Folk and fairy tales, as told by Angel

Feature Juliette Harrisson 3 Feb 2014 - 07:05

Buffy's spinoff series incorporated all kinds of mythology into its stories of a vampire with a soul. Juliette digs out the references...

Read Juliette's feature on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and fairy tales, here.

Like its mother show, Angel occasionally used images and motifs from fairy tales alongside horror and mythology. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel didn’t base complete episodes around fairy tales or fairy tale images; rather, the show used themes and tropes from fairy tales to embellish its mythology and open up more storytelling possibilities.

Deals with the devil

Deals with the devil don’t always work out too well in literature. The Dr Faustus story-type, in which a foolish man sells his soul to the devil for worldly profit and pleasure, generally ends in eternal damnation for the protagonist. However, in fairy tales, more often than not deals with the devil actually work out quite well for the person concerned, as long as they are clever enough to trick the devil, or even just sensible enough to do as they’re told and resist the temptation to break their pact.

In Grimm fairy tale The Bearskin, for example, the soldier who is offered freedom and riches by the devil provided he wears the devil’s jacket, doesn’t wash, doesn’t shave and wears a bearskin for seven years pretty much must does what he’s told and is generally nice to people, and is rewarded accordingly.

The main arc of Angel season five follows the deal with the devil our heroes have made by taking over evil law firm Wolfram and Hart. It’s safe to say that this doesn’t work out quite as well for them as it does for the soldier in The Bearskin – but then, our heroes don’t entirely do as they’re told. Still, depending partly on how much of a downer you feel the ending is, they do manage to get one over on the devil they’ve dealt with, as by combining fairy tale wits and canniness with the mythological Trojan horse trick, they are able to strike a blow against the devil and get some way towards achieving their own goals. Sort of. A bit.

Of course, not all of the gang’s dealings with Wolfram and Hart can be turned to their advantage. One of the most common things to watch out for in deals with the devil is promising him things without realising what you’re promising. For example, in The Girl Without Hands, a miller promises the devil whatever is behind the mill, thinking he’s promising him an apple tree, only to discover his daughter was sweeping behind the mill at the time. She keeps herself so clean and sinless that the devil cannot take her, but the devil commands her father to chop off her hands so that she can no longer keep clean and he can have her. As it turns out, she cries so much onto the stumps that he still can’t take her and she ends up a Queen and gets her hands back, but it must have been a pretty traumatic experience.

Similarly, a king in Scottish folk tale Nix Nought Nothing promises his son to a giant because, understandably, he doesn’t realise his wife has temporarily named their son ‘Nix Nought Nothing’ and he thinks he is promising nothing; another miller in Grimm tale The Nixie of the Mill Pond promises a water spirit whatever has just been born in his house, apparently unaware his wife was nine months pregnant and about to give birth and a king in Estonian fairy tale The Grateful Prince makes the same mistake (pay attention to your wives and how pregnant they are, guys).

This is the trap Gunn falls into when he signs a form to get his brain upgrade made permanent in season five’s Smile Time. Wolfram and Hart’s dicey doctor tells Gunn something he needs has been held up at Customs. If Gunn signs something to get this mysterious item into the country, he can have his legal and linguistic knowledge back. What Gunn doesn’t realise until too late is that the package in question is Illyria’s sarcophagus, addressed to Fred, which will kill Fred when she opens it. You’d think having so recently been filled with legal knowledge, he might have retained enough to know you shouldn’t make bargains unless you know exactly what it is that you’re bargaining with.

Princesses and heads

The idea of champions, knights and princesses runs right through Angel, blending fairy tales (which usually feature people from one end or the other of the social scale, either princes or poor millers’ sons) and chivalric medieval legends of knights rescuing damsels in distress. The princess theme is clearest, of course, in the Pylea arc, as Cordelia is declared to be a princess by the inhabitants of Lorne’s homie dimension at the end of season two. Cordelia’s arc from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer through to her becoming the princess of Pylea follows that of many a proud fairy tale heroine thrown out by her father and wicked stepmother (or, in Cordelia’s case, the IRS) and forced to live in poverty and become more humble until their true royal nature is discovered and they marry a prince and regain their former status. Also fairy-tale-esque is the development in which she is ordered to marry the hideous Groosalugg, only to discover that the Groosalugg is, in fact, a handsome man.

Apparently ugly paramours who turn out to be beautiful is a theme of fairy tales and folk tales that turns up in all sorts of contexts, from women cursed to be ugly at certain times until a man makes the correct choice to give them more agency (Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle) to men who appear bestial and ugly but turn out to be handsome underneath (Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince of course, but this is also the reward for the fiancée of the soldier in The Bearskin, who agrees to marry him while he’s smothered in smelly bearskin, not realising it isn’t a permanent situation). In Cordelia’s case the situation is slightly different, as Groo never appears ugly to Cordelia; rather, she first hears about him from Pyleans who, being green and horned, find him repulsive. Still, the trope of the princess forced to agree to marry a hideous beast who turns out to be a handsome prince is clearly in play here.

Pylea is also a land where the inhabitants’ heads can be detached and reattached without them suffering any permanent ill effects. While you would imagine that human beings can’t be treated in this way, in fairy tales, anything is possible. In Grimm tale The Juniper Tree, for example, a wicked step-mother beheads her step-son and convinces her own innocent daughter that she did it, but it all turns out OK in the end, as the boy either turns into or possesses a songbird, kills his stepmother with a millstone and appears, miraculously healed, as soon as she’s dead (despite his body having been not just mutilated, but eaten). Clearly he was even tougher than a Pylean.

