has moments of real magic, brushes with Faerie, such as when gnarled tree branches become grasping arms tearing at Snow White's dress.  But he also called Disney's dwarfs "vulgar."

I can't speak for Professor Lewis, but I suspect it has something to do with (what I call) the dwarfs' domestication.  Other than their stature and occupation, Doc and company retain nothing of their original mysteriousness: dwarfs as precarious, ugly beings who are, at best, tentative allies of mortal men, bestowing glittering gifts from the deep, but also capable of vindictive tempers and nefarious tricks--certainly not who you'd want to wake up to at night after losing your way in the wilderness.
by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

In Sleeping Beauty, the hosts of fairies honoring the birth of a human child, even a princess, lends a sense of awed caution: as if one ought to draw breath carefully, lest the exquisite and dangerous beings vanish, or worse.  Rather, these creatures, of which Yeats said
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame
are tamed and filtered until there is nothing left but three plump, middle-aged (though well-intentioned) goofballs with tiny wings and magic wands.  I suspect that in the original story, the wicked fairy that put a curse on Briar Rose was hardly discernible from those who bestowed blessings--it was just the unfortunate king and queen's mistake to miss an invitation and incur the wrath of one of the fickle Folk.
Elf King, artist unknown
Similarly, the fairy godmother in Cinderella is scatter-brained, with a huge pink bow beneath her chin, like something borrowed from Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind.  She misplaces her wand and stammers magical nonsense: bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.  She might as well say goo goo ga ga.**  Where is the tall, perilous creature, as beautiful as she is old and dangerous as she is benevolent, appearing before the weeping cinder girl, so that the child is struck speechless merely to behold such a vision before her, much less have her at her service to grant her deepest heart's desire?
Fair Helena, Arthur Rackham
To quote Taio Cruze, "it goes on and on and on."

The eerie, invisible servants from Beauty and the Beast are Broadway-performing furniture and dining pieces.  Instead of longing for an immortal human soul, highlighting the otherness of the mermaid (that strange and beautiful creature!), Ariel just wants to walk on land with a cute boy her daddy forbids her to date.

I want magic in my fairy tales.  And by magic, I mean the unfamiliar.  And by the unfamiliar, I mean the familiar caught off-guard: something beautiful and strange and so just-out-of-memory that my heart aches.***

* If Disney does attempt this at all, it attempts it (with varying degrees of success) with the villains.
** Disney is trying to make fairy tales which society deems "suitable for children," and it's hard to strike the right balance.  I don't claim that these depictions of fairies aren't appropriate given their audience, or that I know how to better go about pleasing everyone.
*** There's an opportunity here to explore the philosophical nature of "beauty," what makes something (a story or poem, a painting or song) objectively beautiful, is it interchangeable with the sublime, etc.  But that's a bit too far out of the realm of this blog!



  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! When people criticize Disney for their passive females or happy endings I feel like many of their arguments don't hold weight when compared to other versions of fairy tales, or most popular movies for that matter, but I think you really have a point. What a sad commentary on our culture, it's as if we either fear or abhor being truly awed.

  2. Kristin, thank you so much for sharing. I feel the same. c:

  3. The picture of the Elf King is by Maxine Gadd.
    You go to google images and upload the image and it will tell you where it came from


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