Thoughts on Men in Traditional Stories
In my book Point of View and the Emotional Arc of Stories (co-authored with Nancy Donoval and published by Parkhurst Brothers) I point out that who tells the story makes a significant difference in what the story is and means. The example I used consistently in that text was Little Red Riding Hood and when you shift from the Third person narration of someone who is outside the story we know from the Brothers Grimm to a First person narrator two things happen. The first is there is a heightened immediacy to the story as the narrator has a direct stake in what happens (or happened). The second is that the narration is grounded on that teller’s experience, both within the narrative and in what precedes or follows it. Grandmother’s story is quite different from the wolf’s and both would be different than the Grimm narration. Their motivations, their emotions, the impact of their actions carry different weight. Likewise, there is a significant difference in whether the story is being told in the past or the present tense. In the past, whatever has happened is just that: done. Grandma letting the wolf in the door and the wolf putting on her bed clothes to snuggle under the covers has already happened; they cannot make a different choice in the past tense. In the present tense, the meaning of their choices and the consequences is not always clear but voice of uncertainty and action is possible. They can entertain 2nd thoughts or change the course of action in the present, though for the sake of the larger narrative, they may not want to. Still, it is worth asking, what could the story be if we focused on the story either of them would tell themselves in the moment? I have been thinking about the role of men in traditional stories. Not necessarily or only the stories where the man (or more often the youngest son) is the subject of the adventure, in effect, the hero. Rather I have been thinking about the stories in which they are secondary characters or serve a limited narrative function: the woodsman as Deus Ex Machina in Little Red Riding Hood, swooping in near the end of the tale to split open the wolf and “save” the grandmother and child” or the Father in Cinderella who appears at the start of the story and then for all intents, disappears. Where is he when his daughter is being mistreated by the stepmother? Where is he when the Prince, acting on his shoe fetish, fails to see the blood the stepsister’s trimming of heels and toes produced until a bird tells him? Do either the father or the Prince have the sense God gave those birds? In a variation on questionable parenting, there’s the Father in Beauty and the Beast who gets lost, makes foolish promises, delivers Belle into (apparent) danger and is not seen until much later when his illness prompts the final movement of the story.
There are a lot of questions that can and should be asked about what men are doing in these stories. Kings sending men to their death to avoid having to marry off the daughter or hand over the kingdom to her would be husband. Kings and knights out hunting when their wives and daughters are in danger. Don’t get me started on the Prince as naive suitor in Repunzel... Maybe it is a function of having women telling the old stories that so many men are ineffectual or absent. Maybe it is simply that Men controlled the loves of women to such an extent that one of the few places they had “autonomy” was in the stories they told as cautionary or instructive tales.
With the American School of Storytelling in February I am doing coaching for individuals working on crafting stories and will be doing the same in March. If you’d like some assistance in building your long or short form stories, contact me. In April I am offering a course in reimagining traditional tales. If this is of interest to you, the class registration will go up on Eventbrite the week of Feb 20th. The examination of men’s roles will be a part of it and at the end of April, I will be doing “Reciting Rapunzel and Other Stories” as a Fringe performance at the Northlands virtual Conference/Festival to tell some of that re-imagining.
Also, along that same lines of exploring the roles of men in traditional tales on Tuesday, April 12th I will be performing “Cinderella and Other Stories” at Storyspace (a Zoom experience) at 6:45 PM Eastern www.storyspace.org. The Cinderella has the added feature of being de-constructed: told from multiple points of view and freed from the traditional chronological order. A kind of puzzle that focuses on the inner lives of the principal players.