Shrek is an ugly word.
A hybrid perhaps of ‘shriek ’and the Yiddish word ‘dreck ’ meaning rubbish.. Which some critics might view as a reasonable assessment of Dreamworks deeply mediocre swipe at fairly-land and all things bright and Disneyful. Certainly, there is a story in there and quite a good one, and its central theme is certainly worth pondering – but its worldly-wise, sarcastic, balloon-popping references to so many splendid tales reminded me of some know-it-all 10 year old telling a wide-eyed toddler that there ’s no such person as Father Christmas. Well,aren’t you the clever one? Fairy tales don’t have too many pictures – or at least real fairy tales don’t. In real fairy tales it’s important that the child fills in the details for herself, important that it is her imagination that pictures Snow White, her imagination that draws the contours of the dragon’s tale and decides just how ferocious those incisors are.
Neither are real fairy tales like cautionary tales – they don’t spell out the moral of the story at the end – be careful of big, bad wolves. That’s for the child to work out for herself. Neither do real fairy necessarily make much sense on the surface of it at all. What is the message of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? She enters someone’s else’s house, eats their food, breaks a chair, messes up three beds, and gets away with it. Why do kids like The Three Little Pigs? The odds don’t look too good – two out of every three little pigs get eaten. And what of the morality of The Three Billy Goats Gruff in which the two smaller goats encourage the Troll to eat their brother? And why are there so many wicked stepmothers in fairyland?
Fairy tales are not myths, either.
Myths are about heroes who are essentially not like us – they have superhuman qualities – they are unique. We might want to be like them but we aren’t. And because we aren’t like them they have quite specific names. Hercules,for example. In fairy tales, very few of the heroes or heroines have superhuman qualities – the little pigs are just little pigs, even if they have super-animal qualities like the ability to talk and build houses. And the characters tend to have either no names at all like the pigs, or have very common names like Jack, or names that describe some characteristic or aspect of their life – Snow White because of her skin, Cinderella because of her unjust enslavement among the kitchen cinders, Little Red Riding Hood because, well, even an adult can figure that one out.
Why the distinctions? Because fairy tales play a particular role in the lives of children. They are not there to describe the world as it is but to help the child find ways to cope with their own inner world. The child knows there aren’t really any giants but there are grown-ups. And don’t they make one’s life miserable sometimes? So the tales describe inner realities and inner conflicts and point to eventual resolutions. As such they are vehicles of hope. Jack kills the Giant, Cinderella escapes the kitchen, Snow White marries a prince. There aren ’t three little pigs – there ’s really only one little pig at three stages of development. The first two can’t control their desire to have their pleasure now, to build their house quickly and have fun. The third pig can delay his pleasure, build a proper house, and escape the jaws of the wolf. A young child knows that she wants those sweets ‘NOW,’ knows she can’t wait til after supper … and also knows that this is not approved behaviour. But she can’t help it? Will this bondage to the instant desire ever end? Will she ever be big enough to take on the Troll? Well, yes, she will. It will take effort, it will take time, it will take learning – but with perseverance the pig/goat/child can make her way in the world.
Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses Of Enchantment, remains the seminal work on ‘the meaning and importance of fairy tales,’ despite the fact that it was written in a land far, far away –known more commonly as America –and almost long enough ago to be ‘once upon a time’– 1975. Bettelheim explores the fairy tales from a Freudian psycho-analytical perspective. Admittedly, Freud won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and many of his theories have recently been given their own fairy tale status; yet on the surface, Freud and his followers were simply trying to interpret the data before them. People do have dreams, so asking what function they perform is an entirely reasonable question, as is the desire to discover what they might mean. Today, of course, we know that dreams fulfil an important therapeutic function for us – if we ’re deprived of the opportunity to dream we crack up. We also know that dreams can help us understand who we are, that they can be the key to diagnosing particular kinds of problems, though interpreting them remains a difficult art.
Bettelheim builds from the observation that young children have inner worlds: They wonder who they are, who they are meant to be, how life will work out for them ... The perennial appeal of fairy tales lies in their ability to engage with the true psychological circumstances in a child’s development – there are sibling rivalries, parents who appear to be unjust, situations which seem intolerably cruel, modes of behaviour which seem uncontrollable, and so on. Given this perspective, Bettelheim would argue that the wicked stepmothers in many of the stories appeals to the child because it helps her resolve her conflict with her real mother, who sometimes treats her unfairly and cruelly, and prefers her siblings. But, it’s too traumatic for a four or five-year-old to consider that the real mother, the person they are so dependent on could be named as cruel and unjust, or should be punished. So a story like Cinderella helps the child find hope for justice and for happiness in the turmoil of their inner world. Hence the ubiquitous ‘happy ending’. For a child to be motivated to wrestle with her problems there must be the reassurance of a happy resolution that encourages the child to try, try, try again in real life.
