Happily ever after: The magic of fairytales

Jetske19 via Flickr

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved fairy tales. And then, she grew up, as all little girls must do, and joined the real world. Well, sort of. Her love of fantasy and escapism never died, and luckily enough, she lived in a golden age of fairy tales for grown-ups.

The renaissance of fairy tales continues apace with big budget adaptations of Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood and Snow White all either planned or on the DVD shelf. So why do we love them so much? Surely in this age, devoid of romance and magic, fairy tales are completely irrelevant?

And as she grew up, the little girl realised that fairy tales were a lot darker and scarier than she ever thought…

When I was a child, I had a big book of fairy stories. This purple bound book with gold edged pages told he stories of The Little Mermaid, Red Riding Hood and Snow White in simple terms. Every story ended with “and they all lived happily ever after”. The same happened in every Disney movie. But of course, these are not the originals. The originals were never meant for children.

When I was about 9, I read Bluebeard, which had snuck its way in a general children’s story collection. (Bluebeard, if you haven’t read it, tells the story of a young girl who marries a serial killer). I was far less horrified by it then than I am now. I told my mother about it, and she, being of a different generation, told me that she grew up reading Grimm’s extremely gruesome originals. Her own favourite is Godfather Death, which is too long to summarise, but its essential message is that death cannot be escaped. Just like the Final Destination movies.

The wicked stepmother from Snow White

In college, we had a literary theory module where we learned about Propp’s structure for fairy tales. Propp was a Russian collector who figured that the structure of every fairy-tale could be told in a series of motifs and steps. For the first time, I began to think of fairy tales in a different light. Our lecture had a vehement dislike for Disney and its adaptations of tales into admittedly sugary confections. (Hello, Patricia Moran and the English Department at UL!)

The darker spirit evident in the newer adaptations of fairy tales is far closer to their original spirit. These stories were never meant for children’s ears; instead they were stories adults told each other, full of allegories for the darkest recesses of the human soul and mind. So while I love cuddling up with the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, here are some those with a darker disposition might like:

  1. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of unnerving adaptations of popular fairy tales, featuring violence and lots, and lots, of sex, bestiality and rape. Without making myself sound like a complete deviant, this collection is just bonkers and brilliant. While a lot of Carter’s novels took things a little too far, the form of the fairy tale was perfect for her dark outlook. She also collected folktales- see Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales.
  2. The original Grimms, if you can hack the gore (for example, originally Snow White’s stepmother was forced to dance on red hot coals until she dropped dead). Even sweet old Hans Christian Anderson had his moments. The Little Mermaid faced excruciating pain from her new legs, and the Prince married someone else anyway. And so, she is dissolved into sea foam, having to do 300 years’ worth of good deeds in order to gain a soul. Every time a child cries, she gets an extra day on her sentence-per teardrop. And children cry a lot. Poor Ariel, no wonder Disney left that out.
  3. British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman looks at a lot of myths and legends in his work- his Sandman comic series for example, was peopled with all sorts of supernaturals. His novel Stardust, which was adapted into a great film in 2007, told a non-traditional fairy tale. However, two of the stories in his collection,Smoke and Mirrors, adapt two traditional fairy tales. The White Road is a version of the incredibly gruesome English story Mr Fox, and Snow, Glass, Apples is a highly disturbing version of Snow White. You’ll never look at the story in the same way again.
  4. Our own John Connolly writes a lot of supernatural tales, and his novel The Book of Lost Things is about a young boy whose family believe to be missing, when he is in fact trapped in a nightmarish fairy tale world.
  5. Not dark in the least, but the original Shrek movie is a funny, heart-warming reversal of many fairy-tale themes.

So the little girl realised that if she wanted to read more and more fairy tales, she could. And she lived happily ever after. 

This article appeared on Studenty.me on May 9 2012. 

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