Given the plethora of Hansel and Gretel variants that are airing on television, I had expected to tackle another familiar tale this week. This Japanese story enchanted me, however, and struck some deep chords. So, into the wild I go. Please join me...
“The Sparrow’s Gift” is a fairy tale with a character who changes, which is somewhat rare in fairy tales. We are so used to “stock characters” in fairy tales—evil stepmothers, ugly stepsisters, damsels in distress, etc.—that a story whose whole purpose is the turning of a character seems out of place. These stock characters are easier for youngsters to identify with, so they are the stories we ask for in nurseries and at bedtime. This story, however, is for grown-ups.
Not because it is so worldly or filled with dangerous themes. Rather, because young audiences seldom appreciate patience or kindness towards those who do not deserve it. Many of us cheer when Cinderella’s stepsisters get their eyes pecked out. We want Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house to eat her up, rather than torment the brave youth. The old woman in this story, however, isn’t eternally punished for her evil deeds. She is exposed to the error of her ways and then—much to our surprise—proceeds to change.
What kind of evil witch is this?
She’s a person, silly. It is easy to blame evil on others when we are young, for bad things surely cannot be our fault. When we are grown, though, we no longer have that excuse. Bad things may happen to us, of course, but a part of growing up is accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions. The expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”—meaning people become set in their ways and are incapable of change—is a convenient lie the lazy give to keep from being responsible.
If this old woman could change, why can’t you? Or I, for that matter?
As a writer, though, the question becomes more academic and less personal. The reader does not know at the beginning of the story that the old woman will change. (In some versions, she does not!) Is it necessary for the writer to create sympathy for the character? Given that most of the story covers the mean-spiritedness of the old woman, how much of her new life does the reader need to see to believe? Is there a formula for this kind of change? Does having her change affect the value of the story?
How much change/need for change does an author need to put into a story in order to give it proper weight?