All Commentary
Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Exchange Value of a Magic Bean

Once upon a time there was a boy named Jack. Jack lived with his mother and they were very poor. They were so poor that they had nothing but their little shack, the clothes that they wore, and one milk cow. Soon, Jack’s mother decided that they had no choice but to sell their cow, get what they could for her, and hope that the money would last them long enough for times to get better. And so Jack took the cow to market.

You all know how this story goes, right?

Instead of selling the cow, Jack trades her for some magic beans. A beanstalk grows, a giant’s property rights are repeatedly violated, and Jack comes home with untold wealth and (in some versions) a beautiful princess as his wife.

Now, Jack could have sold the cow. He and his mother could have used the money to plant crops to sell at the market, or to move to another town, or to start a small business. A little capital can go a long way. But not in a fairy tale.

Money, which German sociologist Georg Simmel in his 1907 book The Philosophy of Money called “the absolutely interchangeable object” and “interchangeability personified,” does not work as a medium of exchange in the context of the fairy tale. And it does not work, in the fairy-tale context, for precisely the reasons that it does work in the real world.  Let’s think about some of the major attributes of money. Among other things, it is, as Simmel notes, interchangeable. It can be exchanged for almost anything. And it can be changed for different versions of itself. Unless you’re a 4-year-old, you aren’t likely to have a strong preference among being given a five dollar bill, five singles, or a roll of quarters. It all spends the same. And, combined with this interchangeability, money is also universal. Its functioning does not depend upon who is spending it or who is receiving it.

I mentioned in an earlier column that aside from the admittedly frequent appearance of magical and comical manifestations of money—like the occasional enchanted girl who drops gold from her mouth when she speaks, the purse that always contains one gold coin no matter how often you spend it, the goose who lays golden eggs, or the Italian tale about a donkey who provides gold from … elsewhere … money is not a frequent player in fairy tales. Even these magically provided types of money do not function like money. No one ever spends the goose’s golden eggs or the money dropped from the enchanted girl’s mouth. The magic purse and the donkey are in the story, in most tales, in order to be stolen and to allow a villain to take the place of the hero or heroine until everything ends happily ever after.

Fairy tales do contain a lot of static wealth. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses galore, and they all have untold wealth that simply exists. Nobody earns it. Nobody loses it. Nobody buys anything with it. It’s just there as a marker of status, as a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin for the young hero or heroine to aspire to.

So when there are exchanges in fairy tales, they are worth thinking about, precisely because they happen in such a way as to demonstrate the complete unsuitability of trying to apply a realistic understanding of money’s function as a medium of exchange within such an unrealistic setting.

Let’s get back to Jack for a moment. Jack is the ideal example of the classic fairy tale simpleton who makes good. There are hundreds of these tales—“The Brave Little Tailor” and “Jack the Giant Killer” are two—and what they have in common is a poor and slow-witted hero who uses luck or trickery to triumph over an enemy and ends up rolling in some of that unspecified wealth I’ve just been talking about. A smarter hero than Jack would have exchanged the cow for some coins and made economically responsible decisions. But Jack’s an idiot. So he trades the cow for magic beans, and in the topsy-turvy sense of fairy tales, this bad decision is the best decision he could make. And savvy readers and listeners know, the moment that he makes it, that he’s going to come out on top.

An even better example of the kind of exchange that I’m interested in, however, appears in the fairy tale “The Ship with Three Decks,” which appears in a number of different cultures. In this tale, a poor and obscure young man is sent, through a variety of circumstances too involved to go into here, to rescue the King of England’s daughter from imprisonment. As he begins his journey, he meets the requisite mysterious stranger who tells him to get the king to give him a ship filled with cheese rinds, bread crumbs, and carrion. The ship then travels to three islands, each of which is inhabited solely by one kind of animal (rats, ants, and vultures), and each of which is entirely lacking one of these very specific items. The animals are mad with desire to have the items, and because money has entirely dropped out of this tale by now, they “purchase” them by agreeing to do a favor for the young man in the future. As the tale continues, the young man is faced with three tasks, each of which is impossible for a human to complete, but can be easily accomplished by the animals who are indebted to him.

