Whether it’s thanks to or in spite of Disney, fairy tales continue to be part of our collective, public consciousness. Many parents will still read versions of fairy tales to their children if they don’t actually recite them. I have memories of falling asleep while my parents held a party in the other room. One of their friends would come in and tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The second and third times I listened politely but still thought, “Gee, doesn’t this guy know any other stories?” And, like most of us, I grew up with Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, not to mention other versions of either the same stories or other ones, such as Tom Tichenor’s marionette version of Mother Holle, and Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theater. I always enjoyed fairy tales but I never thought of there being any written-down versions of most of the tales I either saw in various versions or heard references to, including The Frog Prince, which Disney’s finally adapted. I don’t know why it took them so long. Maybe they had to figure out a way around some of the story’s sexual implications—but I’ll come back to that.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and started studying fairy tales seriously that I realized there were written versions of most tales. As a kid I thought the title of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was meant to be descriptive and not actually someone’s name—or even the name of two brothers, who started out studying linguistics and ended up writing down folk tales. And I never knew about Andrew Lang, who collected fairy tales in his series of colored Fairy Books, starting with Blue, Red, and Yellow, and eventually filling more than a dozen, including Grey, Violet, and Olive Fairy Books. Lang tends to be snubbed by most critics because, even though he thought of himself as an anthropologist, his versions weren’t traditionally collected, and he altered and bowdlerized stories, and his brilliant original fairy tale Prince Prigio is almost completely forgotten. And yet the Grimms also changed some stories, or even omitted stories they collected. And then there’s Charles Perrault who predates the Grimms and who, like Lang, altered stories for his audience, taking folk tales and retelling them in his own way. There’s a new English translation of Perrault’s The Complete Fairy Tales by Christopher Betts. In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Jamie James claims that Perrault’s work was “the collection that would have the widest and most lasting impact”. While it’s true Perrault did have an influence on the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Lang, and other collectors and retellers of fairy tales, while he did give us versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that we’d recognize, I think he has to be considered at least equal to the Grimms and the anonymous authors of the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Perrault gave us the modern version of Little Red Riding Hood, but our culture would still be so much poorer without Hansel and Gretel, not to mention Aladdin and his lamp.
It’s ironic that James makes such a claim after saying, “where the storytellers go, critics are right behind them, Rumpelstiltskins spinning ingenious interpretations out of every theoretical straw that floats by: Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Christian, feminist, postmodernist — you name it.” He goes on to say that,
Children are thrill addicts who relish imaginary gore — and have no interest in theories about why they do so. Only a child can hear the story of “Little Red Riding-Hood” and see it as a straightforward, “what happens next” narrative. We didn’t need Freud to tell us that there were powerful sexual currents in a story about a little girl who ends up in bed with a cross-dressing wolf, who amazes her with the prodigious size of various parts of his anatomy.
Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, James does seem to be dealing with a contradictory impulse many of us feel when it comes to fairy tales. On the one hand we want to read them as just stories, but on the other there’s a desire to understand them. For parents I think there’s a good reason: they want some reassurance that the stories of murder and stealing and danger are teaching their children the right lessons. Although she doesn’t talk about fairy tales, the whole premise of Alison Lurie’s book Don’t Tell The Grownups is that the best stories teach children that grownups are incompetent, untrustworthy, and that, to take one example, it’s more fun to be Peter Rabbit stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’ s garden than it is to be Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail who are good and only get blackberries, bread, and milk for supper. And Lurie assures us that these lessons are okay. Hopefully the kids who read about brave princes slaying ogres will be able to deal with the ogres they’re going to meet—and won’t become ogres themselves. And there’s sex in fairy tales as well as violence. Why is Rapunzel put in a tower by her stepmother if not to protect her virginity? When the frog turns into a prince it happens in the princess’s bedroom—although in the Grimms’ original version he’s transformed not by a kiss but when the princess throws him on the ground (or against a wall, depending on the translation). The story of the frog prince is, of course, all about growing up. The princess starts off selfish and immature, while the frog is noble and brave. There’s something to think about the next time you hear a woman ask how many frogs she’ll have to kiss before she finds one who turns into a prince. Disney’s version, in which the princess herself is turned into a frog, may be closer to the original than the way the story’s come to be interpreted. Anyone—male or female—who complains about kissing frogs might need to look in the mirror.
The fact that there are numerous bad parents in fairy tales—in one of Perrault’s stories, Hop o’ My Thumb, is very similar to Hansel and Gretel in that parents are unable to feed their children and abandon them in the woods. The abundance of parents who either abuse or abandon their children in fairy tales may serve several purposes. One is it assures parents that they’re pretty good parents, even if they have doubts. A parent reading a fairy tale can at least think, well, hey, I’m not abandoning my child in the woods. They can also serve as a warning to parents to be good. While the wicked mother in Disney’s version of Snow White is chased off a cliff, which is bad enough, in the original she’s forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. Finally the fact that the abandoned, abused, or kicked-out children survive and even thrive, overcoming obstacles on their own. This is meant, I think, as a reminder to parents that eventually their children will have to grow up and leave and also a reassurance that they’ll be okay—that they may even live happily ever after.