Specific tales

Very occasionally, Angel did make a more sustained reference to a specific fairy tale. In season three’s Waiting in the Wings, Angel’s answer to classic Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes, the gang attend a production of the ballet Giselle and end up rather caught up in the behind the scenes drama. The episode, of course, features references to the 1948 classic, telling a similar story in which a jealous ballet company director doesn’t want his prima ballerina to have a romantic relationship with someone else, but wants her to keep dancing for him. That means it also binds in elements of the Hans Christian Anderson story the film is named for and tells in ballet form.

The Angel episode doesn’t feature red shoes, but it is the story of a girl who loves dancing, but is less happy when she’s forced to do so forever. The story also, of course, references the ballet Giselle and the legends that inspired it. Heinrich Heine in his book De L’Allemagne wrote briefly about an old Slavic legend of the Wilis; young, engaged women who died before their wedding day and who loved dancing, so their ghosts lure young men to dance with them until they die. The unfortunate prima ballerina finds herself dancing the ballet in more ways than one as, unable to marry her lover, she is forced to dance the same steps and even the same performance forever, while Angel and Cordelia find themselves forced into a different sort of dance with no immediately obvious escape. Fortunately, Wesley and his increasingly miserable life are on hand to help work out what’s going on and how to stop it.

The most significant individual tale used in Angel, though, has its root in a novel inspired by fairy tales rather than the tales themselves. The premise of Angel has always been built on Angel’s essential unhappiness with his status as a vampire. In season one’s I Will Remember You, he had an opportunity to become human again through a happy accident, which he had reversed because he felt he couldn’t help the world, and Buffy in particular, as a weaker being (having already turned down the opportunity to walk in sunlight so that he could better help those suffering in the dark, in the appropriately titled In the Dark). However, from time Wesley explains his re-translation of the Shanshu prophecy at the end of season one onwards, Angel is working towards the distant goal of earning his humanity back again as a reward for fighting for the forces of good. In this way, the whole series could be seen as a long Pinocchio story, with Angel fighting in the hope of becoming a real boy.

The Adventures of Pinocchio is an 1883 Italian children’s novel by Carlo Collodi, but the story incorporates numerous fairy tale elements including a good fairy and talking animals alongside themes from ancient novels including people turning into donkeys and getting swallowed by giant sea creatures (in this case, the Terrible Dogfish). Pinocchio behaves very badly for much of the novel, but when he turns over a new leaf and vows to help both his ‘parents’ (the Fairy with turquoise hair and the carpenter Gepetto) he is rewarded by becoming a real boy. In Disney’s 1940 film version of the story, Pinocchio’s desire to become a real boy from the start and the Blue Fairy’s explanation that he must do so by being brave and unselfish are made even more explicit.

The Pinocchio theme in Angel is increasingly emphasised once Spike joins the cast in season five. While Angel had his soul forced back on him by the gypsy curse and was dumped back on earth after his time in a hell dimension by the Powers That Be, Spike fought for his soul from the beginning. From season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike had consistently referenced Pinocchio in his expressed desire to be a ‘real boy’, to be worthy of Buffy.

The whole Pinocchio theme reaches its apex, of course, in season five’s Smile Time, as Angel becomes, like Pinocchio, an actual puppet. When he gets a bit too close to a werewolf and ends up leaving stuffing all over the floor, Lorne asks plaintively if there’s a Gepetto in the house to help him. Whether his restoration at the end of that episode indicates metaphorically that he will eventually become human again despite having signed away his rights to the Shanshu prophecy in the finale is left up to the viewer’s imagination.

Not all fairy tales end well for the hero and the long, dark downslide of Angel as a series might in some ways have more in common with the Grimm tale Clever Hans. In this story, Hans is given a gift each day by his fiancée Gretel (fairy tales are not imaginative when it comes to names) and each evening his mother tells him he has used it wrongly; he should have put the needle she gave him first into his sleeve, but when he puts the knife she gives him next in his sleeve, he’s told he should have put it in his pocket, when he puts the goat that is his next gift in his pocket he should have led it by a string, etc. The whole thing ends with Hans misinterpreting the advice that he should have ‘cast his adoring eyes’ at Gretel herself rather than tying her up in the stable (as he should the calf she gave him previously) and he chucks the gouged-out eyes of his livestock at her. She dumps him.

Angel occasionally experiences a similar problem himself as he keeps trying to take the advice of the Powers That Be and do what he’s told, only to find that all he does is make the problem worse. This is particularly clear in season two’s Judgement, when Cordelia receives a vision of a demon and a pregnant woman and Angel runs off and kills the demon, only to discover it was the woman’s protector. Perhaps, ultimately, his problem is that he is trying to behave as a knight in a legend or a hero in fairy tale when in fact, what he’s stuck in is an ancient myth.

In many ways, Angel has more in common with ancient mythology than with folk tales. Folk tale heroes tend to be forced to rely on wit and cunning due to their lack of power, strength, combat training or social position. Angel has more in common with the ancient Greek Hercules – a hero whose chief asset is his superhuman strength, who can adapt himself to whatever task is put in front of him, in Angel’s case, up to and including a spot of medieval jousting in the streets of Los Angeles. Prophecy appears in both myth and fairy tale but the extent to which it drives the plot in Angel approaches the extensive use of prophecy in myth – and let’s not go into the serious Oedipus complexes suffered by half the male cast (Angel/Darla, Spike/his mother/Drusilla, Connor/Cordelia). But woven into all the myth and horror and detective stories and supernatural romance and just plain crazy are elements that tap into the spirit of the oldest and darkest fairy tales, making the monsters under the bed appear that much scarier.

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