Friday, July 25, 2014

More on Witches; Or, Possible Drug Use in Fairy Tales

Although we can only speculate as to the intentions and beliefs of older cultures who told fairy tales, we do know that fear of witches and werewolves were widespread for many years in parts of Europe and America. I had mentioned earlier that the reason most of these supposed witches and werewolves confessed was because they were tortured until they did so; but I came across another theory.
Belladonna leaves

Some people think witches used the plant belladonna. Lethal in large doses, in smaller doses it causes hallucinations, and especially in combination with other plants such as opium makes a flying ointment that makes you feel like you're floating through the air. Witches would use the ointment before flying on their brooms-traditional witch folklore holds that they would fly at night to their festivals/pagan sacrifices/Witches' Dances.
Goya-1799
18th century

You can read more on wikipedia, or this interesting article. The links also shed light on why witchcraft was associated with women specifically-for example, the flying ointment was given to women in childbirth to dull the pain. There are some other reasons I won't go into because it gets a little sketchy for blog material, but feel free to follow the links...
Maxfield Parrish

Also reminds me of reading about toad licking in association with "Frog Prince". Another way to get psychadelic visions, some people think this phenomenon could have led to the image of kissing a frog and seeing a handsome prince where none was before; however, the kissing scene of Frog Prince is only a recent phenomenon. But it still may account for the presence of frogs in fairy tales as transformative animals. By the way, be sure to check out The Case of the Missing Kiss over on Quill and qwerty if you haven't already-a very interesting and well-researched look into Frog Prince tales and the addition of the kiss, as opposed to throwing the slimy animal against a wall.
William Robert Symonds


This was going through my head the whole time I wrote this post...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Know You're a Fairy Tale Blogger When-Update


It's been pretty great to see this thread going around the internet! Since my post You Know You're a Fairy Tale Blogger When... was the beginning of the chain, you may be interested to see the lists of other fantastic fairy tale bloggers (add maybe add some to your blogroll! I confess I wasn't aware of several of these bloggers before-all the more reason to be glad this chain started!):

Gypsy-Once Upon a Blog
Heidi-SurLaLune
Adam-Fairy Tale Fandom
Tahlia-Diamonds and Toads
Kate-Enchanted Conversation
Kristina-Twice Upon a Time
Australian Fairy Tale Society
Christie-Spinning Straw Into Gold
Megan-The Dark Forest
Cate-Something to Read for the Train

Next up:
Amy-The Fairy Tale Factory

Blending truth with humor, I fully enjoyed reading everyone's lists :) We are indeed a unique group of people...but this is why blogging is so great! Getting to know other people with the same quirky interests as you and having discussions you could never have with most family and friends! Special thanks to Gypsy for creating the header and helping to organize the contributors :)

If anybody else would like to participate, I officially tag you! I love hearing stories of how fairy tales interact with us in our daily lives!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Other Danish Mermaid Tales

Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" is the most well-known Danish mermaid tale, although that was based on literary French stories. So it's interesting to compare this famous story with other tales that have been recorded around the same time. These are from Surlalune's Mermaid and other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World book.

"Agnete and the Merman" by Jens Baggesen is a creepy and tragic tale. It tells of a merman who comes from the sea, professing his deep love for the human Agnete (a gender reversal of the Melusine/Undine/Little Mermaid stories). She loves him too and agrees to go down into the sea with him; they live for two years happily and she bears him two sons.
Margaret Tarrant

But Agnete hears church bells coming from land and desires to go back; she promises her husband to return by morning. She follows the midnight church bells and sees her mother. Her mother pleads with her to come back to land; she has abandoned not only her parents by joining the merman, but her two human daughters. Agnete claims she must go back to her new family, but then she is told that her father, after searching for her in vain, killed himself; the church bells she had heard were for his funeral. She then turns around and sees her mother's name on a grave-time passes differently under the sea (as it often does in Faerie) and the conversation with her mother was either with her ghost or vision from the past.

The poem "Agnes" by Adam Gottlob Oehlenschlager is essentially the same story with some minor differences, Agnes stays underwater 8 years and bears 7 children instead of two; she does not encounter her parents' funerals or tombstones but seems to die randomly after returning to the surface.
W. Heath Robinson

There were different versions of this old Danish ballad floating around, even Andersen himself had written a version of Agnete and Merman earlier in his life.

Another mermaid story, "The Mermaid's Prophecy," illustrates a mermaid that was captured by the King and Queen to tell their fortune. Unfortunately for the Royal couple, the Queen's death is predicted.
Arthur Rackham

It seems that a vast majority of folk mermaid tales are tragic. In romances, they center on lovers from two different worlds, and whether the maiden was originally human or from the sea (as in selkie stories), whether she actually loves her husband from a new land or not, she tends to inevitably feel the pull back to her original home.