That said,the fairy story has the power to reassure precisely because it is a fantasy. After all, a child may be happy to get the better of a parent in a fantasy but this would create anxiety in real life because the child also knows that she still needs her parents as protectors. Bettelheim’s Freudian analysis inevitably leads him to consider a psycho-sexual interpretation of the tales. So Snow White’s growing beauty (read emerging sexuality) becomes a threat to the wicked stepmother who seeks her murder by the hunter/father figure who fails to protect his daughter. How can a child escape the dominance of her mother? How can the mother let the young girl grow into a woman, and accept the inevitable decline of her own overt sexual attractiveness? How far you might be convinced would greatly depend on the extent to which you are prepared to accept the accuracy of Freud’s pre-suppositions. If you reject them, as many contemporary counsellors and therapists would, there are still issues to probe: why are so many fairy tale bridegrooms first encountered by their prospective brides as animals – the frog, the Beast, the pig, lion, bear – these are all males under a spell that can only be reversed by the love of a female. Is it,as Bettelheim argues, because the writers of the stories believed that “to achieve a happy union, it is the female who has to overcome her view of sex as something loathsome and animal-like? Well,maybe, but you certainly don’t have to be a Freudian to realise that, for centuries, Western women were indeed educated to have a rather low, repressive view of sex and its potential for uninhibited pleasure.
On the other hand, you could adopt a simpler interpretative stance: in every century, there has never been a dearth of sexually predatory men out there who would steal a girl ’s virginity – and girls need to be aware of the danger. Similarly, there has never been a dearth of young men whose selfishness, or self-centred lust, has turned them into beasts (Beauty and the Beast, for example) and who need to learn how to love selflessly, how to be worthy of authentic love. Which brings us in a not very magic round-about kind of way to Shrek. Shrek,an ogre, finds himself forced by a megalomaniac dwarf lord to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona from a pink dragon. Which he duly does – his foul features concealed by helmet and visor. Fiona, well schooled in the conventions of fairy tale love, awaits the first kiss of true love which will be the token of their everlasting union.
But then she sees Shrek’s face.
Alas. Initially undaunted,our hero begins to fall for her,ignorant that the princess is under a spell which turns her into an ogre when night falls. She, like Shrek, cannot believe that anyone would ever love her if they really knew what she looked like. Will she marry the dwarf Lord? Will she marry Shrek? And will either of them know what she really looks like before they tie the knot? Connoisseurs of fairy tales will rightly recognise this as a variation on Beauty and the Beast. Can Beauty see through the external ugliness to the Beast ’s inner beauty? Can the Beast make himself lovable?
An alternative way of understanding the persistence of this story in its various guises is to relate it to the deep human need for acceptance. If we’re honest, most of us identify with the beast, not the beauty. We know that the external ugliness in the story is a metaphor for our inner selves, as well as our outer appearance. We know what the mirror, mirror on the wall would say about our hearts, as well as our faces, and we long for the love that will not turn away. It is a secular imitation of the Gospel – the gloriously beautiful loving the stomach-wrenchingly ugly.Sinners we are, yearning for total acceptance, despite our sin.
In the film,as in Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal, salvation comes from finding the One, walking hand in hand into the sunset, to live happily ever after. Shrek remains an ogre and the princess is not redeemed by a kiss but by her bridegroom’s acceptance of who she truly is. So the message is – you don’t have to look like Cameron Diaz to have a happy life. Which is both true and theoretically reassuring. On the other hand, it sure does help. Ask Cameron Diaz, who ironically is the voice of Fiona. Would she ever have achieved such high privilege if she didn’t look like, well, like a princess? Along with observations about inner beauty and true love, Shrek offers some other wholesome lessons: stand by your friends; forgive; and,don’t judge by appearances - you might, after all, end up marrying an ogre. Which,as the film suggests, could be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Nevertheless, compared to the tales this movie disparages in its pre-adolescent way, Shrek lacks the capacity to evoke the wonder that Goethe and
Chesterton wrote of – and which Bettelheim affirms. Here is Chesterton: “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery … The things I believe most in then, the things I believe in most now, are he things called fairy tales.” And the philosophy a child can derive is that “life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege. Which at first glance might sound like a strange conclusion for one of the 20th century’s greatest apologists for Christianity. But first glances can be deceptive can’t they?Even Shrek knows that.
The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim, Penguin, 1991, £9.99