BOOK REVIEW: Fractured Fairy Tales

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Dr Paul Burger takes a look at a new book written by satirist and member of The Chaser, Charles Firth.

ONCE UPON A TIME, fairy tales were told to children and they carried the implicit moral order of the age. These days, many modern children’s stories reach beyond their ostensible audience. Often with an implicit – sometimes explicit – love story, with themes of power and greed and with dialogue and jokes that surely must surpass the average reading-age of children.

Via subtext and asides, movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale speak to us as adults. They remind us that fairy tales retain their sinister moral agenda. Reading against the grain, the rationale for reaching out to an adult audience, while entertaining children, exposes the commercial dimension of the modern moral code. And thus, although fairy tales may have grown up, they still live at home and obey the rules laid down by the head of the household.

Not so in Charles Firth’s Fractured Fairy Tales. While retaining the language, structure and illustrations associated with children’s stories, Charles Firth inverts the associations and assumptions of fairy tales. In his hands, simple tales told in plain language speak directly to the child within the adult psyche.

In the past, writers of fairy tales have used fear and terror to communicate their moral message. Think of the wicked witch in Sleeping Beauty, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Rather than beat and berate us into moral compliance, Firth takes a softly-softly approach. With satire and wit, he tickles our funny bone and turns the lens of our imagination onto the moral questions of our age.

‘The Boy Who Wanted a Friend’ – should seem familiar to anybody who has used social media – reminds us that our private information and personal identity produce commercial value at a social cost that compromises genuine social relationships with other people.

‘The Handsome Troll and the Ugly Professor’ whimsically portrays the dilemma that confronts modern political parties — how to balance the need for greater consumption while preserving the health of the planet.

‘Golden Child and the Three Bears’ turns Goldilocks and the Three Bears into an irrelevant and trite tale. In Firth’s version of this classic children’s tale, Goldilocks becomes a charming prince who receives a great reward for his theft of the bears’ property.

‘Mr Archimedes and His Bath’ satirises the political lobbying of the commercial class and the inaction of our politicians. But again, Firth avoids the easy tactic of fearmongering. Instead of turning his character in monsters, Firth turns Mr Archimedes into a caricature of ourselves, as we drown in our baths rich and happy.

‘The One Bad Prince’, a spoof on the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, speaks for all genders and anybody with a message that challenges the orthodoxies of the day. This ditty reminds us to beware what we wish for, because vested interests possess the capacity to turn our dreams and wishes into nightmares and prisons.

The value of these fractured fairy tales lies not in their simplicity, nor in their plain language, nor even in their wonderful illustrations. Nor do they merely record the state of political discourse and the social ethos of the contemporary moment. Rather, the value of these pithy tales resides in their capacity to provoke thoughtful debates on topics of global importance.

Dr Paul Burger is a social scientist and author. 

‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ is available from the Chaser Shop for $19.95 (paperback) RRP.

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