Fairy Tales and Fantasy: Bedtime Stories for Not-So-Grown-Ups
I love fairy tales. I had the requisite amount of exposure to them as a youth, I suppose. Going through the back bedrooms of my almost-hoarder mother’s house reveals some dog-eared copies of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks & The Three Bears from my Youth. However, it wasn’t until university that I became a fairy tale geek. Only a couple of weeks into my first term as a Literature student at a grey, architecturally brutalist, 1960s-built English university, someone goes and puts a copy of Angela Carter’s fairy tale-inspired The Bloody Chamber into my hands for the purposes of an assignment. I am instantly enthralled.
The next year, or maybe later that same year, it’s hard to remember, I attended my first lecture held by noted fairytale & folklore scholar Marina Warner, a contemporary of the unfortunately late Carter. Despite the many generations between us, I developed an immediate schoolboy crush on the eloquent and erudite Mrs. Warner, and bustled to get onto one of her fairytale courses as soon as I could. Rather than distract from them, my intense crush on Marina in fact only served to bolster my studies, and my grades showed it.
My fairytale library expanded as I added book after book and film after film to my collection, both for personal amusement and for the purposes of my continued academic research into the subject. To this day I count the Red Riding Hood-influenced Angela Carter-written film The Company of Wolves and the classic, black & white French masterpiece Beauty and the Beast amongst my favourite ever films. One of my favourite books ever is an academic piece by prolific German folklorist Jack Zipes called The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, a book that simply collects hundreds of different versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale and presents them all in chronological order, allowing the reader to see where certain elements that we now consider quintessential were introduced and exploding the idea of the tale as something that is solid and singular: one static story that doesn’t really change that much. It kind of blew my mind a little, that book. Although I didn’t write it about fairy tales per se, the idea of texts and characters as fluid and changeable over time and several adaptations became a major theme of my eventual Masters’ thesis.
But the truth is, ultimately, very little of this would have come about if it hadn’t been for my discovery that fairy tales were something where my sexual interest and my academic interest could coexist quite happily. Fairy tales are inherently sexual and violent “ all that stuff about how to woo and marry, and how to avoid being killed by jealous lovers or eaten by wolves “ and it’s easy to find that stuff creeping up into your imagination and coming out through one’s libido. Carter’s The Bloody Chamber mixes the intelligent and the near-pornographic masterfully. As with a lot of Carter’s work, it’s boldly clever and witty, yet at the same time unashamedly bawdy and richly sensual. As a young student, I found myself getting equally excited over an new idea for a fairy tale-inspired essay as I did over the sight of university girls dressed up as Red Riding Hood on Halloween night, dragging their big bad wolf boyfriends behind them by collar & leash.
Post-university, I would discover texts such as Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, which takes the Victorian ˜wonder tales’ of Alice, Wendy and Dorothy and spins them into a story that is as surprisingly intelligent as it is stunningly pornographic. And later I would watch a video tape (yes, a video tape) of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which welds several fairytales together, but in doing so exposes some of the sexual and Freudian undertones, which strain and threaten to burst forth from underneath the seams. I also became a rather unashamed fanboy of Wicked.
All of these pieces served as a rich kind of brainfood: entertaining but also fascinating me as they helped swell the volume of my increasing collection. They also helped start off many a geeky conversation/flirtation with close friends and lovers. I would discuss with my editor what Lost Girls said about the representation of the sexual lives of women and girls, and I would put songs from Into the Woods onto playlists for my girlfriend, Kitty (particularly the songs about Red Riding Hood and the ravenous, lustful wolf, of course). Fairy tales may be a common cultural cache that we can use to easily express ideas “ from big bad wolves to charming princes “ to others within our culture, but fairy tale geekery and kink is something, perhaps, a bit more esoteric than that. You might very well form a connection with someone with whom you can share your ideas about how Straparola relates to Disney princesses (or at very least, you may have found a lover who can tolerate your astounding nerdiness).
All of which brings me round again to the subject of fairy tales as communication, as something that we share. Fairy tales aren’t just sexy because they’re about lustful wolves chasing after naive young waifs or about secret trysts between fit young royals, they’re sexy because of the act of telling them. Our introduction to fairy tales is rarely us discovering them by reading them ourselves. Fairy tales are read to us. They’re read to us by mothers and fathers and other caretakers in a ritual that mimics the pre-modern verbal folktale origins of these same stories. Reading to someone is actually quite an intimate act. Now, I’m not talking about readings that take place in the lecture hall or in seminars. Although, as with the above Marina Warner example, I do admit that public speakers can have a certain bold charisma and presence that can indeed stir up near-sexual feelings in the listener. No, I mean the act of tucking someone in at night, working yourself up close to them and reading them a bedtime story. A story punctuated at the end by your giving them a kiss on the forehead. This is an intimate ritual and one that has, in a move that has frankly surprised me, found its way into my adult sexual play.
