Friday, February 10

The Six Swans and the Good Guys

Where last we left our heroine, you had her pinned up a tree and were preparing to deconstruct every bit of fun out of her. All without her saying a word. I hope you had fun.
You may have come up with different character traits than what follows. That doesn’t make you wrong. With any written work, a lot of different ideas can be extrapolated from a character's words or actions. Not all of them can be reasonably supported by the whole text. But just because one person presents an argument, that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a different, equally sensible one.
Because the readers meet the princess first, let’s begin with her. As a protagonist (another ancient Greek theater term, meaning “one who plays the first part” or, more simply, “the chief actor”) is the character that the author most wants the reader to identify with, it makes sense to give more of the princess’s back story. Of course, since she will not have a speaking part for most of the story, the reader needs good reason to cheer for her.
First off, she is good. Modern audiences often put down the “old-fashioned” idea that a main character must be a good guy. This princess, however, has words and actions that support this label. In the beginning, when she knows something bad lives in her home, she flees. Fear is a perfectly good reason to run, of course, but we would think her foolhardy and craven if she stayed. There comes a time, both in stories and in life, when a good guy must get out of a bad situation.
But she isn’t just running away. The princess is looking for a way to save her brothers. This is important, because what she’s not doing is looking for a way to defeat her stepmother. She’s not dwelling on the evil that has infiltrated her family—she’s just focused on rescuing the innocent. To obsess over the stepmother would allow that toxic woman to have power in her life. No, thank you. All of these actions and choices demonstrate her goodness, and set a foundation for the reader to like her as she foregoes speech.
Second, she is diligent. The princess searches for her brothers until she finds them. Then she takes up the very difficult task of making cloth from nettles. (The full-grown weeds have a woody stem, filled with long fibers that can be dried and woven like linen. It makes a cloth that is thinner than silk.) And she sticks to her task until she finishes. Someone reading this can simply scoff at the idea of setting a heroine to an impossible task (like silence), but this girl is persistent. She keeps at the work until it is done. In Germanic culture, industriousness is a very valuable character trait. Making it praiseworthy in a story is a natural part of a fairy tale.
Lastly, she is faithful. This ties in with both her goodness and her diligence, but it is demonstrated more the further into the story we read. She does not have to choose to save her brothers. Having taken up that cross, she tells no one what she’s doing. When she marries the king, she could abandon her project. But she doesn’t. When her mother-in-law brands her a witch, a few words would free her. But she stays the course.
And her husband, to whom she has never spoken, seems to recognize these qualities without knowing her back story. In a lot of the well-known fairy tales, the hero and heroine are not well-matched. The reader knows a lot more about one character than another, and what is learned of these characters isn’t always detailed or particularly deep. Not in this case.
First off, the king is honorable. This is not a given in fairy tales. Some princes are not as charming as we assume. However, this time we have a winner. When the king finds the girl alone in the woods, nothing suggests she is a rich princess. He never looks for her family or father, so we can assume he had no reason to do so. But when he takes her home, he marries her. No one is holding a gun to his head on this decision. He could have locked her in a tower somewhere, without marrying her. (Yes, that happens in some fairy tales.) She did nothing to encourage his pursuit of her in the forest, but he gives her a home and the protection of his name. This indicates he has a deeply ingrained code of ethics that help make him a worthy leader. 

Second, he is just. This is also a quality that shouldn't be assumed. Plenty of people, be they leaders or small fry, will duck responsibility if they don't like the consequences. When his wife is accused of witchcraft, the king puts her on trial. He's not doing this to punish her for her silence. The law of the land demands it, and this king is not going to ignore the law or abolish it just because he doesn't like it. There are a lot of modern...let's call them "celebrities" (some hold elected office, some are appointed by elected officials) who do not exhibit this character trait. Whether by choice or by ignorance. However, here we have a king who serves his laws, rather than a man who uses the law for his own gain. 

Lastly, this king is loyal. This element of him is more personal and complements the princess's character very well. When he imprisons his wife and puts her on trial, he sits with her in the dungeon every day, asking her "What happened?" Nowhere in the text are we given the idea that the king believes the charge of witchcraft. But he does not abandon his wife just because she's in trouble. He has chosen a wife whose history and priorities he doesn't know, but he doesn't leave her when her loyalties are tested. 

Like I said, this fairy tale is one of my favorites. (Clearly, I can blather on and on about it ad nauseum.) If you're going to read fiction, it should leave you better than when it found you. Later on, we'll dive into bad guys and other modern conventions, like making bad guys protagonists or writing flawed characters. Useful, realistic even, but not always uplifting. 

But that's a story for another day...

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