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Fairy tales have evolved over time- narratives that were originally full of harrowing violence have been adapted into bedtime stories. As time goes on, more and more versions of each tale appear, in print or else on film. But why do we bother using the same tales? What is so special, exciting or important about the hundreds of iterations of Cinderella or Snow White?
Something about these tales is crucial to the childhoods of so many of us. If you’ve ever brought the topic up in conversation, you’ll likely know the overwhelming warmth generated- everyone seems to hold dear the memories of their mother’s bedtime stories, or the best Disney classic. In hindsight, informing people of the original versions of their favourite tale, with the Little Mermaid’s tragic death or the rape of Sleeping Beauty, may not always be a welcome addition to their precious childhood memories. However, it may allow us to question the nature of these plots, such as why they chose to leave Rapunzel’s pregnancy out of the movie.
Beginning research into these narratives can feel rather similar to stumbling through the dark forest so often mentioned within them- with so many tales, from all over the globe, spanning centuries, its easy to feel disorientated and overwhelmed. Many tales can be traced back, and often credited to, the Brothers Grimm. Some date back even further though. Perrault’s Tales from Mother Goose, for example, contains some very popular stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but also a few which have been seemingly lost in time. One such tale is Donkeyskin, about a king who wishes to marry the most beautiful woman in the land- who unfortunately happens to be his daughter. Whilst she does escape and eventually marries a prince before living happily ever after, it’s not entirely surprising that a father lusting after his daughter is not what parents want to read to their children. Or at least, we should hope not. It does suggest, however, that the acts of violence and sexual assault in the aforementioned stories that are still prevalent today was acceptable in the past, trickling down to children overtime, but even the suggestion of incest led to the abandonment of others. We can infer that the stories did incorporate these darker themes at one stage, as though children could hear about death but not more taboo topics. At what point did parents decide to eliminate the gore completely?
Of course, it would be scandalous to have such violent and mature scenes in movies aimed at children! Its an appalling thought. Except, these stories weren’t originally written for kids, they were actually merely entertainment meant for salons and drunken gatherings. The origins of your favourite light-hearted fable were likely dark and more akin to horror. Perhaps it would be better if, within reason, some of this content had remained true. Once upon a time, someone decided that they were going to recount the tragedy of Little Red Riding Hood’s death by wolf attack to their kids. Generations later we have the same tale told to our kids, with the same character who somehow survives now. While we can hardly start questioning the parenting styles of the past, it could be suggested that there was a point to the horror and gore of their renditions. Aspects of rape, violent murders and cannibalism were common features in these tales that were designed for adult entertainment. Yet they are now almost exclusively for children. Maybe this is because to a child, they aren’t just thrilling adventures, but also a reflection of inner conflicts they are experiencing.
Should we be scaring our kids a little more? It is possible for parents to hold a misplaced belief that violent materials lead to violent behaviour, which could make them understandably hesitant to expose their kids to flesh eating wolves and such. Some could argue that an aggressive story or video game can inspire younger people to act similarly, replicating the aggressive actions they’ve witnessed. However, it’s important to realise that the characters who actually suffer in fairy tales are the villains. For example, in one traditional telling of Cinderella, the cruel step sisters cut their toes off to fit in the shoe, after which birds pluck out their eyes. As punishment for their abuse, they end up blind beggars, whilst Cinderella lives a life of opulence. Its hardly surprising that very few children grow up wanting to be the sisters, preferring to imitate people they view as role models. By brutally punishing the villains it may help to discourage the kids from committing the same crimes and receiving the same punishments. Similarly, they see the heroes and heroines being rewarded for bravery, for facing their demons and destroying the villains of life, and they are encouraged to do the same. Personally, I have many memories of dressing up and throwing tea parties, but can’t recall ever trying to poison my sister.
Protecting our children has always been a major concern for parents. In essence, quite a crucial aspect of being a parent is to keep your child alive and well. All the gifts and socialising, the schools and education, they don’t really matter if your child is, for want of a less extreme example, dead. Stories have been, and often still are, an excellent source of protection. Cautionary tales use fantastical villains to illustrate and warn of real dangers. Once example hails from Nigeria, a folktale that tells of a mother who, despite her efforts, fails to stop her child from drowning. As the tale goes this woman couldn’t stand to remain a childless mother and is constantly searching for a new child to replace her own. Essentially, the story scares children away from water sources and wells in which they could get hurt, or else ‘Mami Wata’ will reach out and drag them in. To children this is terrifying. No, it isn’t enjoyable to be scared, but they are discouraged from endangering themselves. In the minds of children, gullible and innocent, these tales can quickly become a pseudo-reality. Of course, they would rather hear about a woman in the dangerous wells that gives away sweets, but that wouldn’t quite produce the intended effect.
An interesting reading of fairy tales is that they tend to include one or more of the seven deadly sins; which all threaten a child’s ability to form lasting relationships. Most versions of Cinderella, for example, explore the destruction caused by envy. From Snow White and her vanity, to gluttony in Hansel and Gretel, they often centralise around a predisposition in the self. If you visualise the villains in fairy tales as personification for a sin or social issue, it makes sense that they had to die gruesome deaths to be resolved and to cleanse the main characters. In turn, this means that as the villains dies, it represents the ability to overcome social issues or ‘sinful’ actions.
Despite the obvious fear that would be evoked from an evil queen dancing in red hot shoes until she dropped dead, or a witch burning to death in an oven, the issues that underlie each plot can hold a deeper significance. Abandonment is, perhaps, one of the biggest and most widespread fears. To be forced into isolation, especially when so defenceless can affect us even into adulthood. Fairy tales often place characters in isolated situations, against villains who embody negative aspects of us. Most problems arise for our hero or heroine when they are alone, and the evil is a reflection of a child’s potential sins. This way a child can see the negative outcome of indulging in these activities.
People struggle with the potential for good and bad within themselves. Without delving too deep into the philosophy of the human condition and what is fundamentally ‘good’, lets assume that all humans have the capacity to act however they wish and therefore affect those around them. Fairy tales take potentially negative actions and ideas and portray them as villains. When they are destroyed viciously by the end, it shows children the power of the ‘good’ self. In Hansel and Gretel the witch is gluttony, planning to eat the children as punishment for eating her house. In Snow White the stepmother is vanity, obsessed with being the ‘fairest of all’, and willing to murder to get there. Heroic characters in fairy tales also start out quite ordinary, making them easy to relate to. Like children, the characters succumb to temptation. Snow White is repeatedly warned not to open the door and allow strangers in, Red Riding Hood is told not to stray or talk to strangers and Hansel and Gretel continue eating the witch’s house even after they are full. Even royal characters are easy to identify with, often reflecting the fantasies children have of power and being ‘special’. Eventually the child will be victorious, the heroes winning over the villains. Fairy tales always have a generally positive outcome for the characters that represent us. As soon as the villain is dead, everyone else gets a happily ever after.
Is it really necessary for the villains to die such aggressive and painful deaths though? While I’d argue that a little less coddling could benefit kids, and maybe the witch should die at the end, this in no way supports the idea of exposing toddlers to the entirety of each macabre death scene. I wouldn’t choose to read Goose Girl to my younger siblings, in which a maid takes the place of a princess to marry a prince in a faraway land. She forces the real princess into poverty, but the truth is eventually discovered by the Prince’s father. Of course, this doesn’t sound entirely absurd so far, even bares resemblance to other tales we know. However, he asks the imposter, still unaware that she has been caught, what the punishment should be for a maid who betrays her mistress. Her answer seals her own fate, saying they should be dragged through the streets in a barrel lined with sharp nails until dead. Was she really deserving of such a fate? Deceit is a strong feature of many fairy tales. The imposter lied about her identity, the Evil Queen lies about being a humble beggar woman to Snow White, and Puss in Boots creates an entirely new identity for his master. Changing identity plays a part in fantasy as much as reality, just as playing pretend (and forcing our family to join in) is common for children. They prepare themselves for adulthood by emulating the behaviours and appearances of adults around them. Death by barrel could therefore be a bit extreme, and should probably be reserved for the next horror blockbuster instead.
My conclusion is that fairy tales have been adapted over time, diluted into the mimsy bedtime stories they are today. That isn’t to say that fairy tales are all sugar coated. In many parts of the world, fairy tales are part of culture, used to warn children of dangers, Mami Wata for example. While Europe generally doesn’t utilise stories in the same way anymore, there is no legitimate reason for the extreme changes made to classic tales. If you invade a bear’s house and break their belongings, don’t expect to be invited to dinner- unless of course you are dinner. Some darker additions could be both beneficial and more interesting, but let’s remain within reason- its better err on the side of caution, stay more adventure/thriller than brutal horror. Disregard the potential aggravated response next time and tell your friends (or anyone else) what really happens in their favourite tale. A more sinister and exciting story, with higher stakes and greater penalties. They might even thank you for it.
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