Right now, my partner and I are a full eight time zones apart. We’re separated by a continent and an ocean. I’m here in the UK and she’s over in California. The distance is really tough and is exacerbated by the fact that we’re not on the same schedule at all. I’m waking up in the morning just as she’s going to bed, and she’s having breakfast in my late afternoon. We’re not the first couple to struggle with being a distance away from one another and we won’t be the last.
We have the benefits of the internet, and we chat every day, but it’s the daily rituals that we go through together that really help to keep the relationship cemented and leave us both feeling really special. Every morning when I wake up and Kitty is just heading off to bed, I pick up my phone and call her (I miraculously have a phone package that allows me to do this for basically no money) and I read her a fairy tale from a book I keep by my bedside, and listen as she drifts away to sleep as I tell it to her (maintaining only just about enough alertness to put the phone down at her end at story’s close). Sometimes we do it the other way, too, with her reading me a story. It’s an almost too-sweet-to-be-true ritual that the two of us share.
The sickly sweetness is mollified, of course, by the fact that these are pornographic fairy tales. Yes, far be it from us to take something cute and intimate and associated with childhood innocence and care and then go and pervert it slightly. To be fair, we kind of do that sort of thing a lot, anyway. Kitty & I have done a lot of playing around with ideas around ageplay: sexual roleplaying in which one or more participants are playing an age that they are not. If you’ve ever done a teacher/naughty schoolchild scene in the bedroom, you’ve done this to some extent. If you’ve ever called someone ˜daddy’ in the bedroom, you may have a hint of an idea about what I’m talking about.
Kitty’s all about the taboo play and breaking boundaries, and I’m all for exploring with her. But bizarrely, when I read her a story late at night/early in the morning, I’m taking on the role of a completely different kind of ˜Daddy’. I’m not the ˜daddy’ of taboo older man/younger girl fantasies or even more taboo daddy/daughter incest fantasies: the lewd pervert with his eye on the forbidden fruit. No, I’m Daddy the caretaker, the loving parent, who would have my little girl curled up in my arms as I read the story to her, if only I could as she were not thousands of miles away. We started this idea of reading to one another some time ago, when we were still on the same land mass; however it’s become increasingly important to us as a ritual to keep as something special and important between us through this separation.
Now, just to clarify something here, we’re not actually ˜in role’ as such when these readings take place. I’m not wearing a costume and playing ˜Mr Daddy’. But we are still playing roles in the same sense that one always plays roles a little, as boyfriend & girlfriend, parent/child, etc. I may not be ˜in role’ as her daddy, but still, that’s the role I’m playing when I read to her, and it feels astonishingly lovely and close, in spite of “ or perhaps even because of “ the coarse nature of the stories at hand.
So yeah, I have a collection of lewd fairy tale-inspired stories. And, well, they’re pretty much as you’d expect a porn adaptation of anything to go, really. Oftentimes camp and absurd, with the original fairy tale plot barely even there at all and only really just a flimsy excuse to get to the sex, whilst some are a bit more playful and clever and use the fairytale tropes to good, erotic effect. The best porn is often the porn that makes you think a little. Now, that’s not to say that I’m going to be reading something that’s more clever than it is sexy. You have to choose your late-night text well, I’ve learned.
I tried reading a more literary fairy tale one time: a Sleeping Beauty poem from Anne Sexton’s fairy tale-adaptation collection Transformations. It didn’t go down too well. No, as you’re drifting off, what you really crave is something soothingly familiar but with just a hint of the exciting and new. Imagine a Goldilocks story where instead of the three bears there are instead three pairs of lovers, with Goldie sampling them all and decrying “the first pair play too soft, the second pair play too hard… And how do the third pair play? You almost certainly already know. And that’s what makes some of these stories just magical: that although they are original stories, they allow for that level of audience interaction.
Reading one of these erotic fairy tales to a faraway lover is like finding something half way between the full interactivity of phone-sex and the listener-occasionally-jumping-in-with-the-reader moments in childhood bedtime that made being told a story so special. Those repetitions that allowed a smile to creep up on the listener’s face as they anticipate the next bit, where they can jump in with the teller and sing-song together “the third pair…was just right!
Finding the right kinds of stories for this can be tough. There are a lot of short, pornographic fairy tales out there and a lot of them are dreck. Even the best collection I own is about equal parts corny, trashy wank fodder as it is genuinely witty and arousing little shorts. However, while I could vet some of the stories first, I could edit, I could read ahead and then decide which ones my ˜little girl’ should hear as I’m tucking her into bed at night, I realize I wouldn’t want to, as I want to discover the story along with her. And hey, even through some of the weak stories that this method has allowed to slip through, I don’t really regret it.
So yes, fairy tales are powerful tools, and are great imagination fodder for a little bedroom something-something. However, that doesn’t just mean dressing up as Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty for a night of role-playing (although I in no way discourage that as an activity). Sometimes the fact of stories, the telling of them, is as sensual as the content of them. Or, to bring this back to my university, where I started all this, sometimes a lecture can be amazing because of the things you learn, and sometimes it can be just because of the mellifluous voice of the speaker, that takes you away and makes you daydream; daydream naughty, naughty things, maybe.