22 October 2010


Friday is Also for Top 5 Lists!

Read about Pan's Labyrinth and other fairy topics
at This Miss Loves to Read!

My original idea was another face off: Rapunzel vs. Rumplestiltkin. But when I picked up my pen and started writing, it had other ideas. (That happens to you, too, right?) So today, instead of getting two fairy tales to fight it out, I'm asking five fairy tales to be five fingers making a single fist, united in striking a blow. For the best thing about fairy tales (as with Horror movies) is their moral element, and here are some that pack a great punch when it comes to what is truly valuable in life.

My Top 5 "Golden" Fairy Tales

1. Rumplestiltskin

There is something about the idea of spinning straw into gold that both satisfies the magical rags-to-riches element we love in fairy tales and reminds us of the reality that good fortune often goes to those who are willing to work hard for it. Yes, sometimes fate throws us a bone . . . or some magic beans . . . or a fairy godmother . . . But most of the time, we must actually climb up that quality of life ladder by ourselves.

Not that our heroine is a paragon of honest, hard work. Put in an impossible position, she must do some “outsourcing” when a funny little man suddenly--and opportunistically--appears in her straw-packed cell and offers her a way out of her predicament. At first, she seems merely to be trading gold for gold: first her ring, then her necklace--very prosaic transactions. But soon she runs out of things of value and the funny little man makes an outrageous demand that reminds us that when things seem too good to be true . . . they probably are.

These get-rich-quick or buy-now-pay-later schemes can come with some awful fine print. And that is likely why the legendary philosopher's stone--another easy key to gold--is best destroyed at the end by whomever finds it. We might never master the dark alchemy of turning straw into gold, but we can always be tempted to make the diabolical trade between gold and innocent lives.

2. Jack and the Beanstalk

Who doesn't love this story in which a boy learns how to be a man--starting with his duty to be the new breadwinner for his mother? We don’t have much literal bread, but we do have a lot of symbolic gold; and at least all of it comes to our young hero by the sweat of his own brow. The magic beans were a grace, yes, but his response to it reveals real character.

My favourite version is the one in which Jack goes to the giant's house three times: first for the bags of gold, then for the hen that lays golden eggs, and finally for the magic harp. Now, the bags of gold would have been good enough as loot, but Jack knows how to think ahead and understands that the hen is worth a hundred times the value of those non-replenishing sacks. So he goes back a second time, making wonder why we say "cash cow" instead of "cash chicken." It all makes sense, so far . . . but then we come to the harp.

The singing harp seems completely unnecessary, doesn't she? No economic value at all. But Jack is a better man for having gone back for her, anyway. She is the "princess" figure of this fairy tale--the prize for which he must prove himself worthy. Which is why he doesn’t steal rescue her until after he has taken care of his mother and secured his own future. That protesting harp obviously has no idea how lucky she is; but if she's smart, she'll figure it out fast.

3. Rapunzel

Now we have a mix of the elements of our first two fairy tales, but without the mercenary edge literal gold gives to everything it touches. (You know, like a reverse Midas touch . . .) At the beginning, we have two other parents trading their unborn child, whom they seem to value less than weeds--and in the middle, we see another prince making a climb for a lovely maiden, whose only claim to gold is in her hair.

One thing that used to bother me a lot about this story (and sometimes still does) is the fact that the prince doesn't find the quickest way possible to rescue Rapunzel from the clutches of the witch. Instead, he brings her a skein of silk thread every time he visits, so that she can braid a rope she can use to climb down from the tower. Eventually.

But while part of me is screaming at the least efficient escape plan in all of literature, another part is pleased that we have a princess-figure who actually has a hand in her own rescue. Besides, it's kind of nice that their relationship gets to grow at a measured and more natural pace, instead of happening all at once. (Right?) And let's admit she's not the brightest star in the sky, either: she totally lets everything slip to the witch and ruins all that careful work.