Other non-romance tales focus on the supernatural abilities of mermaids. Not all of these are tragic-there is a humorous tale from Denmark called "Hans, the Mermaid's Son." The offspring of a mermaid with a human has super strength and ventures onto land to find work. He is disliked for his odd ways and how effortly he shows up the workers around him; his boss keeps trying to kill him off. Yet the mermaid's son is ignorant of all these attempts to hurt or kill him; he is so strong he is practically immune to their tricks. The story is similar to many fairy tales of the simple, yet kind-hearted fool who ends up victorious-in the end he makes sure everyone around him has plenty of riches, and being tired of living among mortals, goes back to the sea.
Edmund Dulac

When you compare these and other mermaid tales to "Little Mermaid" and the other literary tales of the time, you notice that the mermaids of lore who are so otherwordly and powerful have been reduced to foolishly lovesick teenagers. Yet while many see this as mysoginist, Andersen himself identified with the Little Mermaid, as have many others, male and female (such as Zemlinsky the composer), who experienced non-requited love. While most people today are shocked at the tragic ending, that part is actually the most consistent with traditional mermaid tales.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Richard Dawkins on Fairy Tales

I had almost missed this post over on Surlalune, so make sure you read it if you haven't already: the fairy tale community responded to Richard Dawkins' statement that fairy tales could be detrimental to children. Hop on over to the post to read more about what he actually said (and his later amendment), and the fairy tale defenders discussing their worth-all very interesting stuff. I've partly addressed the possible benefit of fairy tales/fantasy before, even from an intellectual perspective, in my post on what Einstein may have meant when he (supposedly) said "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

I just find it interesting that Dawkins assumed that children who read fairy tales automatically believe in them. I never believed fairy tales were true, what's more is in all my interactions with children I feel like I've never had to have a discussion with them about what's possible and impossible-they get that a pumpkin turning into a coach and fairies granting wishes is magic. I do think that, possibly, the difference between most children and most adults interacting with fairy tales is that children tend to want the fairy tales/magic to be true, but they can also be pretty shrewd/skeptical. We shouldn't underestimate children and their potential.

Furthermore, to equate fairy tales with Santa and with God is just illogical. Santa is a cultural myth-many parents go to great lengths to convince their kids that Santa is real, and when we throw in movies and mall Santas it's a completely different story than we have with fairy tales-except in rare cases no one is actively trying to provide their kids "proof" that Cinderella was at the ball or Snow White bit the apple.

And God is a whole other matter. You can find very intelligent scientists who believe in God or the possibility of God, bu you won't find any who believe in Santa Claus.

Plus, Dawkins seems to assume that anyone unveiling the "truth" about childhood beliefs will be damaged by that. I personally think that, when I read tales of magic and wonder, it often helps me appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation. I also talked a little about this in my post on Mermaid hoaxes.

Anyway, I'm curious as to how you all reacted with fairy tales when you were little. Did you/anyone in your acquaintance believe in fairies? Was there a moment of discovering the "truth" that affected you in any way?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Uninvited Fairy

People are still intrigued by the history of Maleficent, (which is wonderful!) and I myself was curious after reading more reviews about where the whole idea of an offended, uninvited fairy from Sleeping Beauty came from. It's frankly one of the reasons that Sleeping Beauty seems, to me, to be less powerful than the similar Snow White; the struggle for women who are told by culture and/or by specific people in their lives that their worth is due mainly to their beauty and sexual allure is something very prevalent for women today as well, and why I think it's important to ponder the witch's question to the mirror on the wall and the implications it carries for us today. In comparison, the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty seems petty, and the only conflict seems boiled down to etiquette.
Edward Frederick Brewtnall

Most older Sleeping Beauty tales did not have a slighted fairy who was not invited to a party; the Princess' fate was foretold but she was not spitefully cursed. It wasn't until Perrault's tale that the motif became associated with the tale. Perrault came from a world of class distinctions and court manners. In many cases he poked fun at the aristocracy in his tales. Given his propensity for satire, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't mean for the fairy's motivation to be taken so seriously.
Harry Clarke

Yet, the slighted fairy is not completely without precedent. From Kate Forsyth:
"The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War."

