Poets and writers have used classic fairytales as fodder for their own work for as long as there have been classic fairy tales. Even the Frenchman Charles Perrault, whose collected fairytales from the 1700s many of us take to be originals, was inspired by earlier tales in slightly different versions. In short, who can resist the story of Little Red Riding Hood? The tale is rich with motif and metaphor and always ripe (excuse the allusion) for reinterpretation. I’ve been reading about theories of fairytale origins for a project I’m working on and have been fascinated not only by the age and universality of our classics (many fairytale motifs seem to have sprung up simultaneously in different parts of the world) but the way they’ve changed over time. Little Red Riding Hood acquired her signature red hood fairly late in the game. Folklorists believe she never originally wore red, or a hood. The classic red hood may have developed when the tale migrated to Britain where the full riding cloak was a popular accoutrement for women. The book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, And The Evolution Of A Fairy Tale is a fascinating look into the transformation of that one little tale we all know so well. I enjoyed the earlier chapters on the origins of the story, especially the simple, and very plausible, theory that Little Red Riding Hood may have begun as a kind of cautionary tale French peasants told based on a spate of brutal murders of young girls. The likely suspect: a man suffering from lycanthropy (believing oneself to be a werewolf). France was apparently rife with cases of lycanthropy in the 1500s. Officials would go so far as to kill and cut open an accused lycanthropist to see if he wore his wolf’s hide on the inside, echoing that last scene of Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf is sliced open to free the girl and her grandmother. The originals, however, didn’t seem to employ such magical thinking. If Red Riding Hood escaped with her life, she did so by her own wits, sometimes the quick thinking of her grandmother. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a great collection of fairytale short stories, based on the classics, but with a decidedly feminist bent.
Your prompt for the day is this: take a classic fairy tale, or more than one tale (the edges do sometimes blur) and make it your own in a poem of any length. You can also employ a specific fairytale or details as metaphor or symbol in a poem about something completely different, but I think it’s fun and worthwhile to follow Anne Sexton’s lead and try your hand at corrupting a classic. The example I’ll give you is my own re imagining of Beauty and the Beast as a reality television show. I think WordPress formatting will double space my poor poem. I don’t know why it does that. The poem is fairly long in the first place.
No one called me beauty before I was paired with the beast.
I’m not beautiful. This isn’t modesty. Once I was plucked
from amongst the Beauty hopefuls, taken from home
and seated at the head of a grand table beside the beast,
they groomed me, my virginal innocence
became the tease, what audiences tuned-in to see.
Some clucked and feigned worry for my safety,
others thought the pairing cute, all salivated
in anticipation: will that be filmed too? The juxtaposition
of hunch-backed, bristling hyena/lion/man(?)
with the mousiness of me, made for some great TV.
They filmed us at table, they filmed us asleep,
talking late into the night, riding horseback awkwardly.
They filmed my visit home.
I had forgiven my father and sisters for tricking me
into the audition, declaring me a minor and stealing
my paychecks. I thought once I got home I’d want
to stay. But everything, though the same, was changed:
the furniture duller, the rooms smaller. My sisters
tried to bait me into telling the beast’s secrets,
and when I wouldn’t, into petty arguments;
all so superficial and boring. No beauty lived
in that place. I went back to the beast. The film
crew was hyped-up, working overtime in preparation
for the big wedding episode. The long table in the ballroom,
their ground zero, was littered from morning til night
with platters and plates, half eaten food, chicken bones,
stuffed ashtrays, crusts, crumbs, and
empty cans of Jolt; the crew, like swine
at the trough. I tried to stay out of the way.
Where once I dreaded the season finale, now I was all nervous anticipation,
like a real bride eager for her wedding night. I felt tenderer
and tenderer toward my beast, letting my hand stray
to his muscular leg under the table, laughing more;
even the feel of the wiry hair that stood up on his thick neck,
which once repulsed, now stippled me with electricity,
through my arm, down one whole side of my body.
The wedding couldn’t come soon enough.
That night, the church fairly sparked for me, flooded with light,
cameras positioned to capture every conceivable angle.
The beast grunted, fumbled
the ring onto my finger. I beamed, said I do…
and then, as if this were a 7th birthday with everyone
shouting surprise, instead of my wedding, the beast shrank
before my eyes. I stumbled back, shook my head,
tried to take in air. The cameras were rolling. But I couldn’t
squint away the small pink-fleshed man standing there
in beast’s overlarge suit, hair smooth, features finely-cut
and handsome. He reached a hand out,
I recoiled. He said beauty, don’t you recognize me? I did see
the beast lurking in his eyes. I just need a little time I said,
trembling. I’ll have to get used to this. Everyone laughed.
I took his soft hand in mine. I couldn’t help whispering
for only the two of us to hear: where has beast gone?
As if the whole thing were a practical joke
this stranger might let me in on. Where is my real other half?
I wanted to yell in his pretty face. The prince just laughed,
exposing his straight white teeth. The cameras loved him.
As the priest finished the ceremony and the cameras followed
us back down the aisle the way we had come, hoping to catch
a besotted expression (I hated to disappoint them), I tried
to focus on the ardent prince’s eyes and couldn’t shake the feeling
that the beast was trapped inside. I was ready to pry open his skull
with a crow bar and set my beast free. Even the film crew fist-pumped,
threw confetti. I became convinced they were all in on it,
that the writers intended this to be Season One’s finale.
If some other virgin had gotten the part, she’d have been just as duped,
just as beautiful. It was written in the script,
as was my coupling with Ardent. His last gig
must have been a toothpaste commercial, or pushing
some kind of drug for enhancement, why else that smile rending his face.
The cameras would have us in the beast’s bed, Episode One, surrounded
by candelabras. Me: still virginal, still mousy. Then the fun would start.
The producers wanted to carry this thing through a second season
on Ardent’s prowess, and they wanted me to play along. Close-up
on my transformation from virgin to whore.
They probably intended to end the last episode with me
back in that bed, legs splayed, some human baby
dragging my darkness out with its caul for all to see. Flashback,
close-up on my transformation from maiden to mother:
setting it right. But I could still feel beast’s tough hide beneath
my hand, the way his fur and skin tightened then relaxed in response
to my touch as if, unable to speak to me, he communicated bodily.
What I want to know is this: where does the banished self reside
when change is wrought? To get through
even the first episode of Season Two, I knew
I would have to go there. Maybe find my beast.