In the end, our young lovers do find each other again--and it must be true love because it had nothing to do with the superficial glint of gold, even if it is only the gold of one's hair.

4. Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Speaking of hair . . . My experience with bratty kids makes me see Goldilocks' crowning glory as a dead giveaway that she was raised by wealthy parents who spoiled her--or at least didn't really teach her to be considerate of other people's property.

The bears are obviously more humble. They live in the woods, have only porridge for breakfast, share a single bedroom at night, etc. None of this means anything to Goldilocks, who waltzes into her home and makes herself, well . . . at home. (And for some reason, I'm remembering the Prophet Nathan's parable of the rich man with the huge herds and the poor man with a single lamb . . .)

This story is also a commentary on how much--or rather, how little--children really need to be content. (And not just children, but anyone with the potential to be a Goldilocks--including great, brave kings who are otherwise virtuous men.) The bowl of "just right" porridge can stand for healthy, if plain fare; the "just right" chair, something wholesome for leisure time; and the "just right" bed, the sense of security that comes from knowing one's family will stick together through thick and thin, for richer and for poorer.

Goldilocks might be the privileged one in the story, but it is the bears who are truly lucky. At the end of the day, just enough is plenty.

5. The Golden Goose

When was the last time we had a proper "Fool" figure? In the past, court fools were honoured for their gift of telling the truth with humour--in particular, the truths hardest to take: those about ourselves. In this story, our hero serves a similar function; but if we don't readily see it, that is because he seems more simple than shrewd.

We are at least sure that he is good hearted: his golden goose is a gift from an old beggar with whom he shared his food. Everyone else who wants a piece of that good fortune is just trying to get a free ride--and we should know by now that while fairy land is generous with her gifts, she doesn't take kindly to those who try to take advantage of them.

And the lesson is that the emphasis should not be on the gold, but on the goose. (Think about it: it's a golden goose. A hen that lays golden eggs still has some dignity, but this poor metallic fowl is--if you'll pardon the expression--cooked.) Who cares that it is valuable when it is absurd? Indeed, our "Fool" hero wins a princess' hand in marriage not because the goose makes him financially eligible as a suitor, but because his attitude towards it and all his hangers-on makes him the only man in the kingdom who can make her laugh. And really, doesn't that bear one of the best pieces of advice about marriage? Marry the one who can make you laugh. A good sense of humour can be better than gold.

Image Sources: a) Rumplestiltskin book, b) Jack and the Beanstalk retold by E. Nesbit and illustrated by Matt Tavares, c) Rapunzel by Emma Florence Harrison, d) Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paul Woodroffe, e) The Golden Goose by L. Leslie Brooke


Sullivan McPig said...

Hmmm I seem to remember reading a version of Rapunzel where the prince gets blinded by the witch and Rapunzel and the prince get seperated. Rapunzel then wanders the wilderness and gives birth to twins before finally being reunited with the prince.

Yup found it:

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

What a great post! I love the idea of making a list of best fairy-tales that have something to do with gold. There are quite a few out there, but these five really stand out for the reasons you stated. Out of the five you chose, I like Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk best. Rapunzel because it pleases the romantic in me, and Jack and the Beanstalk for Jack's bravery and ingenuity. Plus, the idea of magic beans that bring you to a really cool place never fails.:)

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully: With the exception of the twins, that is the version I grew up with as well. =) And now I'm surprised to hear that there are others. Which is the one you are most familiar with?

Irena: Thank you! Rumplestiltskin is totally my favourite, and there are a few fairy tales I like better than the ones here, which didn't make the list because the gold elements in them didn't make the big, splashy statement I was looking for.

PS--I've been mentally scanning other fairy tales for common symbols since finishing this post, so I hope to have another Top 5 for your meme soon. =)

Angela (Library Girl Reads) said...

What a fun post! I really enjoyed reading it :-)

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Angela! I'm glad you were entertained. =)