Tag Archives: fairy tales

Darmok at Tanagra, the Emperor’s New Clothes and Other Remnants of Popular Culture

There’s an episode of the old television series Star Trek: Next Generation called “Darmok,” in which the redoubtable Captain Picard is dropped onto a bleak planet landscape to do battle with the captain of another ship, without their knowing why they are fighting. The alien captain does not speak English, at least not exactly. His language is completely comprised of allusions to the various myths of his people. So when he says to the Captain “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” he is referring to what happened to those characters, Darmok and Jalad, at that place, Tanagra, in the mythology of his people. In order for Picard to understand what the man he saying to him, he has to first learn the myth.

From its very beginnings in the 1960s, Star Trek was carefully written with an eye and ear to the U.S. zeitgeist, whether it was with respect to the Vietnam War, religion, or, most often, intolerance. More than many episodes, this one is meaningful to me because it crystallizes the functionality of a shared symbology in human experience. In other words, the importance of popular art.

What do I mean when I say so-and-so is a Picard-like character? You would have no idea if you never saw or heard of the Star Trek franchise. Same with Mr. Spock of Captain Kirk. And yet these characters speak volumes about the human experience. Spock is all intellect. Kirk is mainly passion. And Picard is pretty much the perfect leader, a balance of these two qualities.

When I refer to one of these characters when speaking with a Trekkie, I don’t need to explain myself further. The character/symbol or signifier, to use a fancy term, is like a pomegranate, containing all the diverse and specific characteristics I intend to convey. And that’s not all. The very fact that you know what I mean if I mention Darmok at Tanagra brings us closer, because the very fact that you understand demonstrates that we share a common subculture, with its own language, meaning and values. If you get it, that is to say, you get me.

In these days of diminished religious education and augmented media offerings, we have fewer and fewer sources of common meaning and values. In some ways, that’s a plus. When books or other media contain deleterious content, I’m delighted that we have choices. On the other hand, if I can’t relate to your favorite song—that is, not only don’t I know it, or the artist, but I don’t even know the genre—it’s harder for us to communicate. I am thinking right now of my father’s disdain for the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Oh, the fights that might have been averted had he sat down to listen! But then that is often the way with parents and children, particularly in the 1960s. At that time, adults still asserted, even celebrated, their differences from subsequent generations.

Which brings me to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone recently referred to that Hans Christian Andersen tale in conversation, and of course I knew exactly what he meant. He might have referred to a current event instead, and I might have gotten the same meaning. But what if I didn’t share his interpretation of that event? What if I thought the real-life “emperor” had been framed? Too complicated. No one believes Andersen’s emperor was framed, at least not seriously, not unless you are a fairy-tale revisionist. Because that was the point of the story.

The old, old stories are the same around the world, albeit with different names and settings and props. U.S. television has recently resurrected fairy-tale characters in two series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time, perhaps, as some media watchers have suggested, because we need a return to fantasy in these troubled times. Or perhaps, I argue, because we need a return to a shared understanding. To a shared language.

The alien captain died on that planet, because it took too long for the two men to learn to communicate. Let’s not let it happen to us.

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Rethinking Disney

We storytellers tend to dis Disney.

We offer many explanations for this aversion (excuse the pun). For one thing, there’s the fact that the Grimms’  versions of the classic fairy tales more closely reflected those of the German peasants from whom they collected them than do those of Disney. Of course the Grimms, too, engaged in editorializing, or, depending on your point of view, bastardization when editing and retelling well-loved stories like Cinderella and Snow White. Their agenda was to help create a bourgeoisie for the burgeoning German nation. For the second printing of their collection of Nursery and Household Tales, which was intended to engage adults as well as children, they censored the sexual content to make the volume more palatable to the parents of young children. Interestingly, they left the violence more or less intact. Likewise Charles Perrault, who popularized the French Cinderella, had his own sources and agendas.  

For another, the Disney alterations reflect not just modern sensibilities, which simply do what folklore is meant to do—change with each telling in each culture and with each individual—but they also reflect a corporate agenda. Thus while we would accept that Snow White, Ariel and their ilk  would naturally differ from their portrayals by the Grimms, Richard Burton (the Victorian who translated The Thousand and One Nights), when a multinational mega-corporation does this. we begin to suspect that someone is trying to sell us a version of truth, beauty and more than a few products to induce it in ourselves. 

And yet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the great Harvard scholar of fairy tales (and other topics) Maria Tatar for my academic journal Storytelling, Self, Society (Taylor & Francis). Far from demonizing Disney, she points out that at least they kept the old tales alive. The implication is, at least Disney’s versions (or, as folklorists say, variants) are a lot closer to those of their peasant sources than are our own.

That is to say, everyone knows and tells a version of Cinderella. Maybe it’s Pretty Woman. Maybe it’s Cinderella Man, the boxing movie with Russell Crowe. Maybe it’s your own lived experience of overcoming all odds to rise from low to high status—blue collar worker to CEO—which is the “tale type” (510A) from which the story emerges. We’ve all got what we’ve come to know as “Cinderella stories.” In very few is there mice who serve as footmen, as there are in Disney’s version. In even fewer are there birds who pick out the eyes of evil stepsisters, as there are in the Grimms’ version. (There is also the French variant by Charles Perrault that has made its way into our collective story library.) In other words, corporate versions and personal versions of these stories abound. Disney has kept the German peasant version, a more “authentic” take on the tale at least than Pretty Woman. alive.

And for that I thank them. Nevertheless, check out the great Kentucky storyteller Mary Hamilton’s 10-culture Cinderella, which are all contained in one telling. It’s amazing. It also reminds us that Disney is, after all, just one of many.