From Wikipedia:

in "chanson de geste Les Prouesses et faitz du noble Huon de Bordeaux: the elf-king Oberon appears only dwarfish in height, and explains to Huon that an angry fairy cursed him to that size at his christening."
Walter Crane

Yet these instances aren't from Sleeping Beauty tales. In one variant, The Glass Coffin, the curse was given by a traveler who was offended when the beautiful girl wouldn't marry him.

And despite its likely tongue-in-cheek flavor from Perrault, the idea of being rejected by society or left out by your friends is still not something to take lightly. What comes to your mind when you read the episode of the uninvited fairy?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Red Shoes Film

In my last post I discussed the Andersen fairy tale The Red Shoes, which has since been made into a ballet film. From 1948, it still has many fans and was a groundbreaking movie at the time.

From a fairy tale perspective, I think it's very interesting how the focus of the tale shifted from Andersen to Hollywood. Andersen's tale is clearly a morality story, cautioning young girls against disobedience, especially in the form of vanity; with the only cure being extreme piety.

When you transport the story into the ballet world, the emphasis on vanity almost becomes obsolete. The whole dance form is very unnatural and painful-to move in your legs in perfect turnout and dance on the tips of your toes is counter intuitive and requires years of disciplined training (and often bloody feet, which also hearkens back to several fairy tales). Yet this is also why ballet is so fascinating to watch, and why it goes perfectly with fantasy and fairy tale stories; the dancers really do appear otherworldly and fairy-like. In a world of painful shoes and impractical tutus, condemning a pair of shoes for being a certain color is hardly relevant.


The film centers around a dancer, Vicky, who is cast as the lead in a ballet based on the fairy tale "The Red Shoes." The summary from ImdbUnder the authoritarian rule of charismatic ballet impressario Boris Lermontov, his proteges realize the full promise of their talents, but at a price: utter devotion to their art and complete loyalty to Lermontov himself. Under his near-obsessive guidance, young ballerina Victoria Page is poised for superstardom, but earns Lermontov's scorn when she falls in love with Julian Craster, composer of "The Red Shoes," the ballet Lermontov is staging to showcase her talents. Vicky leaves the company and marries Craster, but still finds herself torn between Lermontov's demands and those of her heart.

Thus the conflict has gone from obedience/humility vs. vanity, to love vs. career. This dilemma is one that many modern people can relate to, and is also especially true of ballet, which is such a demanding career.

But the image of a pair of shoes that has a mind of its own, that is dangerous and can lead someone down a path that can destroy their life, is still present in both stories. Yet I think audiences of the movie tend to see the conflicts less of something that was Vicky's fault, and more of her being caught in a very difficult situation. We are intrigued by the creepy idea of shoes with a death wish, and so the fairy tale lives on, yet now in a story more appropriate for a culture that seeks a different form of morality.

Keeping the story and ballet relevent to more current audiences, the ballet was featured throughout season 2 of the Australian ballet t.v. show Dance Academy (available on Netflix Instant Play! In case you can't tell this is pretty much where I get all of my entertainment). As the main character preps the solo for an audition, we are told that what sets this excerpt apart from others is the need for the dancer to have emotional maturity-she needs to portray real grief as well as good technique. I'm not sure what real dancers think of this solo-is it really challenging? Do you really have to have more grief than most other solos? Many ballets have tragic storylines so I suspect this was something overemphasized for the sake of the show. However, it did bring the story to light for a new generation, as the fairy tale keeps being reimagined for an ever changing world.
Also, has anyone seen the 2005 Korean Red Shoes film? It has pretty good reviews but also seems REALLY dark.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Red Shoes in Fairy Tales and History

"The Red Shoes" is a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, one that really reveals his tendency to condemn a young girl, in this case for her vanity, and make her suffer incredible punishments that seem to far outweigh the crime.

Karen, the protagonist, struggles with vanity long before she even comes into contact with the fateful shoes. "People said that she was pretty. But the mirror told her, 'you are more than pretty-you are beautiful.' " A throwback to Snow White's evil Queen, perhaps, another vain character known to listen to her mirror?
"Mirror Mirror on the Wall"-P J Lynch
Karen chooses red shoes for her confirmation, causing everyone to stare at her shoes the whole time. She continues to wear them, despite how "improper" they are to wear to church. She is no longer able to focus, but thinks of her shoes the whole time-"she forgot to say the Psalm, forgot to say the Lord's Prayer."


The first time Karen danced a few steps in the shoes, she found she couldn't stop, until the shoes were removed. She still thinks about the shoes even when she isn't wearing them, and finally wears them to a ball. This time she starts dancing and can't stop. After dancing for days, past meadows and fields, she is condemned by an angel: “Dance you shall,” said he, “dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall, from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance—!”
Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen

She even passes a funeral for herself, and knows "she was forsaken by everyone and damned by the angel of God." Nothing can help her until she goes to the executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. Even the first time she tried to go to church again, the red shoes were still there, dancing on their own, and she had to repent of her sin.

