The Amazing Bone is not a fairy tale. William Steig invokes fairy tales and fairy tale themes– Little Red Riding Hood, witches, inanimate talking objects– but his story falls short. Pearl, the pig-child, finds a magic talking bone in the forest. They become fast friends. A fox seizes her and takes her to his home. While he is preparing to eat her, the talking bone unwittingly wields magic and shrinks the fox to the size of a mouse. Sounds alot like a fairy tale. But it isn’t. Because Steig takes all the ingredients for a cake and instead makes cookies… perhaps a subtle difference, but it’s the subtlety, the reminder of how non-cakey the story is, that makes it effective.
Fairy tales pit good against bad. Because we need morality, and morality depends upon the good-bad dynamic. The villain of The Amazing Bone, however, is not bad. He is a dandy fox with “a sprig of lilac in his lapel.” He is not evil. Rather, he grants Pearl a wish as he leads her to his dinner table, cursing his own softness as he does so. And when he grabs her for his dinner, he does so in “a tight embrace,” and he holds her hand as he leads her to her fate. It’s almost… romantic. Most tellingly, he says “I regret having to do this to you. It’s nothing personal,” and “I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.” And that’s the biggest give-away. It’s just his nature, a mix of the seemingly cruel knife sharpener with the surprisingly erudite chef. How better to excuse morality than with biology? Perhaps as a nod at the human inclination to endow animals with human morals (why, after all, must the fox always be the bad guy?), Steig turns the conception topsy turvy and deals kindly enough with his “villain”–he comes to no gruesome end like other fairy tale bad guys. No ax to the belly. No roasting in an oven. No falling down a ravine. Instead, the fox is shrunk to mouse size such that he can act in a mouse’s nature. No more eating of small piggy children. Perhaps he will even be happier there…
So, what is a fairy tale without good vs bad? There is one moment of repetition (common enough in a fairy tale) that drives home a sort of message (not like in other fairy tales, no “chinny chin chin or fee fi fo fum). It seems to point to a lack of agency in the story’s characters. When Pearl asks the bone why he can sneeze (among other things), the bone says, “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” Exactly what the fox said to excuse himself. Neither see themselves as drivers of the tale.
And they aren’t. They didn’t make the world, Steig did. He made this world to remind you that you can’t make the world. And this world he makes to remind you it can’t be made… well, it’s pretty normal. It’s not only lacking in set polarities, but also imbued with funny little tongue in cheek details. Animals might wear clothes and bones might talk, but also “the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spit tobacco juice” and hang out. And the heroine has homework and makes silly comments and talks too much. And the villain uses salt and pepper and oil in his cooking. There are no pulleys and curtains in these details. It’s… the world. And in this world, who knows. One day you’ll accidentally run into a talking bone and then accidentally be victorious over robbers and then accidentally be less victorious against a fairly genial chap who tries to screw you over and then accidentally your bone will speak magic words that he didn’t know he knew and accidentally save your ass. It isn’t about keeping your eyes open or not going into the woods alone or not letting in the wicked witch. No, nothing in this fairy tale leads you to believe there is a script. Good guys aren’t all good, bad guys aren’t all bad, you didn’t make the world, and you well better remember that.