IT WAS the last night of the panto. But the cast were still dropping in fresh ad libs to match the news of the day. At the end, after Aladdin had got the treasure and become a prince, he was asked what he and Princess Jasmine planned next. “We’ll be stepping back from public life and spending some time in North America,” he replied, before adding that the real plan was to get married and live happily ever after.
For a real prince, happy-ever-after is anything but straightforward. That has been clear from all the hoo-ha surrounding the “unilateral declaration of independence” by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — or Harry and Meghan, as now even the Queen calls them.
The scholar Marina Warner says that fairy tales express universal truths in ways that everyone can understand. They enable children to engage with their deepest fears. That is why they so often feature orphans, dead mothers, cruel stepmothers, and wicked uncles. Myths deal with gods and superheroes. But fairy tales feature recognisably ordinary people who have nightmares as well as dreams.
The symbolism comes alive through strong contrasts. Good and bad, white and black, blonde and brunette. Clever artists test these archetypes against the pulse of our changing times. Angela Carter transforms the tame Beauty into a feral Beast. A. S. Byatt’s ugly sister becomes a heroine. Neil Gaiman’s Snow White is a vampire who sucks her stepmother dry.
The less imaginative writers of our popular press lazily embrace the ancient archetypes. Prince William’s princess was a young snow-white English maid; Prince Harry’s was a dark-skinned American divorcee. Anyone sensible enough not to read English tabloid newspapers regularly might find it difficult to fathom the depth of the snide, subtle, subliminal racism to which Meghan Markle, with her “exotic DNA”, has been subjected for a year or more.
A princess begins as a girl and grows into a woman. The transition from Princess Kate to Queen Katherine is under way before our eyes. Media coverage of her three pregnancies carried photo captions saying things such as: “Kate, tenderly cradling her baby bump”. In contrast, Meghan was subjected to month after month of nasty comments and questions like: “Why is Meghan always fiddling with her bump?”
One pundit compared her child to a chimpanzee. A particularly rebarbative columnist in The Mail on Sunday wrote: “I do wonder what is to come once Meghan begins to breastfeed . . . will she milk it for all she’s worth?” In the same paper, Piers Morgan has conducted a nasty year-long campaign of vindictive bullying against Meghan, which borders on incitement to hatred. The Times has printed unsubstantiated single-source gossip that Buckingham Palace has condemned as “inflammatory” and “offensive”.
Prince Harry has written: “My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.” Small wonder he wants to take her to live elsewhere.
The forest, Bruno Bettelheim wrote, represents “the dark hidden near-impenetrable world of our unconscious”. What would he have said of our present-day media jungle?