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“Mirror, Mirror.”
Illustration by Bess Livings.

“This conversation is very much underway, indeed!” repeated Sagacia. “About what stories say to listeners who are not considered part of the intended audience. People whom the storyteller doesn’t know are listening. People the storyteller my not even acknowledge to exist!”

Simplia seeemed a little confused. Truth be known, so did Murzik. He meowed beside his bowl.

“Like nice stepmothers.” Sagacia continued, reaching for the catfood. “As they read their children Vasilisa the Fair or Snow White, they must think to themselves, ‘Here I am trying really hard to be a good mother to this child I deeply love, and some old fairy tale is just ruining my image!’ Maybe we should start a stepmother’s Anti-Defamation League!”

“But sometimes there are other stories that can change that. Remember when Nick Smith said . . .”

Not all tales portray step-parents as monsters, although there are quite a few. I always thought of those as teaching stories because, when you think about it, would you really want to be remembered as being as bad as the stepmothers in stories like Cinderella?
 Stories like The Lion’s Whisker from Ethiopia portray step-parenting in a more balanced way, as a serious challenge on both sides. It’s just a different type of teaching story.

“Yes! That’s exactly why I think Activist in Oslo’s question needs more pondering!” said Sagacia. “The Lion’s Whisker strongly respects the step-parents who are going the extra mile — or extra hundred miles — to become trusted and loved by their new family.”

“I hear a ‘but’ coming on,” Simpla inserted.

“But,” Sagacia obliged. “Those are folktales. Teaching stories. You can change them without changing them, like the example Mario Rups gave:

Before such levels of literacy, before writing in the first place, would storytellers not have changed their tales, tailored them to the audience and the times and the culture? Wouldn’t, say, the itinerant storyteller tell the citizens of Arkham of the idiots who lived in Sunnydale, yet, come to Sunnydale, tell that same tale in the same words, save that the idiots were the ones who lived in Arkham?

“Kind of like The Peddler’s Dream, right? Set in Swaffham, Ballaghadereen, just about everywhere it has ever been told since Scheherazade set it somewhere in the ancient Middle East.” Simplia echoed.

“Right, . . .” said Sagacia.

“Do I hear another ‘but’ coming on?” asked Simplia

“But,” Sagacia nodded, “Those are not fairy tales. You can change the stepmother to a teacher or a nurse. You can change the name of a town. You just, well, change it!”

“But?” Simplia coaxed, on cue.

“But, what about fairy tales? Set in the heart! In dreamland! Long ago and far away! In the kingdom that is our own head! Once Upon a Time! Why do fairy tales have to have wicked stepmothers and jealous stepsisters? Fairy tales are not intended as teaching tales, but still they “teach” by presuming a “normal” situation that is not really normal at all.”

Murzik swiped his lips with his long tongue, meowed a small expression of gratitude and began primping his paws and whiskers.

“Oh, I see!” Simplia said, picking up his dish and rinsing it. “If you change Cinderella’s stepmother to a regular mother, you’ve changed the story. It becomes disturbing, like the the father kings who want to marry their daughters.”

“Right,” said Sagacia. “Something seems wrong, and what’s wrong is what’s guiding the story. Socially, that is.”

“Power-structure-wise,” Simplia elaborated.

“Right! Whatever power structure the story sets up is presumed to be . . .” Sagacia fingered quotation marks in the air and continued dramatically, “‘The Way Things Are.’ Doesn’t that send a message to people who aren’t that way? Who are different? Kind stepmothers? Step-sisters who aren’t jealous?”

“Merchants who aren’t rich?” Simplia chimed in.

“Princes who aren’t interested in princesses?”

“Heroines who aren’t blond?”

Murzik pranced daintily out of the room, tail in air.

“Pusses without boots?” Sagacia observed.

“So, really, it’s kind of like that letter you just read from Robin Bady,” said Simplia.

I gather strength from the knowledge that each teller, each folklorist, each translator, each author, each corporation (like Disney) brought in his or her prejudices and needs and the story I read or hear or watch reflects that. And my joy is in finding new versions . . . or telling them in a way that honors the structure and my own prejudices. Or I set it up so that the contradictions between then and now are clear.
If I feel I can’t do it without destroying the story, or the intentions…or if the story’s “givens” annoy me… I just leave the story to others who do not feel similarly conflicted.

“Right!” said Sagacia.

“But, do I hear another ‘but’ coming on?” Simplia asked.