21. 1. 2021

English Version | Fairy tales have too many witches

by Nuno Miguel Dias


The problem with certain witches is that moment when the mirror tells them there is someone fairer than them out there. That’s the moment when it’s better to cross over to the other side of the mirror, in hopes of finding an upside world. Here you have it, a more current perspective on the classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Alice in Wonderland.

Alzira Meireles woke up late today. She jumped out of bed immediately. That type of spasm that comes with the certitude the alarm clock went off hours ago. It turns out it hadn’t. It was only ten minutes past. But those make a world’s difference already. It’s 4h32. The bust comes around 5h. Give or take. Three streets down. Getting dressed, prepare the lunchbox of her oldest grandson (some dry bread with butter, an apple and, a modern-day luxury, a liquid yogurt). Waking up the other, only a few months old, heating his milk, feeding him and putting him down again next to his mother, her teenage daughter that has come home, again, so late at night that she won’t be able to get up before noon. Running down Rinchoa and doing that desperate wave to the bus driver so that he opens the door for her. Today she’ll be lucky because the driver on duty is the new kid with a sparse mustache. It’s always him on Tuesdays. She fulfilled, once again, all her morning obligations in record time. Much like she does every day. So, there she goes, on Scotturb’s 456, as crowded as ever, on the way to Estoril. She retains nothing from the outside scenery. She knows it by heart. “All I don’t know is what tomorrow will bring”, as she usually says, bringing upon herself all the erudition of a cliché she once heard, at Minipreço, from the mouth of a well-presented lady. She is clueless, but nonetheless, she tries to guess. One day, she’ll die. It could have been today. How would the life of her 18-year-old daughter, Branca, turn into? No education. No job. No will to get one. She’s just a little girl. Living her little girl life to whom all her dreams were taken away from due to an unexpected pregnancy at 12, another one a year ago. She drags through the streets with her stroller, her friends bringing her to all kinds of alleyways and houses of who knows whom. She doesn’t breastfeed. Her breastmilk dried up from rejection, the same disdain she nurtures for her first-born, whom she doesn’t even bother to pick up from school nor really talk to. Only her grandmother listens to all the joys and fears that come along that first school year. She hurts from other people’s pains. And from her knees. She has reached her stop.

The Grand Hotel of Estoril contrasts with the break of dawn, a pink line from the source side of the river Tejo. Another 10 minutes by foot and she’ll reach the palace she has worked at for over 20 years. She goes in, heads to the backroom, turns on the coffee machine from where she’ll pour herself the sole cup she’ll drink all day, puts on her apron, and starts preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cleanings only come after the rest is all settled, and the smells of home-cooked meals have filled the air of the entire ground floor. Upstairs the couple she works for begin to slowly wake up for what they insist on calling “café-da-manhã”, a way of saying breakfast that stuck with them since they lived in Rio de Janeiro, daily and irrevocably served at seven a.m. sharp. Mrs. Eulália is, today, and strangely so, the first one to come down to the kitchen. Coming in saying, with typical snobbishness and arrogance, that both she and her doctor husband won’t be having their usual freshly squeezed orange juice that morning. It seems that last evening they had been to a very famous seafood place which, rumor has it, has seen better days, though it is still part of “tradition”. Alzira smiles and remembers the flavors of her own daily life, her neighbor’s cachupas, the smell of moamba on Sundays, and of stew on Wednesdays, coming from the only restaurant open on her street. Nonetheless, with a glass of red to flush the cheeks and warm the heart. When Mr. Doctor finally shows up, everything is ready. Including the freshly squeezed orange juice that won’t be served after all. He lets out a little smirk he normally hides from Mrs. Eulália, in the name of peace and quiet at the table. But today there is something else. Ah, that’s right, the seafood. Later and as per usual, he’ll cross paths with Alzira and her duster around the house, and yes, at that moment, in hiding, they’ll loosen up, sharing and talking about the many years of coexistence they shared, amongst accomplice smiles and other mutual understandings that lingered from a shared time of intimacy which was, somewhere along the way, burning and passionate. That’s the reason why, to this day, even the friendship that was left can’t be reflected around the suspicious eye of Mrs. Eulália, the “wicked witch”, as Alzira calls her, “looks like she knows”. And she does. More than Carlos does, the Mr. Doctor. She even knows that, unlike him, to whom the information was never revealed, that Branca, Alzira’s daughter, is of his flesh and blood. She has always felt it. Twirling in her insides. Still to this day. Or more so than before. She spends long hours in front of the mirror asking herself who was it that could have been so much more beautiful that they would take away all her remaining possibility of happiness.

