Die Hard and Fairy Tales

I think Die Hard might be a fairy tale.

Let me back up and offer context.  At Boskone this weekend, which was amazing by the way, had a great time and thanks to everyone who came out and said hello, I participated in a panel about fairy tales with Theodora Goss, Miriam Weinberg, and Craig Shaw Gardener, and  was thrillingly outclassed in academic knowledge and depth of study.  My brain’s been firing in unaccustomed directions in the aftermath.

Tolkien says myths and legends are about superhuman figures (gods and demigods respectively), while fairy stories tell of human beings who encounter magic.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about kingship, psychology, and the Wolf of Wall Street—and debate in the comments expanded to the question of how the psychological and narrative symbol of monarchy was endorsed by, and endorsed in turn, actual monarchy.  To carry forward a thread from that discussion: the hero of the standard Campbell myth is privileged.  His job—his hereditary job—is to repair the world.  He is safe when he descends into the underworld to reclaim fire, because that’s what he’s supposed to do.  It’s almost as if fire was stolen in the first place so the hero would have something to descend and reclaim!  Rising from the grave, fire in hand, the hero fixes the problems of his world, and ushers in a New Order.

But the fairy tales I know don’t tend to have such explicitly “positive” endings (if we want to call the ascension of the Year King and inauguration of a New Order positive—depends on the king, I guess).  You can turn Hansel and Gretel into an Underworld Journey story, but the kids bring nothing out of the forest save one another.  Little Red Riding Hood straight up dies in many old versions of her tale.  The bride in Mr Fox escapes with her life.  One of the early Goldilocks versions ends with Goldilocks impaled on the steeple of St Paul’s, which, ow.

Contact with magic in an initiation myth may be terrifying and bloody, but it leads to power, grace, and a cool new sword.  Level up!  Contact with magic in fairy tales, on the other hand, does not necessarily ennoble.  There are Cinderellas, sure, but just as often survivors escape with nothing but their own skin and the knowledge they almost lost it.  To use a framework I’ve employed earlier—myths are badass.  Fairy tales are hard core.

Or to put it another way: in our modern understanding, Campbellian myths are about knowledge, while fairy tales are about metis.

I’m stealing this word, which is Greek for ‘cunning,’ from James C Scott’s book Seeing Like a State.  In the book Scott discusses how a certain kind of “high modernist” knowledge can lead to policy that optimizes for one easily-defined and desirable metric while ignoring the broader consequences of this optimization.  Easy example: when thinking about your career, it’s easy to optimize for ‘highest salary’ without realizing until too late that you’ve become a nervous wreck, deeply depressed, morally bankrupt, substance addicted, etc.  (Wolf of Wall Street, again.  Maybe Breaking Bad too?)  Scott’s examples are more societal, for example discussing how 19th century scientific forestry optimized short-term lumber yields at the price of creating forests that did not work as forests (and as a result collapsed after two harvests, taking the market with them).  High modernist knowledge, then, is a specific way of knowing that assumes the ability to manipulate independent variables.  Metis, by contrast, is a way of knowing that’s sensitive to specificity and on-the-ground reality.  Metis is the infantry commander’s situation awareness, vs. the general’s view of units on a map.

These two ways of knowing are linked to distinctions of class and political power, in much the same way as are myths and fairy tales.  To the king-mythic hero, the world can be manipulated, transformed, and saved by using or gaining knowledge / power (mystic power in stories, political power in actuality).  To the fairy tale hero, or often heroine (much more often a heroine in fairy tales than in initiation myths, unless I’m forgetting something), power (mystic or political) is beyond our control.  Sometimes (say, in Cinderella) those who possess power want to help us; sometimes (Hansel and Gretel, Mr. Fox) they want to hurt us.  Sometimes even ostensibly benign uses of power —for example the fairy who curses the prince in Beauty and the Beast—turn out to be the source of the protagonist’s problems. The fairy tale protagonist must learn to survive in a world shaped by others’ whims.  The initiation-mythic protagonist must learn to exercise unknowable power to control (or save) the world.  Whatever else is going on in myths and fairy stories (and I think there’s a lot more, it’d be foolish to reduce them to just this aspect), these types of tales see power from either side of a class line.

I’m reminded here of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, which is beautifully written and haunting, though I think it has a problem with women.  (That’s another essay.)  David (main character) wanders through a fairy tale world that has been (spoiler) perverted by the existence of a king.  The regal initiation myth structure in BoLT is in fact a cruel trick played by the Bad Guy to distort the world of stories.

