I have recently finished reading Marina Warner’s Once Upon A Time A Short History of Fairy Tale. I wasn’t as bowled over as many critics, but it did set me thinking about what is a fascinating topic. Warner examines what fairy tales are, where they come from and what they mean. They provide a window into attitudes to morality, sexuality, and society. Fairy tales belong to the larger genre of folklore that also encompasses folktales, legends and myths. These stories of evil stepmothers, wicked queens, dark curses, frightening ogres, little mermaids, fairy godmothers, beautiful princesses and Prince Charmings have enchanted readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression “fairy tale” back to 1635, it
was the French writer Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy who popularised the term with her “Les Contes des Fées” in 1697. There is a controversy among folklorists about whether to define a “fairy” as distinct from a “folk” tale. Nevertheless, they do agree that the presence of fairies is not required, but they do usually contain some type of magical element. Curiously, the opening words “Once upon a time” are actually older, dating back to at least the 14th century.
Only in the mid-19th century did fairy tales become associated with children. The original versions, however, could be rather gruesome. In the first Grimm Brothers’ version, Little Red Riding Hood is only able to escape when a woodcutter frees her and her grandma by slitting open the wolf’s belly. And in their 1812 version of Snow White it is her jealous mother (not her stepmother) who wants to kill her. She is forced to attend Snow White’s wedding wearing red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead. In one telling of Goldilocks And The Three Bears the golden-haired girl ends up impaled on the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some early versions of Cinderella have one of the Ugly Sisters hacking her toes off to make the glass slipper fit her foot. In Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 story, Pinocchio falls asleep in front of the fire and his feet burn off. He had previously killed the cricket with a wooden mallet. After being turned into a donkey, he is tied to a rock and thrown over a cliff. This is just a small sample of the gratuitous violence in these stories.
What most intrigues me is the way academics have interpreted them. I am most interested in the psychoanalytical interpretation. I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to psychoanalysis. Bruno Bettelheim was considered one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century. The Viennese-born professor had an international reputation in such fields as autism, child psychiatry, and Freudian analysis. Bettelheim also had a cameo role as himself in Woody Allen’s Zelig. Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales was a study of fairy tales and their role in understanding childhood development. He argued that the child intuitively comprehended that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue. As a good Freudian, Bettelheim argues that fairy tales allow children to tackle problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries. Warner provides a couple of his interpretations:
All through ‘Little Red Cap’, in the title as in the girl’s name, the emphasis is on the colour red, which she openly wears. Red is the colour symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. The red velvet cap given by Grandmother to Little Red Cap thus can be viewed as a symbol of a premature transfer of sexual attractiveness, which is further accentuated by the grandmother’s being old and sick, too weak even to open a door … Little Red Cap’s danger is her budding sexuality, for which she is not yet emotionally mature enough.
However Cinderella may have felt about dwelling among the ashes, she knew that a person who lives thus appears to others as being dirty and uncouth. There are females who feel this way about their sexuality, and others who fear that males feel this way about it. That is why Cinderella made sure that the prince saw her in this state also before he chose her. By handing her the slipper to put her foot into, the prince symbolically expresses that he accepts her the way she is, dirty and degraded
Interestingly, after Bettelheim passed away, his academic credentials were found to have been falsified; he had only taken three introductory classes in psychology. He also plagiarised material for The Uses of Enchantment. But what was most serious was the abusive treatment of students at the Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children at the University of Chicago, where he was the director of from 1944 to 1973.
Fairy tales stories have also proved ripe for literary reinterpretation. I remember reading James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories more than 20 years. It still makes me laugh:
There once was a young person named Red Riding Hood who lived with her mother on the edge of a large wood. One day her mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother’s house — not because this was womyn’s work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community. Furthermore, her grandmother was not sick, but rather was in full physical and mental health and was fully capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.
So Red Riding Hood set off with her basket of food through the woods. Many people she knew believed that the forest was a foreboding and dangerous place and never set foot in it. Red Riding Hood, however, was confident . . .
On her way to Grandma’s house, Red Riding Hood was accosted by a Wolf, who asked her what was in her basket. She replied, “Some healthful snacks for my grandmother, who is certainly capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.”
The Wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.”
Red Riding Hood said, “I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid worldview. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”
Another of my favourites has to be The Guardian’s Cannes Lion Award-Winning “Three Little Pigs advert” from 2012:
And in her short story, The Company of Wolves, Angela Carter explored the sexual awakening of young women. Her Little Red Riding Hood character has become into a tale of female empowerment. She willingly takes the wolf to bed.
As well as Carter authors such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Roald Dahl and Gregory Maguire have all been inspired by fairy tales. But they are all surely surpassed by Amelia Hamilton:
…The wolf leaned in, jaws open wide, then stopped suddenly. Those big ears heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun’s safety being clicked off. Those big eyes looked down and saw that grandma had a scattergun aimed right at him. He realized that Grandmother hadn’t been backing away from him; she had been moving towards her shotgun to protect herself and her home.
“I don’t think I’ll be eaten today,” said Grandma, “and you won’t be eating anyone again.” Grandma kept her gun trained on the wolf, who was too scared to move. Before long, he heard a familiar voice call “Grandmother, I’m here!” Red peeked her head in the door. The wolf couldn’t believe his luck—he had come across two capable ladies in the same day, and they were related! Oh, how he hated when families learned how to protect themselves.
If you hadn’t realised, this story written by the conservative blogger Hamilton appears on the NRA blog. As we can see fairy tales are very much alive. I am sure they will be providing inspiration for many years to come.