It was an idle threat. Dropping a pie plate full of pebbles would have had the same effect — to distract the cat, who was, once again, getting ready to pounce on the U.S. Postal Service Delivery-mouse. Simplia had no pie plate. She had no pebbles. So she used her words.
And they worked.
Not that Murzik, had he understood what she was saying, would have taken her seriously. He knew Simplia was incapable of hurting anything with a face and a spinal column. Bugs and slugs were one thing. Vertebrates were quite another. It was not the threat, but the suddenness with which she jumped out of the porch glider and yelled. She startled him. He lost his concentration, and the mouse scampered to the safety of an overturned cinderblock.
On the ground lay two postcards the mouse had dropped — responses to Bleary in Bloomington’s question about the draconian nature of the “Do or Die” motif in fairy tales. Sagacia picked them up and began to read aloud:
I think the do or die is also to encourage only serious contenders. In one of the Arabian Nights tales, the father doesn’t want his hopes gotten up about finding a cure for the princess, and so will take off the heads of those who do not succeed and, like the Hungarians, put it on a pike.
“That one’s from Jane Dorfman,” she said.
Mary Grace Ketner had dropped by earlier in the day. From the porch swing she wholeheartedly agreed:
Good point, Jane! One would certainly pause for reflection before entering a contest with such a severe penalty for failure!
The second postcard was from Tarkabarka:
(Do or die) also elevates the hero’s bravery. You have to be a truly brave person if you take on a quest even if there is a good chance you’ll die. In some stories, the death threat is enough to keep most contestants away without actually having to kill them. I just read one in the Nart sagas where all the heroes hear the challenge and they go “nah… I’m okay.” Except for one :D
At that moment Sagacia noticed that Simplia was up to something strange:
“What are you doing on your hands and knees in the grass?” she asked.
“I’m reading the longest message we’ve ever received,” she said.
From inside the cinderblock, the U.S. Postal Service delivery-mouse was feeding a strip of what looked like ticker tape into Simplia’s hand. She, in turn, fed it on to Sagacia, who passed it up to their guest on the porch.
The beginning of the tape bore the following address:
“Off with their heads!” is the mantra of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll tapped into…what? A motif or something more primal. Decapitation for failure in a task is certainly a motif in European fairy tales, but is it there to feed a primal urge?
Hold on a moment, I am going recast the question. Is it there to answer a primal curiosity?
An “urge” is a demand from our Id. “Curiosity” is an inquiry from our Super Ego. The fairy tale is an inquiry. The fairy tale does not sate our lust, it titillates our speculation.
The threat of decapitation creates tension in the story. The hero enters willingly into danger; also witlessly, but for love. Tension drives the story forward. We follow our hero, fearing for our heads (female protagonist rarely face such punishment, they get burnt).
Here is the inquiry: what does it feel like to enter into a do-or-die agreement? We get to explore vicariously (and safely) along with our hero the onus of impending death. How satisfying.
At the very end of the paper was a signature: Charles Kiernan.
When she had finished reading, Simplia simply sat there and pondered for awhile. Then she got down eyeball to eyeball with the mouse and said, “You know, there’s no way we’d ever let you get hurt in this blog. You can bank on that. You know that, don’t you?”
Perrault, Charles. Old-Time Stories. W. Heath Robinson, illustrator. A. E. Johnson, translator. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, .