Alice is about to begin her first day of work. At a job every single one of her college mates envied. Whom, in the meantime, and perhaps out of jealousy or soul deafness, will stop inviting her to class reunions. Those that year after year will become less and less frequent. And that each year, will take a smaller table than the one before, at the same restaurant. Until the establishment is replaced by a hostel or a local lodgment or a boutique hotel or a gourmet burger joint. By the time the meal is over, always accompanied by the frown of the owner where a very clear “why don’t you brats head on home, I want to close now if I’m going to be up at 7h tomorrow” is stamped on his expression, the conversation always ends up around Alice, the blond everyone wanted, that looked beautiful even with academic uniforms, maybe she still fits in them now, contrary to what we verify around our own abdominal region, and also how she got that job because of a word put in by her father, “while the rest of us are stuck in a call center”. Alice knows that the crew didn’t quite “vibe” with all that. But she couldn’t care less. For now, the butterflies she feels in her stomach characterize the notion that she is turning a new page. Sweaty hand palms. A not in her stomach. Slight tunnel vision. She’s sitting outside a kiosk, with a cup of coffee that is going cold and a bottle of sparkling water that is warming up with condensation. An ashtray with five cigarette buds. All hers. Staring, right across the street from her to the huge mirrored building where she’ll enter in a few minutes to start what, she realizes, will be from that moment, a completely different life. She’ll leave her old one behind, with all that was in it – childhood friends, those ones from college which, by the looks of it, weren’t her friends at all, even her family would, from now on, stop being her first priority in many occasions. She isn’t aware of this. Yet. When she does, it will be too late. Alice asks for the check by lifting her pointy index finger in the air, she pays, says goodbye with a smile, and crosses the street heading to the building that which reflects the centenary plane-trees as, in mere seconds, she finds herself on the other side of that gigantic mirror. The sight of a world so drastically different from the one she knew until that moment overwhelms her, almost as if it were upside down, along with a feeling that, she supposes, we all get whenever we enter our first real job. Though in this case, there’s something more to it. The ice-cold looks she feels on her, for example, make her believe she is being criticized, insulted even.

Once before she had already gotten the impression that this wasn’t the friendliest of places, where competition and rivalry rule over the air you breathe. Something to which her interview with the CEO largely contributed, dressed in red from head to toe, with an ace of hearts pin on his lapel, closing the deal with a flimsy handshake, a concealed critic to the interviewee’s conduct and some free information: “This is like a chess game. If you win, you too might, one day, become CEO.” In the elevator, the presence of a young lady who looked like a total bitch, a short man resembling a scarab, and a boy who looks to be dressed in paper, bothered her. It’s when inside the office she was assigned to that Alice is greeted by a handsome man in his 40s who provokes her a sudden crisis of memory loss, even of her own name. At the desk beside her, there are two small, fat twins, with names she can’t memorize, always fighting about everything. She decides to get some coffee. It’s in the breakroom that she encounters a tall, excruciatingly beautiful young woman who informs her: “Here, time goes backward”. But as it is known, this first-impression thing is quite the scam, as after a few minutes had gone by, Alice finds out that White Queen is, indeed, a peaceful lamb fallen in the hands of the others. She’ll also come across a very odd, rude colleague with a firm belief he’s a poet, who treats her poorly recurrently, but to whom the entire company’s structure runs to the rescue. Suddenly, everything starts spinning in huge turmoil. At the reception a unicorn and a lion started to fight, a White King intervenes and ends it with the call for a snack break, a Red Knight kidnaps Alice, a White Knight saves her, pledging to take her, alive and well, to the end of this chessboard where the game unfolds, where she can thus become the company’s CEO, everyone begins to argue livelily and a feeling of peacefulness invades Alice who, before she’s even allowed to enjoy the perks of her new post, which will bring her nothing but future comfort, she wakes up. It was all just a dream. It’s the call center’s director who’s actually standing in front of her, hands on his waist. All her colleagues are standing, while some others take client calls, entertained by the whole scene. Perhaps it would be better to start thinking of finding another job. A dream job, maybe.

Firstly, let it be known that the author of this text is fully aware he’ll be crucified for the words he’s about to write: Disney is responsible for the vast majority of dysfunctional romantic relationships. Girls all over the world dream, thanks to the “cryo-preserved old man” prince charming that, one day, will come, on a white horse, to save them from the unbearable situation they find themselves in. Whatever it may be. Which could be chill if they’re living at their parents’ house and an uptight dude sweeps them off their feet with a kiss, a red convertible and the promise of a worry-free life. Except, for the most part, flaws might be delayed, but they irrevocably come out. And what started off as a dream turns into a nightmare, which, obliging to the fertile creativity and Disney language, is the same as saying the girl goes back to feeling chained in the catacombs where that terrible ogre (once a prince, but not anymore) made her go through hell and back. That’s when another prince charming comes along, generally younger, with chiseled abs, shiny hair, and a talk smooth enough to move mountains. All life is put into perspective. Sometimes, you figure it out in time: after all, the bastard (who was a prince, the second take, because even to find two bad princes in a single lifespan it takes some luck) is married. But other times, which account for the vast majority, ends up with kids splitting up their weeks, Christmases, and birthdays between two addresses.