After that she became the image of piety, "industrious and thoughtful," and when children "asked her about dress and grandeur and beauty she would shake her head." After living in humble piety for a while with her crutches, one day she is taken up to Heaven, "and no one was there who asked after the Red Shoes." (Italics part of the story, not my emphasis).
Anne Anderson

All that for a pair of shoes seems rather extreme, but wikipedia includes this pertinent background information: "Andersen explained the origins of the story in an incident he witnessed as a small child. By his report, his father was sent a piece of red silk by a rich lady customer, to make a pair of dancing slippers for her daughter. Using red leather along with the silk, he worked very carefully on the shoes, only to have the rich lady tell him they were trash. She said he had done nothing but spoil her silk. "In that case," he said, "I may as well spoil my leather too," and he cut up the shoes in front of her."

So Andersen may have had bitterness towards the rich more than towards women and girls especially. She originally wants red shoes because she sees a princess wearing them.
Katherine Cameron

This paper by Anastasia Yuanita sees the story as cautioning children more about obedience than vanity. Karen tricked her adopted mother into buying her red shoes, and wore them over and over again after being told not to. As far as we know, the princess in the beginning was never condemned for wearing her red shoes, so her sin could be idolizing the shoes more so than just wanting and wearing the shoes in and of themselves, good news for any of us who happen to own red shoes. Plus, extremely didactic tales enforcing children's obedience were pretty much the norm at the time.

However, when you look at this story in combination with Andersen's others, you really do start to notice a pattern. Inger of "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf" is given even more dire punishment. This girl is bad, cruel, and proud-even despite her poverty. In her vanity and foolishness, she uses a loaf of bread given to her to place in the mud to keep her shoes from getting dirty. For this she becomes a statue in the underworld, forced to hear the voices of people up above telling her tale as a warning against wickedness, and she wishes she had never been born, and that people had punished her more for her waywardness.
Arthur Rackham-shoeless Gerda

In contrast, the good heroine of "Snow Queen," Gerda,shows her devotion by throwing her red shoes, her "treasure," into the river. (Interestingly, although you can find illustrations of Gerda with and without shoes, I haven't found any pictures of her wearing those red shoes, has anyone else?)

I couldn't help but wonder how much of Andersen's attitude towards red shoes were universal, and how much was his own, so I did a little digging.

From BBC News: "In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict that only members of his court were allowed to wear red heels. In theory, all anyone in French society had to do to check whether someone was in favour with the king was to glance downwards. In practice, unauthorised, imitation heels were available."

Louis XIV's shoes in a portrait by Hyacinth Rigoud
  • Footwear facts
  • In Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries heels on shoes were always colored red. 
  • Six-inch-high heels were worn by the upper classes in seventeenth-century Europe. Two servants, one on either side, were needed to hold up the person wearing the high heels.
This lecture tells us that "woman in red" was basically a code name for "prostitute" in England and France in the nineteenth century. Prostitutes could also be identified simply from their dress-being overdressed according to cultural wardrobe norms. 

Yet, red shoes couldn't have been a universal symbol for wanton sexuality, especially (one would assume) if there were pairs available for little girls. Plus, in the Grimm's The Juniper Tree, when the brother is resurrected as a bird, he rewards his sister Marlene by bringing her a pair of red shoes from the shoemaker. Marlene is only represented as good and kind, and was thankful for the present.

In fact, I'm finding it difficult to research the importance of red shoes in nineteenth century Europe. It seems shoes of many different colors were fairly common, especially by the mid-1800s.
A pair of red shoes pictured among other colored shoes

People also associate Red Riding Hood's red cap with daring and/or sexual overtones, but she clearly wasn't the only little girl wearing the bold color, as this mid-nineteenth century fashion plate reveals

Dorothy's shoes were only changed from silver to red to show off MGM's brand new color filming
House of Harry Winston's Ruby Slippers-created from diamonds and rubies for the 50th anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz," these are supposedly the most expensive shoes in the world ($3 million)

And to bring it back to the Snow White reference at the beginning- if you missed it the first time, you should definitely check out Gypsy's post on the red-hot iron shoes Snow White's evil stepmother was forced to dance in. Here's the warning:
Warning:
This post is NOT for everyone.
It discusses historical torture methods.
Skip this if you have a sensitive stomach.

