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According to Mircea Eliade, fairy tales and mythological stories are “models for human behavior [that,] by that very fact, give meaning and value to life (Bettelheim 35). This lends to the idea that fairy tales and myths, from the beginning, have been used as examples for people to follow and learn from. Stories from ancient Greek tragedies such as Libation Bearers, to classic fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, to even modern takes on fairy tales like Into The Woods, all have a message to tell, a fable to teach. This paper will explore the messages that various fairy tales and myths convey, and will explain how these messages change depending on time and place, as well as how they are parts of an agenda, using characterization, quotes, and the outcome of characters.
Myths and fairy tales “[embody] the cumulative experience of a society as men wished to recall past wisdom for themselves and transmit it to future generations” (Bettelheim 26). Over time, this cumulative experience and past wisdom was perverted, or used to perpetuate ideas or send messages that the storyteller wanted to get across. The first message that is being told is that within Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. The two children of Agamemnon, Orestes and Electra, carry out revenge for their father’s murder by their mother, in a way that demonstrates the Greek idea of justice, that is, in it’s simplest terms, helping your friends and harming your enemies. In this case, their mother, Clytemnestra, who wronged their family in many ways, deserves justice for her actions, particularly killing Agamemnon. While at it’s core, the main theme of the play and the others in its’ trilogy is justice and the enactment of it, there is a political and social context that needs to be addressed to get a full understanding of the play’s meaning. The play was written in Athens, a democratic city-state. The main antagonist of the play, Clytemnestra, is ruling over Argos tyrannically. This already presents the fact that the Athenian playwright Aeschylus, as well as his predominantly Athenian male audience, see tyrants as an enemy.
It goes beyond that, however. Socially, the Greeks “linked tyrants with women”, due to the fact that tyrants are surrounded by protection and walls, and therefore lose their freedom of travel and movement, as well as the fact that a tyrant, due to his or her power, is likely to over-indulge in pleasures and fashion (Foley xviii). These characteristics are linked to women because, in Athens, leaving the household as a woman was seen as a social faux pa, and women stereotypically enjoyed fashion and over-indulgence, and were considered undisciplined, another characteristic stereotypical of only women and barbarians. By making the main antagonist a female tyrant, “Aeschylus exploits these parallel cultural assumptions about women and tyranny” (Foley xix).
With that background information in mind, it is possible to see certain messages that the play conveys. For example, Electra, supposedly the only surviving child of Agamemnon in Argos at the beginning of the play, begins the play by making offerings to her father’s grave and praying to the gods for vengeance to be wrought upon her mother. Immediately after her offering and prayer, she finds evidence of Orestes presence, and reacts with extreme joy when he reveals himself by saying “[y]ou are the closest and dearest to your father’s House. How I wept for you, the seed of hope, salvation!” (Lib. 235-6). Electra’s extreme excitement when seeing Orestes, paired with her extreme sorrow for the loss of her father and her hatred of her mother, paints her as a dutiful daughter. She is carrying out offerings to her father’s grave, not struggling or leaving her home, and when the time comes, Orestes begins to lead the plan for avenging their father. In doing so, Orestes, in the hero role, pushes Electra to the side and has her follow him while he deals with the situation at hand. Bettelheim states that the “hero is presented to the listener as a figure that he ought to emulate in his own life, as far as possible” (Bettelheim 26). With all of this information, the “model” presented here is that Electra, by carrying out her social obligations of paying tribute to her father and being submissive towards Orestes is being a dutiful, just daughter, while Orestes presents a chauvinist message that the man has to lead, particularly in situations that require strength or present difficulties.
Clytemnestra is also painted as unjust, despite killing Agamemnon due to the unjust things he had also done, such as kill their daughter as a way to end a war, and for having a concubine despite Clytemnestra being a dutiful wife up until the moment where she kills him. The plot as a whole effectively conveys the idea that women should be submissive and not rule, and that men should take action, all under the pretense of justice. This message is in line with social beliefs that were common at the time in Athens, strengthening the patriarchal grasp on Athens. This can lead one to believe that mythological pieces, such as the tales of Odysseus and Agamemnon or any other relevant mythological hero have a message to dissuade one from acting a certain way.
Into The Woods also presents many messages about marriage, growing up, and working together. An important distinction to note about myths as opposed to fairy tales is that the ending “[of] myths is always tragic, while always happy in fairy tales” (Bettelheim 37). Considering the movie consists of various adaptations of fairy tales and stories put together into one movie, the amount of lessons learned by the characters, and by extension, the amount of lessons portrayed to the audience, are substantial. Throughout the movie, various characters are made to enter the woods for different reasons and come out stronger, wiser, or more prepared for the real world in some way. For example, The Baker and his wife realize that they have to work together to fulfill the terms of their contract with the witch, improving their marriage.
