What Fairy Tales Really Mean

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.

 

The first edition in English of Grimm's Fairy Tales--Popular German Stories, 1823.
The first edition in English of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Popular German Stories, 1823.

 

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!

 

An illustration from the first edition in English. Note the copious beheadings.
An illustration from the first edition in English of Grimm. Note the copious beheadings.

 

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, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1909.

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.”

 

Cinderella, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1909.

Cinderella

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.”

 

Snow White, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1909.

Snow White

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, illustrated by Anne Anderson, 1935.

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.

 

Bluebeard, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1933.

Bluebeard

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, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1909.

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).

 

Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Arthur Rackham, 1909.
Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Arthur Rackham, 1909.

 

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.

 

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20 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Fecteau says:

    Do you think that they serve a dual purpose? That is, perhaps an avenue to carry history in a way that is easily remembered. It seemed to work well for nursery rhymes also.

    1. Perhaps, though I’m inclined to think that’s more the role of mythology than fairy tales, that the history fairy tales preserve is more accidental.

  2. Tim Cole says:

    Gee! You mean Disney made changes to the stories to make them cute? Oh, right…. 😉

  3. annathrax says:

    I’m a bit crushed now! Lol.

  4. plainswalkerhu@hotmail.com says:

    I wonderfully enlightening article! If I may be so bold, why not turn this topic into a series as you’ve done with numerous other topics?

    -J

  5. Dave Needham says:

    The Grimm’s themselves edited their fairy tales to clean them up over decades. English translators and subsequent publishers continued to edit the tales, often delegating them solely for the children’s book market. I’m lucky to have two books: Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Clarissa P. Estes in 1999 which addresses the translation and editing of Grimm’s tales; and also the book The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim in 1976, about the meaning and importance of fairy tales.

    1. Thanks for the note! Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment is a foundational text and I would recommend it to anyone.

  6. bhuwanchand says:

    I am rediscovering the fairy tales while searching for the bed-time stories for our kids. I agree with you that their relevance helps in their continued popularity. They are open to diverse interpretations, love the TV series Once Upon A Time which gives them some more contemporary twists. More than the tv series I enjoy a podcast which tries to explore the religious messages in the fairy tales.

    1. Thanks for this. Thank goodness fairy tales can be reinterpreted for changing times. I quite love Angela Carter’s feminist reinterpretations.

  7. ka says:

    All true, except for Red Riding Hood, which is very ungrimmlike, being french.
    Yes, a survival tale… told by the rapist.

    1. Thanks for the note! I did not actually mean to imply that my examples all came from Grimm. (The Grimm anecdote was meant more as a concept-teaser.) Beauty and the Beast is originally French as well, and Bluebeard actually never featured in the Grimms’ tales at all.

    2. Dave Needham says:

      To pursue a book thread, seek William Caxton who translated and printed many French tales into English during the 15th century. But for Caxton, we might not know these tales today. As for children’s tales, see the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau, titled “La Belle et la Bête,” Beauty and the Beast. Not a children’s film, and it’s in French, but available with English subtitles. I’ve showed it to adult friends and my own children, All loved it.

      1. Caxton’s influence and importance cannot be overestimated, I think. I’m certain I’ll do a blog post on him eventually. Thanks!

  8. Lauren Craig says:

    So been there. A few others to think of are Sleeping Beauty and Little Mermaid. You hear about this and then you fully realize what a genius Walt Disney really was.

  9. Nathan Eldred says:

    You left out Jungian interpretations

    1. I left out a lot of things! It’s tough to keep posts short enough to be digestible, but not so short that one has oversimplified everything. I hope I communicated at least that this post was meant only as a very basic introduction to the academic study of fairy tales.

  10. awax1217 says:

    I always enjoyed the three pigs. I wrote a blog on it. The wolf eats the first two pigs. Then the third pig gets the wolf to come down the fireplace, cooks him and eats him. To my knowledge he is also eating his brothers. Talk about cannabilism.

  11. lauraeflores says:

    I picked a copy of Grimm’s stories in high school as I loved fairytales. At home you could hear me mumble and occasionally yell “oh my god!”, “jesus!” as I kept discovering various ways of disfiguring a human body and dying. I still love reading them though, despite the goreness of some of them.

  12. kat says:

    Cinderella (Ashputtle). Explicit meaning is literal meaning. Implicit meaning is the one you assign.

    The deeper psychological meaning is the redemption tale of ONE psyche with different parts. In this psyche the proper nurturing figure (mother) is replaced by a horrible, false inner valuing principle (think self doubt, criticism, hatred) that values the ‘cool’ false persona front (the step sisters – not the true self) over the true self.

    Ashputtle represents the true self and is devalued, hidden away, mocked and dirty. The spirit of the true nurturing and recognition of value (the real mother) are the two birds who throw down gifts to the true self who attempts to become a whole person thru union with the divine royal male aspects of the self.

    The step mother tells the sisters that they will not need their feet when they are queen (the dominant persona) so parts of their basic structure, their feet, are cut away. But the birds warn the prince and the true self prevails and becomes a whole persona. In the end the two cool but false personas are blinded and basically decommissioned.

  13. Saul Jimenez says:

    I still remember in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Doll’s house volume, when Fiddler’s green tells Perrault’s Red riding hood to Rose Walker. Truly scary.
    After reading your comment and taking in account your conclusion on the educational purpose of the fairy tales, I only see advices for women to survive this world (But Hansel, the rest of the protagonists are women) Apparently there is no hope for men, ha, ha, …

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