I like this story, not just because it’s fun, but also because it’s a perfect example of a place where we might expect to see monetary exchange enter a tale, but we get this alternate kind of exchange instead. This exchange, of one item that fulfills a precise need for another item that fulfills a precise need, seems to me to mirror what Simmel says about the limits of money’s capabilities as an infinitely exchangeable item.

In relation to certain objects [money’s] exchangeability fails, not only because other possessions cannot give us the same degree of happiness, but because the sense of value is tied to this individual object, and not to happiness, the provision of which the object shares with other objects.… We often value the individual thing because we want exactly this and nothing else, even though something else would perhaps give us the same or even a greater amount of satisfaction. A high degree of sensitivity distinguishes very precisely between the amount of satisfaction that a certain possession provides, through which it becomes comparable and exchangeable with other possessions, and those specific qualities beyond its eudaeomonistic effects which may make it just as valuable to us and in that respect completely irreplaceable.

A final fairy tale worth thinking about in this column is a tale with the promising title, “Money Can Do Everything.” In this tale a young nobleman who is “richer than cream” builds a glorious palace across from the King’s less glorious one. He emblazons the palace with the motto “Money can do everything.” The king, enraged, tells the nobleman he has to prove it—he must either find a way to speak to the king’s completely inaccessible young daughter, or he’ll be beheaded. This sounds like the setup for a perfectly ordinary financial transaction. If I were the young man, I’d bribe some guards, or pay a guy who can pick locks, or engage a small staff of people to help solve this problem for me. Actually, what I’d do first is offer to give the king my glorious palace and all my wealth if he’d let me speak to his daughter. I suspect that would do it. Instead, our young nobleman despairs until his former nurse runs out, has a silversmith create a giant silver swan, puts the young man inside it, and tells him to play his violin. Charmed by the novelty item, the princess demands to have the swan brought to her. She and the nobleman speak, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

There’s a lot of room for argument here about what and who, precisely, deserve the credit for saving the nobleman’s life and winning the princess. It may be his former nurse, whose ingenuity and impressive shopping skills save the day. It may be the money, which is the instrument that enables her to do the shopping. But it’s certainly not the young nobleman, who believes that money can do anything. He spends all his time whining. It’s clear, though, that yet again we’re in a world where—even with an abundance of money, and even in a tale that’s all about the praise of (as the king says) money and a fine head—money doesn’t work the way we expect it to. The nobleman cannot just buy the princess outright. That violates the fairy tale’s need for specificity. Anyone can throw money around. The winning of the princess must be accomplished through serendipitous means—more like the exchange of cheese rinds for a future favor from the rats. And so we get the silver swan, and the violin, and the classic fairy tale figure of the clever, devoted servant.

It rings a little hollow here, though, because for me, this is a tale that can’t decide what it is. It wants to take the form of a traditional fairy tale. It wants to follow the rules, but the young man’s wealth is so overwhelming that—when you look past the ornamentation of the swan, violin, and nurse—money really does solve his problem. He’s just not bright enough to come up with the answer on his own. What we see in this tale is a moment when, rather than being opposed to the magic world of fairy tales, money becomes a part of it. Here, money enables the magic. The nobleman doesn’t have to be as poor as Jack in order to be a hero. He has to use his wealth correctly … or trust his nurse to use it correctly. The jeweler is bribed to make the silver swan overnight. The silver swan is made of silver from the nobleman’s treasure chest. Direct exchange of cold, hard cash for the right to speak to the princess is still unacceptably commercial for the fairy tale world, but if that cash is transformed into something whimsical and romantic, something that creates the sort of “eudaeomonistic” effect that Simmel mentions, then, even in a fairy tale, money can do everything.