Happily ever after

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The closing ceremonies of the Olympics are almost unbearably sad to me. Unlike the opening ceremonies when everyone dreams of winning a medal–realistically or not–the closing ceremonies are defined by the victories and defeats of the past 2 weeks. But whether or not they got the gold–and the majority of them didn’t–these athletes will be retelling their stories for the rest of their lives.

As I said to friends on Friday night, I feel so bad for most of these athletes who will spend the next 60 years wishing they’d gotten the gold medal. One friend responded, yeah, and we get to spend 80 years wishing we’d gotten a gold. Touché. Psychologically, however, it’s hardest on silver medalists. While bronze medalists are generally happy just to be on the podium, and non-medalists are generally happy to even be a part of the Olympics, silver medalists are those who missed out by a thousandth of a point or a thousandth of a second. Just ask Lashinda Demus, American hurdler who vowed to never quit until she bumped up her silver status to gold, or McKayla Maroney, whose sour expression on the second-tier silver podium spawned the meme McKayla is not impressed.

Not impressed.

And for those who did get the gold? What happens after the end of the fairy tale? What will Michael Phelps and Misty May Treanor do, for goodness sake, without swimming or beach volleyball?

The second half of the musical Into the Woods wonders what happens after “happily ever after,” and the answer is not a rosy picture. The show ends with the Children Will Listen, a song which cautions that wishes do come true, but “sometimes the spell may last / past what you may see / and turn against you.”

Hopefully that won’t be the case for the Olympians now returning to their home countries. Because, even if McKayla isn’t, we are certainly impressed with our fairy tale heroes and heroines, and hope that “happily ever after” really can come true.

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Grimm and grimmer

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A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.

 

The Olympic fairy tale

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More confessions: I love the Olympics. I love them a lot. I get surprisingly emotional during sports that I ordinarily don’t pay attention to. Heck, I even get emotional while watching Olympic-themed commercials.

It’s only day 2 of the games, but already dreams are coming true and dreams are being crushed. After Michael Phelps’s fairy-tale success in Beijing, so far London has only brought disappointment. And after the huge hype around gymnast Jordyn Wieber, today she failed to qualify for the all-around competition. But in their tragedies lies the potential for others’ fairy tale endings to materialize. So far in London there hasn’t been that one moment that will stand out in the record books, but moments from previous Olympic will remain in our memories forever. And, lest we forget, there’s always Morgan Freeman to make the games feel just a little more dreamlike:

How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.