The Fourth Pig was originally published in the 1930s and is a reflection of the tense economic/political climate of the late interwar period. Although I had never heard of her, Mitchison’s writing was well known and popular in the 1930s. Her personal history as related by Marina Warner in the introduction marks her as an unusual woman for her time and quite outspoken in her political views. Given her leftist leanings, it is perhaps not surprising that this work in particular faded into obscurity after WWII. It’s a shame because her blend of politics, fairies, and other fanciful characters reveals concerns of the working class and leftist intellectuals on the eve of the second world war.
The book contains 18 tales, some created from Mitchison’s rich imagination, others based on more traditional fairy tales. Most are in narrative form but a few are told in verse. While they can seem a bit didactic, sort of like morality tales for the 1%, they do frequently expose the harsh economic reality of the working class. “Frogs and Panthers” is one such tale. In it, the god Dionysus agrees to grant freedom to his slave Xanthias and escorts Xanthias to a world without slavery, which happens to be 1930s England. Xanthias may be “free” in name but his existence is even more harsh than his life as a slave in Greece. Xanthias has been injured on the job at the brick works and is slowly dying, while his friends are powerless to help. His pitiless boss refuses to do anything to help or protect his other workers. Dionysus asks,
Do you call yourself a free man now…? Are you able to freely create and wander and think and love?
In “Hansel and Gretel,” the two children live in grinding poverty, with their parents unable to scrape enough together to get by, and the reader can sense the emotional toll this takes on the whole family. After getting into trouble at home, the two children go off for a walk and are distracted by the various lovely items in the store windows that they will never be able to have. A very wealthy old woman, in jewels, furs and a chauffeured Rolls Royce, plies them with sweets and toys, then takes them back to her mansion. The girl knows something is very sinister about the whole set-up, but her brother is seduced by the wonderful things at his fingertips. The old witch, as we learn, enslaves children around the world to keep herself rich.
In addition to the plight of the working class, Mitchison also addresses women and minorities. In “The Snow Maiden,” a beautiful young woman who is adept at mathematics dreams of attending university and becoming a professional. Her dreams are thwarted by a society that expects women to marry and stay in their place. In the poem “The Furies Dance in New York,” a trip to the natural history museum leads to commentary on the treatment of Native Americans and this,
And it isn’t much of a step from shooting Indians
To shooting strikers. It isn’t much of a step
From exterminating the Indian civilisation to exterminating
One of the most powerful and prescient tales is the first one — “The Fourth Pig.” It is a short narrative from the point of view of the pig you didn’t know of, the sibling of the three little pigs. This pig lives in fear of the wolf, who is meant to stand in for the fascism that was then on the rise in Europe. The fourth pig knows that the wolf will strike again and that no one is safe, not even the third pig.
Oh, he was clever, was Three! He could make things; he laughed at the others and told them of the inevitability of the Wolf coming, but proclaimed also that he had a sanctuary.
And so indeed it was for a time, but now he too is afraid….
I can hear the padding of the Wolf’s feet a very long way off in the forest, coming nearer. And I know there is no way of stopping him. Even if I could help being afraid. But I cannot help it. I am afraid now.
Mitchison’s other tales, particularly those involving fairies like “Kate Crackernuts” and “Mirk, Mirk Night”, feature characters who get lost in other worlds, such as the fairy lands and the “debatable lands”. On one hand, these might be read as tales of alienation resulting from an unfair and backbreaking economic system. On the other hand, though, as Warner points out in the introduction, Mitchison loved the tales of magic and fairies from her native Scotland and worried that they would be lost in the industrialized and modern world. In “The Grand-daughter” she writes,
…the industrial revolution had destroyed magic.
…good magic, being essentially democratic, could not work itself out in a pyramidal society of haves on a basis of have nots, but must at best go underground and at worst turn itself into something evil and individual and undemocratic.
So the cultural norms of the 1% dominate and demonize the culture of the masses, turning it into something to be hidden if not destroyed.
Some people might find Mitchison’s tales to be a bit overbearing and self-righteous. Some might find them too Marxist perhaps, but they provide a snapshot of leftwing thinking in 1930s England, and they reveal a talented, forceful intellect whose works have been ignored for too long. Recommended for those interested in fairy tales, interwar political works, and women writers.