“And then Jack chopped down what was the world’s last beanstalk, adding murder and ecological terrorism to the theft, enticement, and trespass charges already mentioned, and all the giant’s children didn’t have a daddy anymore. But he got away with it and lived happily ever after, without so much as a guilty twinge about what he had done…which proves that you can be excused for just about anything if you are a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions.”
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
I have conflicting emotions about fairy stories. I remember as a child adoring the beautiful dresses of Cinderella, astounded at the black and blue of the Princess and the pea; but haunted by Struwwelpeter and the scissor man who snipped off the thumbs of children who sucked their fingers…..
Fairy tales are a strange invention. Having little real world basis; almost nonsensical. What seems broadly to define them is the oral tradition through which they have been created, modified and passed down. Many anonymously. To some they are an honest art form as they make no bones about their fictitiousness. In recent years fairy tales have been re-cast as powerful metaphors that have helped society through the ages make sense of the world. Perhaps we should re-habituate them as an offshoot of fables or religious texts where imbued gravitas motivates to live our lives with a distinct sense of right, wrong and camaraderie.
However stop a minute. Looking deeply into the ‘Disneyfication’ of these tales, paradoxically even as we reach a happy ever after (usually), murder, mis-treatment, death and poverty are glossed over on the journey. This might not be surprising as the origins of many of these tales are dark and gruesome. Time and cultural adoption has watered down and partially sanitised these tales for todays consumption. Why have societies felt the need to do this? I’m not sure. Could it be that our sense of the value of what a tale has to teach us has had to evolve with the morality of the day?
Much of the knowledge we have of fairy tales has been carried through time by word of mouth rather than pen and paper. The Brothers Grimm looked to save such stories from extinction by writing them down — for adults. These Grimm tales included Rapunzel and Snow White. As an aside, Hans Christian Anderson wrote original tales — The little match girl, The princess and the pea and The little mermaid amongst others. (He was to put it mildly, a tad strange; keeping a diary of when he used to masturbate).
Let’s go through the original and supplemental versions of a few tales so you can appreciate the shock and gore too….Thank you to abebooks.com for being a remarkable source of information.
Although modern day Cinderella was based on a Chinese story, when the tale first appeared in the West, Cinderella snaps her step mothers neck on the orders of her governess. Her governess then marries her father and turns Cinderella into a servant. In some versions Cinderella marries her prince fairly as is popularly known but what is less familiar is the Brothers Grimm version in which her sisters mutilate their feet in an attempt to fit into the slipper (that was not glass). The prince is alerted to this subterfuge by the eyes of the sisters being pecked out by birds, leaving them to live out their existence as blind beggars.
In Sleeping beauty, due to a curse, the princess is caught with a splinter and falls into a deep slumber from which she cannot be awakened. Her father sadly leaves her sleeping in the castle and departs (which seems a strange thing for a father to do?) A king from a nearby kingdom happens upon the castle and is so taken with the princess that (there is no easy way to put this) he rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Still asleep, she gives birth to two children who; whilst looking for milk; suck the splinter from her finger so awakening her. The king is delighted when he returns to visit. However, his queen discovers his treachery and in rage orders the babies to be cooked for his supper. She is scuppered by the cook who replaces the babies with a goat. The queen learning of this mis-fire, attempts to grapple the princess into a fire, but instead she is thrown in by her husband. He marries the princess and they live happily ever after.
In The little mermaid, the mermaid desperately wants to become human and have a soul. The only way to achieve this is if she is able to marry a man who loves her more than anything. If she fails then she will die, becoming sea foam. I’m not sure how I feel about sea foam being the remains of mermaids as I find it quite beautiful….anyway. She spies a prince on the shore and falls desperately for him, so setting her mind on its course. The little mermaid strikes a deal with a sea witch to gain legs in order to walk on land. The dreadful price for this transformation is her tongue which is cut out by the sea witch. Sadly, the prince falls for the mermaid but not so much in love. He marries someone else. The little mermaid contemplates murdering him but decides to end her life, turning herself into sea foam. Humph. She obviously hadn’t heard of feminism.
There are plenty of other origin stories with dark features. Rapunzel is made pregnant by the prince who finds her trapped in the tall tower. She is forced to live elsewhere and he is pushed by the witch into a thorn bush, losing his sight. Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents due to a lack of food. They find the gingerbread cottage (or a cottage formed of sweets) and ultimately are able to burn alive the witch who wanted to devour them. In Snow White the step mother asks to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver as proof of her death; a plot that fails. So much so that at her wedding to the prince, Snow White forces her step mother to dance in red hot shoes made of iron until she dies. And In a version of Little Red Riding Hood, Red works with the wolf to hatch a plan for him to eat her grandmother so she can take ownership of her grandmother’s property.
Today, fairy tales are widely prevalent across many genres. We use them to spark imagination but also as parables — for building up our sense of morality. So in the spirit of Curious Rascal, here is my modern day take on what we can learn. Please send me your wisdom as you know I’m trying to improve myself…..
- Jack and the magic beanstalk — whether it’s stealing depends on your point of view.
- Goldilocks — vagrancy is not a good look. Coveting something that someone else has is flattery — you just need to persuade them of that.
- Cinderella — do not be seen in the same outfit twice. The right shoes do matter (husbands take note!)
- Sleeping beauty — you can sleep your way to happy and wealthy.
- The ugly duckling — always take the chance to say ‘I told you so…’
- Rumpelstiltskin — cheating is ok if it’s for a good cause like yourself.
I’m sorry if I have ruined a source of solace or tranquil childhood memories. There was no reason for me to write this post other than a slightly macabre personality which if you are a regular reader of mine — you have too……