Friday, January 29, 2016

What Fairy Tales REALLY Say About Curiosity

Rosebud Nielsen Image
This post is kind of an extension of some of the discussion that went on in the comments from my post on an alternate beginning for Rapunzel a couple weeks ago. It's largely been accepted in fairy tale scholarship that traditional fairy tales tend to condemn female curiosity, some of them outright (like Perrault's moral for "Bluebeard") and some of them more subtly. Culturally, it was typical for curiosity in women to be seen as a horrible thing for a while there, so it's sad but not too surprising that that idea would have been applied to fairy tales.

Yet, when you ignore the moral tacked on at the end or inserted by an editor trying to make their tales more marketable for children's instruction, what do the tales themselves actually say about curiosity?

Sleeping Beauty-the Princess is exploring the castle one day and finds a spindle, and touches it, having never seen one before. She falls into deathlike sleep, as was predicted by the fairy (and really caused by her father's attempts to prevent the spell from happening). But after her sleep is over, she ends up with a royal husband and is none the worse for her long nap (also an extra episode with an evil mother in law in some versions, but that also gets resolved and the villain punished)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Nielsen Image
Snow White-enters a strange house in the woods when she is running from her murderous mother/stepmother (this one is more desperation than curiosity, but she could have just sat outside and waited for the dwarves to come home, like a proper little girl should have). Yet she is never condemned-she strikes a deal with the dwarfs, who end up later helping the Prince find her (in a totally creepy way but that's a different topic)

Twelve Dancing Princesses-We are never told (in most versions) how the sisters discovered that there was an entrance to an underground kingdom in their bedroom, but it stands to reason they somehow discovered it, and made the choice to venture down. This tale is one of the most ambiguous, sometimes the Princesses are assumed to be under a spell, but in the Grimms their actions are never really explained-but they are also not specifically condemned (and interestingly, the princes in the underground kingdom are punished, but not the Princesses who traveled there to dance-the soldier, who was curious and adventurous enough to discover the truth, is the rewarded hero)

-And, in the "Twelve Dancing Princesses" category, we have to remember Kate Crackernuts, a version in which it's a female who does the exporing into the hidden Kingdom, saving her sister and a prince in the process! Thanks Sue Bursztynski :)

Bluebeard's Wife-opens the door to the forbidden chamber. Because of this she is threatened with death by her husband, but he is killed, and his killing seen as just. His widow ends up with his estate, and her freedom.
Bluebeard by Kay Nielsen

Jack and the Beanstalk-climbs up the beanstalk and discovers the world of giants. This gets him into a dangerous situation from which he ultimately escapes and triumphs, ending up with the money he lacked at the beginning

East of the Sun, West of the Moon/Cupid and Psyche-the heroine disobeys an order not to look upon her husband, seeing how hot he secretly is. She has to go on a long, hard journey to win him back, but they do ultimately end up together and happy

So, what do the tales themselves actually say about curiosity? (This is only a partial list of some big ones-feel free to add more in the comments! And there are always exeptions to rules but I'm going to go ahead and state:)
East of the Sun Image 5 by Nielsen
First of all, curiosity does often bring challenges and obstacles. (Even to males, like Jack!) And that, honestly, can be true. There's the old saying, "ignorance is bliss"-it's not always easy discovering new knowledge that might challenge your worldview, or the truth about a person you thought you could trust. Curiosity leads to discovering something you didn't know before, and that often sends you on a different life path than you were previously on. It's the same in detective stories-digging through clues and getting closer to the truth can put you in dangerous situations with the criminals, but is necessary for obtaining justice.

But if fairy tales truly wanted to condemn the curious, the characters who went where they weren't supposed to and opened locked doors would ultimately end up dying and/or unhappy-many fairy tales really do end tragically! The Grimms weren't afraid to punish disobedient children in their stories, or to make their villains suffer horribly. Yet the endings reveal that those who pursue knowledge really are the heroes and heroines, not the villains. Sometimes that forbidden discovery really enables the happy ending to happen. We, the readers, always want to know what lies on the other side of the door just as much as the characters-by listening we are complicit in the discovering alongside the protagonists! It would be too ironic if stories themselves (which impart ideas and knowledge) were to truly condemn discovery of other ideas and knowledge!

Of course, there are boundaries to curiosity. The Victorian idea of not indulging curiosity isn't entirely bad, because you should also respect other people's privacy, etc. The level to which the characters actually crossed that boundary could be debated for each tale and variant (such as Goldilocks). But for most of these stories, the plots of fairy tales ultimately speak louder than the official morals, and the characters who display curiosity are clearly the sympathetic protagonists.

Illustrations-Kay Nielsen


  1. Don't forget Kate Crackernuts, which features a sort of Twelve Dancing Princesses theme(except it's one dancing prince)and a young woman who manages to save him - and her stepsister - because of her curiosity.

  2. Terrific post! I have always thought of Bluebeard type tales as cautionary, but not against curiosity. Perhaps the caution is against ignorance. The moral of these tales seems to me to be, get to know your mate before you get in too deep. Does he have a bloody cauldron full of ladies in a secret room? If so, get out now! And in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, I think the moral is similar. Find out. Get to know each other. Even if the journey is painful, it will pay off in the end. I love the idea that came up in the Rapunzel post about the "punishment" for curiosity being really an opportunity. It pushes the character out into the action of the story.

    1. Yes, absolutely, I love that idea-more cautionary against not being curious at all! It's a moral that is still very applicable today-can you trust your spouse/partner to treat you well over the long term? Interestingly, though, it doesn't seem like it would apply as much in an era when girls were given away in arranged marriages, although the woman in the tale has choice. And it would still probably give hope to those women stuck in very unbalanced marriages that they could get out somehow

  3. On Sleeping Beauty (and to some degree Twelve Dancing Princesses) it should be mentioned hat the real problem in the story aren't the princess(es), but the parents.

    If Sleeping Beauty's parents hadn't destroyed every spindle and spinning wheel in the country, then Sleeping Beauty wouldn't have been so curious to use one. And maybe the Dancing Princesses weren't so eager tdefy their father and spend all night out if they weren't locked inside their room (!) every night. It is the parents which hold back their children's curiosity and natural development, by keeping them too safe that trigger the plot. And that also connects back quite well to Rapunzel, a tale that also seperates a girl from her (adoptive) mother, specifically because she wanted to keep her "daughter" just for herself.

    In Rapunzel (at least the 1819 version) it is also made quite clear what the thing is that the witch wants to shield Raunzel from: Sexuality. And the same interpretation could easily be applied to Sleeping Beauty and The Twelve Danicing princesses as well. Even if you lock away a child, even if you destroy all the pinted objects a young girl could "prick" herself with, one day those children will become teenagers and then become adults. Trying to stop that process is really unhealthy for whomever you try to "protect" as well as simply not feasible. Eventually the literal or metaphorical captive will attempt to break out to earn their truly happy ending. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses this message gets a little fuzzy, since it is told from a very male perspective, but in Rapunzel the mother figure who wants to keep her daughter forever is clearly portrayed as the villain. The parents in Sleeping Beauty are treated with more sympathy, as the thought of loosing a child (whether to a 100 year sleep or to a man - it should be remembered that back in the day staying in contact with a daughter after she married and moved in with her husband could be very difficult) is quite frightening and their over reaction is understandable, but it is also made clear from the very start that all their attempts will be futile, since some proncesses cannot be stopped.

    1. I completely agree, especially in Sleeping Beauty, I feel like it's clearly pointing out the irony of trying to avoid the inevitable.

      And I had never thought of that before, how "losing your daughter" through marriage really would have been like *losing* your daughter...especially in royal circles who would be sending their child off to a far away kingdom to marry someone equal to their status. Does make me feel more sympathetic towards the parents...

  4. Excellent observations, Kristin! Loved this!