You know the story of the Three Little Pigs, yes? They each have their little roles to play, along with the “big bad wolf.” Now imagine that one day, someone is telling you the story, but the wolf is a completely different character. He’s been evicted from his home because the oncoming urban sprawl of the city of pigs condemned his lands and forced him off his family farm. This new bit of backstory might completely change your opinion of the aggressive behaviors of the wolf and the silly antics of the pigs. With this in mind, you wonder, maybe the wolf has a point. Maybe he has a legitimate reason for wanting to eat the pigs and this is more than a child’s creative lecture on building sturdy houses.
Just so, the stories told over and over in what are now known as “fairy tales” can sometimes be used to share cultural wisdoms while at other times are used in a subliminal way to mold social behavior (I’m thinking Disney!). Stories are the human method for understanding life–both personally, historically, culturally, and spiritually. We literally “story ourselves” and our world into a place where we feel that we can understand it, can relay it, and it becomes ours. But our stories can also limit or harm us, and that is where the skill of alternative narrative can be most compelling.
Think of all the role rewriting for the lives of women through their process of liberation? Think of the new narratives that had to be formed as enslaved people came to freedom? Think of a national history that had to be formed as new governments arose from the ashes of what had come before? The very reason that the “Middle Ages” received their name and backwards connotation was because intellects of the Renaissance happened upon the writings of Classical Greece and believed that they were creating a new age (and that everything in between them and Classical Greece was horribly ignorant and dark). It’s a narrative that still clouds most people’s understanding of the medieval experience today.
Now imagine, as a contemporary (and feminist) storyteller, you encounter a narrative where some noble men want a unicorn horn (why they want the horn will be explained in another post). They’re hungry for a hunt, so they set out with their best hounds and scouts to find this illusive beast. They discover the unicorn performing one of its many miracles–purifying the river water with its horn. The tranquil scene is soon broken by the baying of hounds and the sounding of horns, and they’re off on the chase. The unicorn flees, fording a river, but the men and dogs are quickly upon it. Infuriated and injured, the unicorn fights back, kicking and goring with the power of a wild ass. A hound loses its life and the men lose their pray into the thickets of the forest.
What to do? They cannot return home empty handed. They must claim their prize and show off their manhood! But force isn’t working, so it’s time to use guile. Everyone knows from the stories that unicorns cannot resit the charms and pleasant smell of a maiden, so the young damsels of the castle are summoned to the garden to work their charms, while the hunters wait in the bushes for the “all-clear.” The scene plays out just as expected, and the hunters pounce on their opportunity, slaying the now passive unicorn and parading its corpse on the back of a horse towards the castle and its crowd of proud onlookers. Now wasn’t that a splendid day for a hunt indeed.
But none of those damsels are partaking in the celebration, their absence like a strange gap in the dance. Did they remain in the rose garden? How did they feel after taming the beast that had just been so violent and deadly, only to have it carried off and killed? Who asked them to share their side of the story? What would you have done if you had been there?
Because the maidens are not present at the homecoming celebrations, they are simply being used by the men to accomplish their goal. The capture of the unicorn is merely the means of procuring the magical horn. I have yet to see “haunch of unicorn” appearing on the menu of even the most fanciful medieval fairy tale, which means it wasn’t intended to be eaten. So both maiden and mystical animal are tools for an end–procurement of the coveted horn.
Now imagine that the lady and the unicorn, seeing in each other the oppressed, decide to change the story–right where the fragment panel of the original adds its mystery of the unknown. What if, instead of telling the hunters it is time to come in for the kill, the lady leads the unicorn to a place of hiding and safety, thereby “Deceiving the Hunters” (as the title of my alternative narrative tapestry piece relays).
Ah, but you have seen her! You were in the garden too! She raises her finger to her lips. Will you participate in this new plot? Will you keep the secret of their escape? Will you turn her in and claim the horn as your own? Now that you know the story and how it usually plays out, you too are part of that story. And there enters the power, the playfulness, and your involvement in the alternative narrative woven into “Deceiving the Hunters.”