Saturday, January 28, 2012

Siblings Have Feelings Too

Fairy tales are very clear on sibling relations. The trick of it is hate, hate, and more hate, with a sprinkling of contempt from older to younger. Gender is immaterial; brothers murder each other for brides just as easily as sisters pitch each other into rivers. If the relationship isn't one of hatred, normally the siblings are just there so that Our Hero can be the youngest of three. The point is that a real Hero or Heroine can and must succeed on his/her own. Help earned through individual virtue is acceptable; the support of a loving family just gets in the way.

The problem is, I like my siblings. My sisters never tried to backstab me or steal my prince; my brothers would fight for my honor in a minute. Luckily, there are fairy tales where siblings get along. Not many, of course, but some of the most interesting, particularly in terms of what they say about sibling relationships.

Kate Crackernuts, Derek Collard
My personal favorite, from the day I first read it, is Kate Crackernuts. Kate and Anne are princesses and half-sisters. Anne is prettier; Kate's mother jealously magics a sheep head onto Anne's shoulders; hence drama, right? Wrong. Kate chooses this moment to remember that the story's got her name in the title and takes off with Anne, willingly abandoning crown, place, and her (albeit somewhat psychotic) mother's love to travel the world and find a cure for her sister. Her stepsister, which in any other story would be the excuse for her to send the poor girl to drudge among the ashes. Since she has the resourcefulness that often eludes the "fairest of them all" types, Kate manages to save a prince (with a handy brother for Anne) at the same time, and presumably winds up co-ruling two kingdoms.

This might be the best sibling relationship in any fairy tale ever. Devotion on both sides, complete commitment to happiness together, renouncement of anything that doesn't benefit them both - it's almost like Kate and Anne care about each other! The kiss-of-death word "stepsister" is maybe mentioned once in any version; it's immaterial. Anne puts her fate in Kate's hands without question, and Kate more than requites that trust. These girls are sisters, by blood and in their hearts, and woe to anyone who messes with that.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Ruth Sanderson
The Twelve Dancing Princesses hang together in the same way. It's less moving, because the Princesses are never differentiated as individual characters (at least, not in the traditional versions), but they show the same camaraderie. They never crack and spill the secret to an outsider, but among themselves they share it freely. Granted, their united front dooms unnumbered men to death; it's far easier to see Kate and Anne, who never hurt anyone, as paragons of sisterhood. But despite the darkness to their relationship, the Twelve Princesses present the most famous portrait of sisterly devotion in the fairy tale canon.

Hansel and Gretel, Greg (CreatureBox)
The most famous, period, obviously goes to Hansel and Gretel. Those adorable cherubs, armed only with their wits and their mutual affection, battle domestic and supernatural evil and even manage to rescue each other. Their dynamic is clear from the beginning: they're a team, and they will put themselves on the line for each other at the drop of a hat. In terms of familial support, they don't even need their appallingly cavalier father. They back each other up far more effectively than he ever does. The feminist in me finds it very appealing that although Hansel is the leader, the idea man, and the muscle all in one while Gretel sits down and cries, she more than steps up to the plate when it's her turn. More than any other fairy tale siblings, these two grow into themselves and their comradeship. In one sense, it's easy for them to stick together so completely: they're children, and the adult concerns that drive fairy tale siblings apart have yet to enter their lives. But they face truly adult dangers - abandonment, imprisonment, slavery, death, loss of love - and come out on top purely through the strength of their bond.

Sets of brothers present a different conundrum in fairy tales. Princes and poor boys alike are expected to seek their fortunes, while sisters generally have to compete for whatever single fortune comes their way. Sisters resort to lies, backstabbing, and occasionally murder, while brothers have the option of ignoring each other on their individual quests. Of course, if some upstart youngest brother has the gall to come back home with a magic wife and untold treasure, his older brothers jump instantly to the murder option.

The Four Clever Brothers, Arthur Rackham
Or alternatively, they could help each other out. The Four Brothers each set out to seek their fortunes, making a promise to come back after four years and catch up. You'd think this would be instant danger for the most successful brother, but lo and behold, after four years they've each achieved great success in their chosen (and different) professions: one's a master thief, one's a great astronomer, one's a crack shot, and one's a tailor who can sew anything. When the inevitable princess gets inevitably kidnapped, they band together to rescue her, and each one proves indispensable to the quest. Of course, they can't all marry her, but she's a MacGuffin anyway; the brothers are all quite content with each getting a quarter of a kingdom to rule. The only time they quarrel is when they can't decide who should marry the princess. In dire straits, they all jump to each other's rescue without thinking twice about it, unlike the numerous jealous brothers who stage fake deaths as easily as they breathe.

Personally, I love that none of them really care that much about the princess. They're on this adventure for the sake of having a grand lark with each other. As rare as sibling devotion is in fairy tales, it's even rarer to see siblings actually having fun together. So often someone's got to be rescued, like Anne, or a debt owed, like Gretel saving Hansel, or control established, like the Eldest Dancing Princess laying the law down to her sisters. One way or another, one sibling usually has the upper hand, even in friendly relationships. The Four Brothers are complete equals, and nothing makes that clearer than the fact that none of them squeaks by the others to marry the princess.

The Cruel Sister, John Faed
What I don't love is how few of these stories there actually are. They're so outnumbered by stories of jealous brothers, sisters, and stepsisters that that's become the fairy tale norm, when in fact affection of this sort is a lot more interesting than blind hatred. The more popular stories are weirdly gendered, too: blood ties make no difference to brotherly hate, while stepsisters tend to perpetrate the worst crimes on each other. (The exception that proves the rule, of course, being the sisters of The Bonny Swans.) Only the brother-sister team of Hansel and Gretel is allowed to like each other without comment. What does that mean? Are men more prone to irrational jealousy than women? Are women afraid of being supplanted? What, precisely, is family worth in a fairy tale? Is it what you're born to, or what you make (or refuse to make) for yourself? If the point of fairy tales is individual success, how should we treat these siblings whose fate hinges on cooperation, friendship, and love, and who are made more than they are by the help and affection of their family?

I don't know the answers. I don't know if there are any universal answers, given the wide range of problems fairy tales address. But I am glad that there are many kinds of family represented in fairy tales, even if scantily.


  1. It's all about drama. The obstacle. People not getting along is just more fun. And siblings just fit too easily into this demographic. It's an archetype: Not true or correct, but always just kinda there and not hurting anyone (unlike it's own sibling, the Stereotype. I hear they don't get on well).

    And way to gloss over the whole part of the story when Hansel and Gretel break into a woman's house, eat all her food and than burn her alive. Haven't seen a pair of siblings murder so well together since the Menendez Brothers.

    1. You're right that a family rivalry is far more devastating than Protagonist A facing off against unrelated Antagonist B. Families do come with plenty of drama, and going toe-to-toe with someone you grew up with is always going to be more dangerous and exciting. (Plus, you don't have to invent an outsider with no personal stake in the drama.) The crazy happens when the sibling rivalry, which starts out as fascinating, becomes the ordinary norm. Then everything gets flipped, and a pair of siblings who like each other become interesting, while a pair who don't could have all the drama in the world to deal with and still be seen as boring.

      Hansel and Gretel do have the mitigating circumstances of slavery and being raised for slaughter. But you're right, it's not pretty. Someone should speak for the villains. Maybe a post next week...