This serves as a contrast to the beginning where they had a “divide and conquer” approach to getting the objects the witch needed. However, once the time came that they actually had a baby, they started to fall back into old habits, and the Wife, upon getting separated by the husband again, cheats on him and subsequently dies. This is a fairy tale example of how marriages can end up in a non-fantastical situation. They began to work together and developed a stronger relationship for it, they were enamored with the idea of having a child but once the child came, they remarked that they did not have any room in their home and seemed very unprepared for it, and the difficulties the child provided, coupled with the stress of external forces (in this case, the giant), made her resort to escaping from her husband and child and having an affair with a handsome prince to get away from it all. This act of infidelity leads to her death, implying she was being punished for her actions, as befitting for fairy tales, which, reinforces the idea that “virtue is rewarded everywhere, and vice is always punished”.
The Baker represents the virtuous hero in this story. After the death of his wife, the Baker learns to deal with his problems head on after the appearance of the ghost of his father, who is telling The Baker the immense regret he felt for running away from his troubles, and with the assistance of the other characters, confronted his challenge, instead of abandoning them for a different life where he would have regretted his past decision. This realization echoes the original purpose of these tales as said earlier in the paper, that is, to embody experience and wisdom and pass it on to future generations. The father, who had made mistakes and learned from it, helped The Baker realize from beyond the grave that he cannot do the same, as he will spend the remainder of his life miserable and filled with regret. When he returns, he is filled with purpose, determination, and is ultimately stronger than he was before. As Bettelheim puts it, “[t]he fairy tale is future-oriented and guides the [audience]” (Bettelheim 11). The Baker in this story, and by extension, the hero of other stories, acts as someone to emulate. In experiencing the issues firsthand, The Baker changed as a person, and the audience now has a role model, an example to follow, without having to experience it themselves. In seeing someone else experience this and seeing the outcome, the audience learns, even subconsciously, to emulate or learn from that situation.
The story of the Witch and Rapunzel also teaches a lesson about the attachment between a mother and her daughter. The Witch has kept Rapunzel, now an adult woman, trapped in her tower for her entire life. The Witch keeps her in the tower for the sole purpose of keeping her safe, as she believes the world is dangerous and dark, but that in the tower she can be away from the harsh realities of the outside world. This seems to be a reflection of the original reasoning behind many fairy tales, as the Witch is the exact kind of person who probably told fairy tales that were frightening to keep Rapunzel in her home, not wanting to escape until she realizes there is more to the outside world than the danger that The Witch described.
Into The Woods shows its agenda through the outcomes of its various characters. The Baker’s story, mostly about marriage, family cohesion, and child raising, conveys the message that one has to be willing to work together with his or her family, which, in this case, turns out to be various other fairy tale characters as well as his true family, and that he must face his problems head on and without fear, and the children in the story, after facing the challenges of the woods, become more capable and courageous. Rapunzel strikes out and finds the someone she loves in the woods, despite being put in an incredibly dangerous situation for it. This can be seen as an inversion of the normal depiction of these fairy tales, particularly the classical version of Little Red Riding Hood, where the story is used to frighten children into behaving so they do not get themselves into a dangerous situation, such as getting lost in the woods or getting attacked by the wildlife.
Little Red Riding Hood is an example of a fairy tale that has been reused time and time again for the purpose of discouraging certain kinds of behavior. Charles Perrault’s version, in particular, highlights the one moral very heavy handedly in saying “ Children…should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” (Lang 53). This particular version shows the most blatant use of fairy tales as a way to encourage a lesson to be learned by children. However, there are various critiques of this version of Little Red Riding Hood. As stated before, virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, and Little Red Riding Hood, in this depiction, was stated to be “entertaining herself by gathering nuts, running after butterflies, and gathering bouquets of little flowers” (Lang 51). Bettelheim believes that this behavior “merited punishment for her arranging things so that the wolf can do away with the mother figure”, helping to prove that the fairy tale’s point is still to punish her for having done something wrong or foolish (Tartar 38). Jack Zipes believes the same, stating that the eponymous character is shown to be “‘pretty, spoiled, gullible, and helpless’ and is seen to collaborate in her own rape” (Tartar 38).
This shows that Little Red Riding Hood is, above all else, meant to be a cautionary tale. As her behavior in most depictions is seen to be airheaded, easily fooled, and disobedient towards her mother, it makes sense that she is taken advantage of by the Wolf, a predator figure meant to represent those who would use such weaknesses to get what they want. The story shows that, if she were to listen to the mother and take the quickest, shortest path to her grandmother’s house, while ignoring strangers and distractions, she would get there safely and no harm would come to her or her family. This reinforces a behavior of caution, fear, and discipline in children when concerning matters of the outside world.
In conclusion, it can be seen that all fairy tales and myths, in one way shape or form, have an agenda to fill. The Sometimes this agenda is to keep the status quo, and inspire people to act in a way dictated by society, such as in the case of Libation Bearers, and other times it is used to help children grow up and succeed, such as in the case of Into The Woods or Libation Bearers.
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