But if this is the case—if class dynamics are a key ingredient of fairy tales—then we have a wealth of unrecognized modern fairy stories:

80s underdog action movies.  Story structure classes talk a lot about Campbell, sure, but really Die Hard is a fairy tale.  Little John goes into the woods of LA looking for his lost wife, encounters a wicked nobleman who wants to do (bad stuff) and has to defeat him by being clever, strong, and sneaky.  The whole movie opposes high modernist knowledge—Gruber’s “plan” and the building’s super-security—to metis, here in the form of John McClane’s beat cop street smarts.  The first Lethal Weapon also fits the bill—Murtaugh and Riggs wander into the woods, also of LA, and end up fighting rich and powerful noblemen in order to survive.  Their opponents?  A paramilitary conspiracy, complete with grand schemes, political authority, and all sorts of high-tech equipment.  Basically any of the “fight the big boss” stories, including Enter the Dragon, can be thought of in this way.  Oh!  And let’s not forget Alien and Terminator, both of which oppose a working class woman—a trucker in the first case, a waitress in the second—to sexual creepy-crawlies and the technocratic military-industrial complex.  (Which sometimes doubles as a sexual creepy-crawly; Ash trying to choke Ripley with a rolled-up girly mag is one of the most skin-crawling scenes in Alien, at least to this viewer.)

(Sidebar:  This notion of power disparity also may explain why Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who as a fairy tale has never quite convinced me, since New Who mythology sets the Doctor up as a being of unknowable power himself, which makes it hard to evoke that fairy tale aesthetic.)

Our mainstream, tentpole movies have turned to myth rather than fairy tale recently—Captain Kirk becomes a Destined Hero rather than a guy trying to do his best against impossible odds.  That’s not a priori a bad thing, stories and life both change after all, but when everyone’s a damn Destined Hero the pendulum might have swung too far.  I wonder how we could recapture this older dynamic.  Maybe I should slink off and write an 80s action movie for a while.

Some unrelated current-eventsy notes:

1. SFWA stuff: I agree with Nora JemisinJohn Chu, et. al. about this petition fiasco.  The SFF community, and SFWA in specific, should be a place of support, friendship, cooperation, understanding, and action.  We should be stretching our imaginations, and applauding and supporting others who stretch theirs.  To the extent those two sentences don’t describe the community or SFWA, we have more work to do.  Doing this work, and talking about how to do it, may hurt.  Most work does.  But that’s not the same as oppressing and censoring people.  So, count me in with the insect army.

2. If you have any interest in Star Trek whatsoever for the love of god run don’t walk and download John M Ford’s The Final Reflection.  It’s bloody brilliant.  A Boskone panel convinced me I should read Ford’s work; the Star Trek novels are most widely available due to some rights and will-related madness which if I wrote about it here I’d just write a scream for the next few thousand lines.  I’m reading How Much for Just the Planet soon.  Whenever I find a new author I like this much, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new universe, and not in the Species 8472 way.

15 Responses to “Die Hard and Fairy Tales”

  1. Chris Ashley (@chrisashley312)

    The Blues Brothers are perhaps a hybrid case, then. Their tactics include a magic car and spray glue, but their divine mission is about returning the sacred fire to a kingdom gone astray.

    • max

      Wow! Blues Brothers has all sorts of interesting aspects when seen through this lens—since they’re not trying to establish temporal rule, but to support and protect the weak, and the sacred fire with which they accomplish this is blues music, rather than some artifact of the kyriarchy. (Though of course they have to transmute the music into a form of value the kyriarchy recognizes—the gate receipts from their concert.) Also, the antagonists in BB are projections of the kyriarchy—Nazis, cops, etc.—and one of the BB’s principle tools, their car, is a subversion of temporal power: a decommissioned police car! If the grand old myths are operating in Neitzchean good-bad territory (big ‘if’ I guess), BB definitely operates in good-evil—that is to say, it’s an old-school Christian myth about the sub/conversion of, and resistance to, authority in the service of grace. That may allow it to be both quest story and fairy tale, since its sympathies rest explicitly with the little guy.

      … This works creepily well and I may need to write another blog post to work it through!

