I read Neil Gaiman’s paean to badass womanhood, The Sleeper and the Spindle, days after I became a mother of a daughter. Gorgeously illustrated by Chris Riddell, the Snow White/Sleeping Beauty redux is told in Gaiman’s trademark weave: pellucid, dark, beguiling in its simultaneous hints of the wondrous and macabre. A black-tressed, snow-skinned beauty is called away from her wedding preparations by news of a slumbering kingdom. Garbed with the appropriate adventuring gear (skintight armor clads her willowy frame in Riddell’s imaging), the bride joins her dwarf friends in discovering the secret of the sleepers. The wedding—and her scarce-mentioned bridegroom, who seems a nice enough guy, but perhaps too insipid for this Amazon—will have to wait.
Upon arriving at the tower where a beautiful princess sleeps, our chain-mailed champion does the traditional thing: she kisses the sleeper upon the lips. But instead of breaking the spell, she wakes the sorceress responsible for the enchantment. A scuffle ensues. The witch’s enchanted youth shrivels to nothing, and so does she. The day is saved.
Our snow-white champion, galvanized by her not-too-shabby success, then becomes a knight-errant, setting off on a path opposite from the kingdom where her bridegroom prince (presumably sniffy, weak-willed, and undeserving of her bold spirit) waits in vain for her return. She rides off into the lonely, independent sunset (a few dwarf friends notwithstanding).
I closed The Sleeper and the Spindle dissatisfied. This was a spell lacking in muchness, with a twist too tiresome and predictable to inspire wonder or admiration. Snow White’s ride into the sunset didn’t only feel leaden—it felt warped, cold.
Gaiman’s tale is not one of enchantment dispelled, but rather of disenchantment—for us benighted readers who may still prize goodness, purity of heart, and wonder. These are child’s toys, nursery games, for Snow White 2.0. In the modern fairy tale, it is the strong that survive. Where there is wonder, there is weakness. Where there’s a will (and perhaps a well-placed kick or knockout punch), there’s a winner.
Gaiman’s retelling reminded me of Tim Burton’s lavishly shot Alice in Wonderland (2010), a tale purportedly full of wonder and whimsy but that is marred by its predictable modernizing: ideology becomes the ideal. In Burton’s sequel to Carroll, a dour, grown-up Alice returns to Wonderland, and her old friends are dismayed to find she lacks “muchness”: the adult is not as curious and courageous as the child. But then Alice dons armor, becoming a (still dour) golden-locked swashbuckler, and slays the fearsome Jabberwock in an encounter sucked dry of all Carrollian charm. When she returns to England, she dons merchant garb, spurns her supercilious suitor, and bravely sets sail to sell her wares. She now has the courage to pursue her dreams. The magical inspires the mercantile.
Somehow the enchantment of a successful capitalist career in a nascent global economy doesn’t compare with the heroism of the old stories and the spells of the old-as-time fairy tales, let alone with the original whimsy of Carroll.
But the modern storyteller’s creed is a cynical one: there’s no way good deeds and a loving heart can win the day without some badassery. There cannot be any greatness in humility, for there is no god to reward perseverance. Only the strong survive—not the steadfast, the wise, the longsuffering. Good deeds will be punished unless someone’s arm is twisted off and someone’s head broken open.
The modern mages do not wish to perfect nature as do Tolkien’s Elves, but to twist it into their own confused image. And in attempting to repair, they instead destroy. There is more than one way for Angrenost—the green realm of Saruman—to become the tree-less orc factory of Isengard. The way to win is through strength of will, whether through kickass might, or violent manipulation of nature. In the case of Audrey Niffenegger’s twisted fairy tale Raven Girl, a scientist surgically brutalizes a woman to make her body fit her fantasies. In the modern fairy tale, the savior is the machine in magician’s costume, or a man in white with the mind of a machine.
The old fairy tales work their magic in a different way. In the midst of a dark and grim world, they showed the power of a pure-hearted act—offering an old woman a drink of water, serving selfish sisters without complaint—to dispel the darkness. Such stories evinced a deeper magic than all the sorcery and violence of mankind put together: the weak can best the strong because of a greater power and a higher order—the Love that moves the very stars. The modern fairy tale, however, takes place in a buffered world, with no transcendent immanence. It is a world protected from—and ignorant of—bad and good fairies alike, a world bereft of love.
The world of the old myths is grim, but also glorious. The glories of the gray modern world can only be lukewarm, for the sacred is hollowed of its power: vampires sniff garlic, spit on the crucifix, and hook up with mortals with impunity. Ghouls are defeated with a swift kung fu kick. No one is damned, and no one is saved.
In the end, the enchantment of these tales grows threadbare: “You, too, can be a badass, my daughter.” In the end, there isn’t much difference between black and white magic: both are squalid spells for serving the Self.
But the world of the Self is not the true one. Our hope in a dangerous world is not in greater weapons, but in greater love. The fairy tales I will tell my daughter will tell of unnamed heroes and heroines—the third son, the youngest daughter, the woodcutter, the poor fisherman—unremarkable and weak at first glance. But we do not admire them for their empowered selves, but for their glad disempowering. They give of themselves not for the sake of their own passions, but for the sake of Love.
So I will tell my daughter the old story of Beauty and the Beast. Most renderings have some version of the nasty sisters who envy Beauty’s ending up living in a castle, with every earthly luxury provided for. The sisters contrast with Beauty in their ugly preoccupation with their mean desires and greedy ambitions. Beauty quietly outshines them through her love of the unloveable—beasts and beastly sisters alike. Like Cordelia, she knows her duty, and she loves according to her bond. For her sisters, as for Goneril and Regin, love serves the Self.
Beauty’s love transforms the Beast, who has been enslaved to animal appetites, but becomes fully human through her love. Had he been as proud as her sisters, he would have been as lost as they. For Beauty’s sisters lust for power, and like Goneril and Regin, let others suffer for their self-reign.
Beauty finds true love by loving unselfishly. But it is not the passion of true love—or a sordid “forbidden love”—that is the heart of the story: it is the transformation of two souls. It is new life, an icon of something divine. The philosopher Eleonore Stump writes that “beauty is a road to God,” and the end of the road “will be not a place but a relationship with a person.” Dante’s road to God was through Beatrice, through the love of a person. And it is through Beauty that the Beast is saved; beauty is the road to Love Himself.
And on that road, may we say, with Dante, “Here begins a new life,” one beyond our petty lusts and self-obsession, a life truly human because lived within the font of the deeper magic—the heart of God.