Some fairytales don’t end too well. They are the ones coughed up by the collective psyche as warnings cast about the forest floor… though, like hairballs on shagpile, you may not recognise them at the time. Take the charming and seemingly innocuous story of ‘The Valiant Little Tailor’, who..
once upon a time..
bought some jam from a peasant woman, though so little she went off grumbling. ‘Now this Jam shall be blessed by God,’ cried the little tailor, ‘and give me health and strength’.
Before he could take a bite however, the many flies about congregated on his sandwich. He struck out at them and when the dust and jam had settled, seven flies lay dead.
‘Are you a fellow of that sort? he asked himself, and could not help admiring his own bravery. ‘The whole town, no, the whole world shall hear of this..’ And he stitched a girdle for himself embroidered with the letters, ‘Seven at one stroke’, and went forth into the world, now that his workshop was too small for his valor.
On his way out the door he pocketed a piece of cheese and a bird caught in a thicket.
At the top of a mountain the tailor comes across a giant looking peacefully about. Interrupting the giant’s meditation, the tailor shows him the belt saying, ‘look there and read so you may see what manner of man I am.’ The giant was quite impressed but picked up a stone and squeezed it till water ran out. ‘Can you do that?’ he asked.
The tailor took the cheese from his napsack and squezzed till liquid ran out. ‘There.’ The giant was doubly impressed. He picked up another stone and threw it so far it hit him on the back of his own head but the tailor scoffed and said he could throw a stone so high it would never come down and released the bird who duly flew off never to return.
‘Well, you sure can throw said the giant, let’s see you lift. Here, help me carry this mighty oak out of the forest.
‘Delighted,’ said the tailor, and leapt up into the branches whilst the giant had to carry the whole thing.
Always following ‘his own pointy nose’, to quote Grimm, the tailor then arrives in the grounds of a royal palace and falls asleep on the grass. People come from all sides and read the girdle. They run to tell the king who invites him to be his counsellor. The castle guard are afraid of the tailor least they all be killed by such a mighty warrior and ask to be released from service. By now the king is scared as well and sends the tailor to deal with two unruly giants hoping he won’t return but promising his daughter in marriage and half his kingdom if he does.
The tailor finds the two sleeping giants and alternately pelts them with stones..
‘until they got in such a rage that they tore up trees and belaboured one another so long that at last they both fell dead.’
The king renages on his promise and sets the tailor another great task, to catch a Unicorn who was ravaging the countryside. No problem for our hero who tricks the Unicorn into goring a tree and chops off his mighty horn with an axe.
Again the king prevaricates and sends him off to battle a great boar who’s making great havoc in the forest. The tailor traps the beast in a chapel and adamantly claims his reward.
which is grudgingly given.
However…the new queen overhears her mysterious husband talking in his sleep as if he were back in his tailor shop and the secret is out. The old king gets ready to arrest him, but, forewarned, the crafty tailor pretends to be asleep when the guard comes to his door saying, ‘I have killed seven with one blow, two giants, a unicorn and a boar. Why should I fear the king’s guard….?
who then ran away, ‘as if the wild huntsman were behind them….’ and so the little tailor remained king for the rest of his life.
though he had no experience, real skill or acumen and had lied and cheated his way into power.
As image becomes ever more important to a world that values appearance over substance then what we say about something begins to become more important than the thing itself. The signifier trumps the thing signified. Words become imbued with the power not just to describe but to create..
How? because the tailor’s words create reality. He buys his own PR. But the fact that he eventually gains a kingdom and a crown does not detract from the fact of his ineptitude, vanity or psychopathic disregard for reality.
He lies, cheates and deceives a path to the crown.
The poor old king is gaslighted as the villain in need of regime change, for having smelt a rat and devised strategies to keep his kingdom safe from a con-man, whilst the boastful tailor bluffs his way to power.
The problem is that by the time the story closes after the first telling everyone is cheering for the clever tailor. He has managed to seduce the reader as well as everyone in the story. All of which goes to show how easily otherwise intelligent folk are dazzled by slogans and the punchy bravado, the uncompromising confidence that the tailor discovers is there to be had if he can only ennoble the regressive choice to identify with a grandiose persona in constant need of drama and enactment to stay afloat.
His delusional belief in his own greatness, emblazoned like a political slogan across his belly, can only be maintained by lurching from one crisis to another.
The king’s challenge to capture the unicorn and the boar are a set of developmental tasks that the tailor actually fails. Unicorns are tamed by virgins, not by having their horns hacked off. The boar is a symbol of Arthurian proportions in that the grail king is wounded in his ‘thigh’ by a boar for refusing the quest to individuate. Another amplification is that Hercules task to similarly hunt down the Erymanthian boar was a punishment for his hybris.
In the meantime we might ask how it is that everyone seems to be so taken in by this charlatan with zero qualifications or experience. The answer is that the rest of us secretly subscribe to be like him and harbour more omnipotent fantasies of sweeping aside life’s frustrations than we’d like to admit.
Its a kind of soft fascism that allows us to identify with forceful others without having to deal with our own power issues, and allows the poor to identify with their oppressors rather than being set against them.
Sartre uses the example of the coachman who waits hours in the freezing winter chill for his master to emerge, taking sustenance and comfort from a shared anti-semitic joke which somehow makes them brothers despite the fact that he can’t feel his feet.
Moreover, we tolerate those who are identified with the gods because it gives us leave to identify with them, and therefor with the gods themselves, without seeming to break with propriety or decorum.
For the sake of this collective vanity the little man manages to get things he doesn’t deserve and triumph over legitimate rulership, even over reality itself, euphemistically expressed as that piece of patriotic whimsy that anyone can be the President.
Well, now its true.
And he too likes to throw rocks at sleeping giants hoping he’s not in the tree nearest to hand when they wake up. Though, you might be.
What’s to be done? The clue lies in the beginning of the story. The tailor buys jam from an old lady embittered by his measly purchase after much comment and inspection. The flies are attracted because he doesn’t eat his sandwich despite the invocation of the gods to bless his jam he never gets to taste it.
Had he treated the old lady decently, bought a decent sized pot of jam and simply tucked into his good fortune, his involvement in life would have obviated the compensatory lust for power and the dangerous blurring of fantasy and reality required along the way.
Being a jammy tailor would have seemed just the right kind of thing to be.
I once saw embroidered on a pillow, ”to be happy you need three things: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.”
Work, jam and community.
The story of the pupil who wants to change the world and is told by the master, ‘then change yourself’, is almost cliched. Yet chopping wood and drawing water, work jam and community, is precisely the inexorable force that brings about change.
It also means that if my values are right, if I can gratefully give the old lady the time of day, feel nourished by her jam, let the world in, then life is already good despite the world’s dictailors.