      • Chris Ashley (@chrisashley312)

        I wonder if Dan Aykroyd stories don’t often play with the distinctions you’re drawing here. The Ghostbusters are basically hobbits on a quest—or maybe dwarves considering the tech, but their villains are both bureaucratic human baddies and supernatural chaos. (Saruman is the EPA in this analogy, crazily enough, but Sauron’s goal was evil empire, not mass hysteria.) Or Spies Like Us: Little guys with accidental imperial status and tools, using them against imperial nuclear holocaust.

        • max

          OHSNAP It just occurred to me:

          “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god… you say yes!”

          The Ghostbusters are granted imperial power over reality—of a peculiar and destructive form, since their wills can shape the Destroyer. Which then ends up taking the form of a corporate mascot! The attempt to invoke capitalist power as a bringer of comfort actually leads to the near-destruction of the universe.

          Haven’t seen Spies Like Us. I definitely should. The more I ponder Blues Bro.s and Ghostbusters, the more I think that Dan Akroyd’s doing some serious revolutionary art here, while being hilarious at the same time.

      • Chris Ashley (@chrisashley312)

        Also, as you may or may not know, the Bluesmobile’s superpowers have a backstory in Aykroyd’s original scenario. Elwood keeps it in a shed under a huge transformer that powers the Loop’s El trains. It’s exploiting surplus power, both symbolically as a police auction castoff and physically with its supercharged electrical system.

        • max

          I didn’t know that! It’s all connected! I need to go rewatch all these movies, now.

  2. Aatif Iqbal (@aaiqbal)

    This explains not only why I loved DIe Hard so much, but also why there’s so much in Terminator that was totally missing in Terminator 2

    • max

      Yes! By Terminator 2 creators are already trying to refigure technocratic capitalism as a Force For Good; Aliens pulls off a double-blind by appearing at first to lionize high modernist knowledge (the space marines sure seem to know what they’re doing at the beginning), but in the end showing its insufficiency & falling back on metis—Ripley wins using her wits & repurposed non-military technology. Still, though, we’ve lost the explicit challenge to the techno-military-industrial axis represented by Weyland-Yutani in the first movie—in Aliens the imperial power is *insufficient* rather than actively *evil* as it in Alien.

  3. walterwart

    1) The treatment of Ms. Jemisin in particular and women in general by certain Grand Old Farts in the SFWA was disgraceful. I have dropped a bunch of writers from all future book buys because of it. Sadly, this includes everyone who signed the first draft of that abysmal “freezed peach” letter. So no more Wolfe, Rusch, Cherryh or Silverberg. This is sad.

    2) It’s possible to take Campbell WAY too seriously. Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. And not every story with a heroic character follows his formula. And many stories should not have happy endings. Cautionary tales should act as cautions. The lessons of LRRH – The Deep Dark Woods are dangerous. Strangers can be dangerous. Wolves are dangerous. – were important ones when the stories were created. Lessons that important need some impact to get the point across to the kidlets.

    3) Tragedy is more powerful (and has more staying power than) comedy. Unfortunately American audiences hate tragedy which is why, say, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein laid an egg even though it was an incredible movie on just about every level.

    4) “The Final Reflection” and “How Much for Just the Planet” are probably the two best Star Trek books ever written. You, Max Gladstone, need to trot over Amazon and download the second one and read it tonight.

  4. Tracey C.

    Damn it, you’re making me long to go back to school for that phd in folklore again…

  5. anansii

    Another thing about fairytales – often success or failure depends entirely on how much empathy the heroine has. If she helps the three animals in peril on her journey, when she reaches the end and is given three impossible tasks they help her to achieve them and win. Another aspirant may be too self-centered to help anybody else, and thus fails.

  6. 7 Quick Takes (2/28/14)

    […] And my perennial favorite, Max Gladstone, has an essay on the structure of fairy tales, viewed through the lens of… Die Hard. […]

  7. Aaron

    If you enjoy Mike Ford’s Star Trek novels, I highly recommend The Dragon Waiting by the same author. It’s out of print, but the internet doth provide. It even has its own concordance, being packed with historical and literary references: http://www.eblong.com/draconc/

  8. Elena Gaillard

    For an interesting discussion of both fairy tales and forests, I wonder if you’ve read “From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales” by Sara Maitland. Her retold-takes on classic fairy tales are pretty good (usually they are “what happened next”) but the book also explores the social and economic relationships between people and forests over the centuries, and how that affected the fairy tales they told. Interesting stuff.


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