Ever since I was very young, I’ve had a soft spot for fairy stories without happy endings- sometimes even those with explicitly bleak or tragic endings. Since these tales are usually written for children, this sort of story is hard to find. I’d known of some Hans Christian Andersen ones, of course, and thought myself twisted because those appealed to me more than the stuff I’d grown up with. In hindsight, though, I don’t think that I was twisted, or a masochist. Like everyone else who opens books hoping, within them, to find a little something of their selves and their lived experiences reflected back at them, all I wanted was something that felt true to the world I was stumbling through.
This is perhaps a more personal blog post than any I’ve written, but I’m comforted by the fact that very few people seem to read it, and those who do happen to be internet strangers. Fairy tales are supposed to appeal to children because they sell the twin wheels which keep the cycle of society spinning, downhill for some, uphill for most: that there are certain structures of power (monarchy/ government, a patriarchal family unit, class hierarchy, the criminal justice system) that exist for our own good, systems that help the afflicted individual. The second, that the pursuit of ideals (true love, selflessness) will always result in a reward for the protagonist. I’ve known since before I had the words to understand English fairy tales, that the systems that are supposed to keep us safe keep us prisoner instead, and that anyone with the authority to protect has also the authority to oppress.
But it’s the conceptualisation of love in the bleakest of fairy tales that always gets me. The prince and princess have done nothing for me, just as most romantic stories for teenagers and adults have done very little for me. They seem like a world glimpsed through a cracked window pane; not truly mine. Perhaps it has something to do with the queerness I share with Andersen and Wilde, or perhaps it’s another kind of strangeness altogether, but I relate much harder to the swallow in the Happy Prince who delays his migration South upon the bequest of someone he loves, whose crushes on the inanimate stalk of reed are futile from the start, and who accepts his death with a simplicity and a purity that all the other fairy tales try to achieve, but fail. Perhaps it has something to do with the way the Nightingale, in the Nightingale and the Rose, literally presses his heart into a thorn to create a red rose with a red heart, so that the human boy may present it to his human girl, dying in the making of it, dying- he believes- for love. It won’t even be her own, but the ideal of it, even between two others, is enough to die for. And though the Nightingale does love her life in the woods, her relationships with the sun and wind and trees and other birds, her decision is founded on the plaintive, unassuming idea: what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man? Surely Love is greater than Life?
The boy takes the rose to the girl he likes, who says she prefers jewels to flowers, and that the rose would never go with the dress she’s picked out for the chamberlain’s ball anyway. Frustrated, he throws the rose out of a window, where it falls to the ground and is driven over by a cart wheel.
I believe Wilde knew a little or more of what people like us feel- people who carry our strangeness in our hearts like a dark secret we must keep hidden from the world, so great is the shame of not sharing the same delights and agonies as those around us, as if being someone who is different on whatever account is quite comparable to being a different species altogether. The truth is, in my life, I’ve come to realise that it’s very difficult being someone different in India, and that it’s very difficult being Indian somewhere different. And because of all sorts of reasons I won’t go into depth here, I’ve chased the ideal of love like Wilde’s nightingale, climbing a mountain on a fractured foot so as not to disappoint the ones I love, starved myself in childhood illness out of the sheer terror that asking for anything, even food, will end in violence. Nearly not born on account of my sex, I sought to love the boys I was to call ‘brothers’ anyway, accepting their position in the hierarchy above me, but come adulthood they have flown; one, troubled in the mind, tried to murder me and the others are indifferent at best and cruel at worst, knowing that I am the family black sheep, and heir to nothing.
But heirs, at least, have something to lose should they abandon the systems that engineered their rise to power. People like us, on the other hand, have nothing to lose and everything to gain by striking out on our own, the rules be hanged. Yet I’ve noticed that no matter how far we strike out, we come again upon the the hungers of our childhood selves. Like the swallow, or the Prince, or the Nightingale, or the Mermaid, we give up parts of ourselves that we should never have had to give up, in the attempt to obtain what we always should have had. It makes it harder to relate to people around us who take that thing for granted, and that sense of alienation and isolation grows more intense, which in turn widens the breach. And so it goes on and on, until we are ready to give ourselves up for a love that isn’t even our own, hoping, in our last moments, for that burst of music that escapes from our dying bodies and makes it all worthwhile.
And here, now, is another a sketch I was working on, quite possibly a merman or a fisherman- something to do with the water, though I’m not sure which. When I have made up mind what the bottom half of his body looks like, I will proceed to work some more on it.