Whenever someone discusses Fairy Tales, this is the quote that always jumps to my mind. Last weekend, I read an interesting post on Book Riot that got me thinking about it again. In the post, Morgan Jerkins talked about sanitizing fairy tales and how vehicles like Disney and publishers often “clean up” a story to make it more palatable to young children. For example, there’s nothing in the Disney movies about how Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilated their feet to try and fit into the slipper or how the little mermaid was asked to murder her paramour in order to keep her legs when her original bargain with the sea witch didn’t pan out. When Jerkins talks about omissions like these, she mentions that the original stories weren’t designed to entertain children, but simultaneously seems to look down up on the Disney-fied versions that most kids are exposed to.
As someone who grew up with access to both the Disney versions of fairy tales and a collection of the less-sanitized versions I have to say that the childhood me vastly preferred the Disney versions. The original fairy tales were, no pun intended, quite grim, but while I think I was profoundly altered for having read them (as is any reader who reads something powerful or memorable), I don’t remember them horrifying me. I wasn’t terrified of cannibalism after the witch tried to cook Hansel and Gretel for dinner and I still loved wolves even after the huntsman cut one open to rescue Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma. I particularly remember reading Andersen’s The Little Mermaid well before the movie first came out. The imagery of the mermaid being turned into seafoam when her deals with the witch went awry was a powerful one that has stuck with me even into adulthood, but not one that overshadowed my enjoyment of watching Ariel and Sebastian sing underwater.
Knowing fairy tales in any form can greatly enrich not only a reading experience, but the imaginative experience as well. Referring to Scheherazade may conjure up any or all of the stories from the 1001 Arabian Nights or it can refer to themes of magic and female heroism under pressure. Mentioning Cinderella may or may not make someone think of talking (and singing) mice, but it will most likely make them think of themes family discord. Snow White may or may not have a poisoned apple or glass coffin, but the themes of jealousy and innocence remain. As long as these tales remain embedded in our culture, the ideas that they bring forth in the mere mention of these stories can bring out new levels of understanding in any text. We owe it not only to our children, but to ourselves to perpetuate these stories in some form or other, if only to know what some other writers are talking about.
When I hear people talking about fairy tales, it’s often an either/or situation. One argument vilifies the sanitized versions for being too rosy or creating unrealistic expectations, particularly in young girls and believes that the original fairy tales will be lost, to our culture’s detriment. The opposite argument feels the original stories are too violent or disturbing for young readers and children should be exposed to more uplifting tales. Each argument has its merits and detractions. As a librarian, what I’m most concerned with is allowing people to express themselves in whatever way they choose. If someone interprets a story in a particular way, we should recognize and respect that as an artistic choice.
Here are some books (including a few personal favorites) that not only refer to fairy tales, but are the authors’ artistic expressions and explorations of them, developing surprising stories for some favorite characters and defying expectations of what these stories can be.
While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell
In this hauntingly beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty puts a much more realistic spin on the tale. In a medieval town plagued by smallpox, a young maid learns the trials and tribulations of life at large while she is fascinated by the courtesans she serves and their seemingly charmed lives inside the grand palace walls. After hearing her great-granddaughter recounting the tale of a young princess in a tower being awakened by a handsome prince, the aging maid’s memories of her young life return, and she tells the real story behind the legend, one that sheds light on what it truly takes to achieve “happily ever after.”
The Witch and other Tales Re-told by Jean Thompson
This collection of stories has been on my to-read list for a while, precisely because it seeks to illuminate alternate versions of commonly told, recognizable fairy tales. Focusing on the original tales’ abilities to capture our deeper, more primal fears, Thompson explores modern tales that “capture the magic and horror in everyday life” (goodreads.com)
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
This is the first in Meyer’s popular Lunar Chronicles series. It may not be for everyone, but this book is certainly a fascinating re-imagining on a traditional fairy tale. Cinder is a cyborg with a mysterious past and a stepmother who blames Cinder for her stepsister’s illness, but she may also be the only one who can save the humans and androids from a deadly plague that’s ravaging the earth. If you can’t get enough of the Lunar Chronicles, Meyer is obliging with more in the series continuing with Scarlett, then Cress and ending it with Winter, which will be out in November.
The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
This new title from Forsyth tells of a young woman, Dortchen Wild, in love. The person she’s in love with just happens to be Wilhelm Grimm. Amidst the tyranny of Napoleon Buonaparte who is trying to take over Europe, including the small German town in which she and Grimm live, Dortchen will tell Grimm wild tales that he’ll ultimately collect and will fuel his and his brother’s book of collected tales. This isn’t Forsyth’s first take on fairy tales, either. If you enjoy this book, you may also want to take a look at her take on Rapunzel in Bitter Greens.
Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one book by Gregory Maguire here, as he’s made a delightful career out of re-telling well-known tales, as he did in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In this novel Maguire weaves historical details and actual locations into fairy tales, while retaining some of the magic that the original tales possess. Set in the rolling hills of Tuscany during the height of the de Medici reign, a young Bianca de Nevada must seek refuge, and possibly salvation in the forests, away from her once-happy home. The lush, poetic prose in this book only makes me even more eager to see what his take will be on Wonderland in After Alice, which is due out this October.
Till next week, dear readers, I leave you in the capable hands of Albert Einstein: