It’s a literary rite of passage. You finally pick up a copy of the original, unabridged Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And you’re horrified.
Cinderella’s stepmother orders one daughter to cut off her toe so she can fit into the coveted unretrieved shoe. Rapunzel’s prince is forced to jump from the tower, and gashes his eyes out on thorns upon landing. Snow White’s stepmother orders the heroine’s execution when the girl is only seven years old, and requires evidence of the deed via the girl’s lungs and liver.
These tales weren’t what you thought they were!
Here’s more news. They never were. You thought perhaps they were simple stories told to entertain children? In fact, fairy tales have a very practical and serious purpose.
Fairy tales are basic instructions on survival and civilization, put into a format that will allow them to be shared as widely and often as possible: the entertaining story.
To illustrate this point, I’ve made a quick list of some of the most popular fairy tales and what they really mean. Of course many interpretations of a literary work can be simultaneously valid, and the particulars of a single fairy tale may change (thus changing the message). But here are some basics to give you a taste, cribbed from renowned fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes:
Little Red Riding Hood
The story: A young girl walks through the woods to visit her grandma. She and her grandma (in many incarnations) are tracked down and eaten by a wolf.
What the story is really about: “’Little Red Riding Hood’ is a tale about rape and the survival or non-survival of a rape victim. It is a tale about predators and how to deal with them.”
The story: After her father dies, a young woman is turned into a slave by her stepmother and stepsisters, ultimately overcoming them by marrying way above her station.
What the story is really about: “Its primary theme concerns child abandonment and abuse.” This fairy tale has been particularly contagious because “it was addressing issues of child abandonment, family legacy, sibling rivalry, and parental love.”
The story: After her father dies, a young girl’s stepmother becomes jealous of the younger girl’s beauty. The girl escapes her stepmother multiple times with the help of friends, though is generally in the end felled by a poison apple. In most incarnations a prince is available to bring her back to life.
What the story is really about: Darwinian competition and selection. Snow White is “marked by the manner in which females cope with one another to select or attract a [worthy] male.”
Beauty and the Beast
The story: To get her father out of a bind, a young woman begins living with a beast, with whom she eventually falls in love.
What the story is really about: A woman’s rite of passage at coming of age, though often with an emphasis on submission to male authority figures as the key to success.
The story: A wealthy aristocrat marries a woman, whisks her away to his chateau, and forbids her to enter a specific room. Naturally, she does, and discovers the tortured bodies of his former wives. In most incarnations, before Bluebeard is able to punish his wife for the transgression, her family kills him.
What the story is really about: Two interpretations here. Maria Tatar says, “it stands virtually alone among our canonical fairy tales in a negation of a ‘happily ever after’ ending. It gives an up-close-and-personal view of marriage, confirming everything we didn’t want to know.”
Alternatively, to Zipes it is about “the miscalculation of male power and…male anxiety about the potential encroachment of women on this power.”
Hansel and Gretel
The story: Two children of a starving family are lost in the woods, generally at the connivance of their stepmother. They stumble upon a house of candy, and fall into the clutches of its owner, an evil witch who fattens them up to eat them. The children are able to escape by throwing the witch herself into the oven.
What the story is really about: The “consequences of hunger in poor families, the trauma of abandonment… [and] survival.”
*Note each fairy tale’s image comes from the 1909 first edition of Arthur Rackham’s illustrated Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, with the exception of the Beauty and the Beast (Anne Anderson, 1935, which I love) and Bluebeard (a later Rackham work, 1933).
These tales remain popular today not because they are the most interesting or entertaining (though these traits will help their longevity). The fairy tales that “stick” are the ones that treat problems we have not been able to resolve yet in our society. What a fairy tale does more efficiently than any other genre of storytelling is, according to Zipes, “represent basic human dilemmas in tangible metaphorical forms that reflect how difficult it is for us to curb basic instincts.”
For the folklorists out there, you know this is only the tip of the iceberg. For the rest, if this post intrigued you, I recommend picking up Jack Zipes’ Why Fairy Tales Stick for a basic primer of fairy tales’ importance, evolution, and interpretation. And just in case you think this applies only to the fantastic tales of the past, I leave you with this last thought from Zipes:
Let us not delude ourselves: every fairy tale and every work of fantasy written and published in our times is a metaphorical reflection about real conditions in our own societies.