All jokes aside (yes, that was a joke, some people just take things too seriously), if Disney has the gift to bring us stories that, otherwise, we’d never know (in this case, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, that dark German tale recovered by the Grimm Brothers, and Alice in Wonderland, by the novelist, poet, designer, photographer, mathematician, and Anglican reverend Lewis Carroll), it also takes the fall for distorting, even if in the name of a certain embellishment, which, to be honest, wasn’t even there. Meaning, if on one hand, we have Disney to thank for making things more beautiful, we should also demand some explanation on how they’re altering the true moral behind the tales and stories they draw inspiration from, which are mirroring not only the authors themselves but the culture they are inserted in.

Let’s take then, Alice in Wonderland, which evolved from its original Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1871, evolving to its much more famous aforementioned second title, in 1865. The countless studies on the meaning of that infinite roll of unlikely characters who Alice, a child who must have not completed her eighth birthday, comes across, tackle, pardon my opinion, the obvious. Alice is contemporary of the Victorian era (the queen herself would have read the book with unusual enthusiasm and recommended it to her closest social circle), thus, she was attentive to social conduct and good manners. She has a fascinating imagination, characteristic of children, but she looks for order in things. She feels alone and wonders desperately looking for companies that will take her out of her comfort zone, of the confinement within which Victorian girls were raised. It’s not rocket science. But what resides beyond the looking glass of Lewis Carroll’s soul, Charles Lutwidge Dogson’s pseudonym? In fact, Alice’s “adventures” began on a boat ride the author took, in 1862, on the Tames, with his “friend” Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean at Christ Church, during which he told the story, supposedly made up in the moment. She liked it so much, she begged him to write it. Mr. Carroll did just that and, two years later, offered her the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Underground, which later on he took from 18 thousand to 35 thousand words, giving it a different name, under which he published it. It wasn’t only Alice Liddell, just ten-years-old at the time, to whom Lewis Carroll offered or, better yet, reciprocated favors. His love for children of the feminine gender was what we would today subtly depict as “excessive”. Since we’re avoiding using a less flattering adjective. His famous phrase “I like children, except boys” would grant him a one-way ticket to jail, nowadays. What makes it all worse is that we know his hobby was photographing and drawing little naked girls, portraits he wouldn’t show anyone, and that he asked to be delivered to the models’ mothers (who authorized it) after he died. There is a book called A Selection from the Letters of Lewis Carroll to His Child-Friends (1933), where we can understand the level of intimacy he nurtured with his “little friends” was far from innocent. Those were different times, some will say. No. We were just different human beings.

In the case of Snow White (Schneewittchen, originally), a “fairy tale” of German roots (from the region of the Bavarian Black Forest, compiled by the Grimm Brothers between 1817 and 1822, and published in 1822 within a book with many other short-stories such as Kinder-und Hausmärchen), it was thanks to our old pall Disney that still to this day we can’t dissociate ourselves from the character portrayed in the 1937 movie, the first long feature by Disney at the time. But its inception goes back to the middle ages, therefore entailing many, many versions. What is the symbology behind this tale, besides the glorification of a certain ideal of beauty: “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame”, the queen said as her blood fell into the snow after she pricked her finger on the needle. It’s complicated and it has a lot to do with the hermetic initiating rituals and the three stages of spiritual practice, Nigredo, Albedo, and Rubedo (black, white, and red) of the alchemists. The dwarfs correspond to the seven metals alchemists associate with the seven planets: gold for the sun, silver for the moon, Mercury as itself, Venus as copper, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter, and led for Saturn. This draws attention to the relation between astronomy and alchemy, a principle the Emerald Tablet defines as: “What is underneath is the reflection of what lies above”. Meaning, the mirror. It’s always the mirror. Ever since it was invented, the looking glass was there to makes us see the world differently. The most creative minds suppose there might be much more beyond what we see without it. That’s why it is so represented in the so-called fairytales. But, more importantly than that, has anyone ever tried to understand why the hell fairytales have more witches than actual fairies since they’re called fairytales and not witchtales? Can it be precisely because they’re out there? You can never be too careful.

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.
Full credits and spread on the print issue.