Feb 20 2014 12:00pm

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.


This article originally appeared February 19, 2014 on Max Gladstone’s blog.

Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. You can follow him on Twitter.

Jordan Frandsen
2. jorgecuervos
Very interesting take. I hadn't really considered the difference between myths/quests and fairy tales before but now, after turning Die Hard into a fairy tale, will have to go back and analyze some of my favorite movies and see what archetype I prefer.
I would have guessed the myth type stories/books/movies, but who knows...
3. jesusolmo
NAKATOMI PLAZA is a reorganization of selected shots from the 1988 film Die Hard. The Protagonist, John McClane, runs around Nakatomi Plaza getting dirty and bloody but finds no enemies: they have been removed...
4. Briareos
I can square the circle on the "Dr. Who as Fairytale" thing for you: Think of it as a series of connected fairy tale stories, where the Fairy Godmother is the viewpoint character and links the stories. The companions are the normal fairytale protagonists. They encounter the Doctor's mad magical world, go on adventures, some leave wiser, some leave with nothing, and some perish or suffer some awful fate because magic is dangerous.
5. GP
Max, when you wrote 'metis,' for a hot second I was like, "fairy tales are about french amerindians?!"

Then I kept reading. :$
6. GP
@3. Jesusolmo
I have a copy of Nakatomi for PC and there are enemies. LOTS of them, and unless you play it on easy mode, it's basically one hit kill unless you're hit in a limb. Playing it on hard mode is like playing Subsistence on Euro-Extreme, only harder, cuz you can't see your own body.
7. MaxGladstone
@4. Briareos—That makes a lot of sense, but the fact that the story has the Doctor's POV skews things, since the Doctor has power & as such isn't really a fairy tale protagonist. Structure and character end up fighting one another. The new series is at its most fairytale-like when it shifts POV to the companion. (For example Blink, or The Lodger, or Vincent & the Doctor, or Turn Left.)
8. Alright Then
"Maybe I should slink off and write an 80s action movie for a while."

Sadly, Hollywood only seems interested in REwriting 80s action movies at the moment. But an 80s style action novel would be welcome!
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
Some interesting viewpoints there, Max. Well said!
10. David Messer
Thanks for the article, Max! Your distinction, imho, is why the first Matrix movie was great, and the second and third fell flat. The first was clearly a fairy tale, while the 2nd and 3rd were myths.
11. Daniel Olmstead
Curious: where would you place the trope of the impossibly-competent-but-deeply-flawed hero in this? I'm thinking Jason Bourne, James Bond, the new breed of Sherlocks...
12. Wizard Clip
You mentioned "The Book of Lost Things"! I love this novel and recommend it to anyone here. John Connolly's modern crime thrillers are great, too, and speaking of archetypes, your theories could easily be applied to them. If you ever get a chance to hear Connolly speak on a book tour, don't miss it. He's very entertaining and generous with his readers. I would love to read that essay about the novel's woman problem.
13. big_red01027
@10: That's about as concisely as you can put why the first is infinitely better than the sequels. Good catch!
14. Jeff K2
Would love to hear your take on John Hughes movies like Breakfast Club. BC isn't the most enlightened movie as far as gender roles or racial diversity are concerned (I'd love to see a remake where they reverse the sexes of the main characters and set it in Detroit). But the deconstruction of class privilege felt authentic to this small town kid. It certainly was Campbellian in its archetypes.
William Hassinger
15. iObject
With all due respect, have you actually read any Campbell? Because the Hero's Journey is not only found in epic myths, like you claim, but in virtually any protagonist-driven story ever. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, one of the first examples he uses is The Frog Prince. You're using a dividing line that Campbell never saw. Furthermore, John McClane absolutely fits the Hero's Journey. He is Called when the siege begins, his Trials are the movie's plot, and his Return is when he leaves the building and renters society at large (as opposed to the isolated microcosm of the Nakatomi building). His efforts win him the renewed love of his wife and he also passes his heroism on to others by example. All heroes follow the Journey. That was Campbell's point. That was pretty much his ENTIRE point. I know his work is full of Freudian horseshit, but that's no excuse for this kind of misrepresentation/misuse.

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