I’m starting to wonder if I was misled during those halcyon days on my father’s knee. It was a time when heroes and villains were easily recognizable -like the white and black hats on the cowboys in the movies that were in vogue then. Apparently, I needed to know who to root for when I was a child -life was a battle between good and evil, God and the Devil. I thought that maybe all stories were supposed to be like that in one way or another -that, in fact, perhaps without that tension, there would be no story worth listening to -nothing and nobody to cheer for. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I suppose it’s natural to assume that the early patterns learned are special -sacrosanct, even- when you are a child. Deviations are regarded with suspicion. Doubt. And even now, I usually expect there to be recognizable traits in the characters, and a direction of the storyline that helps me to pick out which side to pull for. So maybe it has been that way from the time stories were first told -the one inviolable rule to keep an audience attentive. In a chaotic world, people must have longed for order, justice -something to hope for, if only in the imaginary tales told in the flickering firelight as eyes watched hungrily from the forest. The eventual triumph of good over evil -surely that’s the purpose of a good story…
But it seems that in the glimmer of recent historical analysis, that’s not how it used to be. I came across a fascinating essay by Catherine Nichols which suggests that the Ancients did not see it quite like that: https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil
Entitled The good guy/bad guy myth, she writes that ‘In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.
‘Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.’
That’s interesting, don’t you think? Although I suspect the final verdict is not yet in, we have -all of us- been guilty of inadvertent historical revisionism: we have felt the need to interpret stories as having morals, unaware of the ‘historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values.’ In other words, we are judging, or appending qualities, that originally may not have been intended.
‘The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.’
‘In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’’
But now that I am in my autumn years, and have had time to reflect on these things, I think that Nichols only partially captures what’s really going on: although the revised stories incorporate values that have shaped (or been shaped by) society as a whole, they also encompass a whole range of feelings from my childhood, that I am rather loathe to abandon. Her analysis seems a bit too reductionist for me.
I suppose I am a product of my era, a result of its prevailing zeitgeist, and yet when I was a child, I think I wanted to believe, not so much in the continuing battle of Good with Evil (whatever either of those concepts mean), but more in the hope of an acceptable ending to the story. So, for me, the success of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, didn’t hinge on a moral dichotomy -a Life-lesson. It’s a story that doesn’t really need that kind of tension. A child doesn’t impute evil to Goldilocks for eating Baby Bear’s porridge -okay, I didn’t, anyway. It left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and I don’t think I learned a lesson from it -I was entertained. I was fascinated. I was just a child sitting on a lap wanting to hear my father’s reassuring voice. Surely you have to have some stories that don’t teach you anything, except how to smile…