I think Die Hard might be a fairy tale.
Tolkien says myths and legends are about superhuman figures (gods and demigods respectively), while fairy stories tell of human beings who encounter magic. Earlier, 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.
An earlier version of this article originally was originally published in February 2014 on Max Gladstone’s blog.