Maleficent: the Evolution of Fairy Tale Morality

When we were children, fables often had morality woven into them. The tale of the boy who liked to scare his village by announcing the visit of a wolf … until a REAL wolf showed up, showed us the importance of telling the truth. Many other tales warned us against envy. These were simplistic fables meant for child-like minds. They were magical, but their moralities were in black and white, with little of the complexity of normal human interaction.

But for many generations, I believe we underestimated the ability of children to form more or less sophisticated ideas about morality and about right and wrong. Modern re-tellings of old tales (like Wicked and Maleficent) show us that, sometimes, what seems “evil” is not necessarily so, and what seems “good” is not necessarily so. Good and evil have unfortunately been treated by our culture as Platonic constructs, and this–while perhaps was done with a good intention–has impeded a deeper understanding of morality. Innocent or complicated characters may be vilified unjustly. Sometimes an honest character wears a black cape, or has fangs and horns, and the truly evil ones look respectable.

These new narratives are extremely necessary if fables are to be useful, as originally intended, for moral edification. We see it in the news all the time: the Catholic priests who were supposed to embody holiness and virtue turned out to be a protected caste filled with predators who orchestrated an international conspiracy to silence their victims; the very “respectable” looking politicians or wolves of Wall-Street who are corrupt and narcissistic beyond redemption. They are not all corrupt, and not all priests are predators. On the other hand, in the film Hail Satan! we see that the members of the Satanic Temple, with their activism in recent years, have been “the good guys” in our fight against encroaching theocracy, and have been teaching everyone a valuable civics lesson about the First Amendment. But that is the point. Images that market a certain idea do not constitute the essence of the idea. They are mere images. It is up to individuals to apply critical thinking to the problems and the “facts” presented to them daily–and children who consume these fairy tales, because they are still in their formative years, are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of not applying critical thinking, and of not questioning whether the “good guys” are really good and whether the “bad guys” are really bad.

Like the Epicurean novel A Few Days in Athens, these new fables are teaching us to look at the world in an unbiased manner and to withhold opinions and conclusions until things show themselves to our faculties.

Maleficent was a very magical movie. Angelina Jolie is a gorgeous woman and a talented actress, and she carries the entire plot of the movie with her unquestionable charm. But it also is a fable, and here the moral of the story is a welcome departure from the simplistic, black-and-white, old-fashioned fairy tales.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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