There are so many other fairy tales that deal with shoes in general, so I tried to keep this post limited to discussion of red shoes specifically (although you could also throw in the stepsisters from Cinderella-after putting their mutilated feet into Cinderella's slipper the trickling red blood is what tipped the Prince off to their deception). Any thoughts on the symbolism of red shoes in fairy tales, and/or historical facts about red shoes?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Censorship of Fairy Tales

You may have heard some news from a while back that a U.S. school banned "Little Red Riding Hood" because of the use of alcohol (in that it shows Red bringing wine to her grandmother). Apparently Sleeping Beauty has been banned at some point as well, for "promoting witchcraft and magic", and entire copies of Grimm's Fairy Tales as well.

One of the most ironic instances of banned books is Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," which is all about a future in which books are, by law, ordered to be burned. Bradbury has another short story with the same basic premise, "Usher II," in which two book-loving rebels decide to recreate many well known story plots in a nod to Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher." One of Bradbury's characters describes the philosophy of those who banned the books:

"Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 2006; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose-oh, what a wailing!-and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon a Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologist's Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry 'Curiouser and curiouser', and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!"
Image from here

I just find it interesting that this story deals with the banning of all books, not just fairy tales, but how Bradbury alludes so heavily to fairy tales and classic fantasy with all of his examples, when he could have mentioned any of the other wonderful, world-renowned works of literature that exist out there.

In general, we don't really have to worry too much about books being banned, thankfully. Even if a few schools or libraries ban certain books, there are plenty of other ways to get your hands on the same book, and frankly it probably just increases a student's desire to read the forbidden fruit.
Image supposedly from this page although I don't see it??

Yet remember that some forms of banning do occur, even supported by fairy tale lovers, and not without reason. You have to consider age and maturity appropriateness, as many fairy tales really can get quite dark. Many feminists would argue that we shouldn't tell our children the old fashioned versions of fairy tales in which the women are passive victims, in need of rescue by a man. Clarissa Pinkola Estes thinks we should keep anti-Semitic fairy tales out of copies of Grimms, except for those being used for research purposes.

But of course, there's so much room for debate. I completely agree that women should have equal rights and that repeated exposure to a certain stereotype can be damaging even at a subconscious level, and I absolutely believe that racism in any form is wrong. But many fairy tales were meant to be shocking because they were meant to get a point across-to be a voice for the voiceless. And we have to remember fairy tales are also products of history, from times when racism and chauvinism were rampant. It SHOULD be horrifying to imagine a father giving away his daughter to an animal in marriage, as in many Animal Bridegroom tales-because that's how many young girls saw their older, unwanted future husbands. The depths to which Hansel and Gretel's parents sank reflect the poverty many families endured. The "moral" of Bluebeard tells us just how ingrained in people's minds gender bias was. And as horrible as racism is, we can't pretend it didn't exist. Through seeing how dangerous and extreme it can get, it helps us to fight the racism that still exists today.


Again, it's a complicated issue and you have to use good judgement, but many controversial fairy tales can serve as a starting point for honest conversation for children who are ready to think about different issues maturely.

And here's the thing about fairy tales-even if we were to, in the future, become part of a society like Bradbury imagines in which books are banned, fairy tales are extremely resilient. For generations and generations they were passed down by word of mouth, and they are pretty much the only genre to have survived hundreds and hundreds of years in some form and yet still remain known and well-loved by the public (I think religious texts would be the only other thing to fit in this category?). Fairy tales have already survived, despite being looked down on by the upper class in certain cultures, and relegated to the nursery in others, and are clearly not going anywhere.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On Evil Stepmothers

Toshiaki Kato

One of the FAQs in fairy tales is, why is the stepmother always portrayed as evil? In the latest podcast from TabledFables, one of the speakers admitted that she even thought "stepmother" was a bad word when she was younger.

There are a few common answers to this issue that have been discussed here and elsewhere:

1. Often, the villain in older versions of the tale were actually the birth mother. It was considered less horrific for a stepmother to plot evil against the protagonist and the Grimms altered several stories.

2. Historically, women were much more likely to die in childbirth. Therefore, it wasn't that uncommon for men to remarry and two families to join together. Fairy tales might reflect, in exaggerated fashion, some of the tensions that arose. Especially when there was limited inheritance to go around, parents might be extra sensitive about protecting their children or assuming there would be bias from their spouse.

3. Sadly, it also shows tendancy towards gender bias-women are traditionally either passive, obedient, and good in fairy tales, or downright evil. Male characters, even those that transgress like Donkeyskin's father, usually escaped being punished.

I came across yet another way to think about it from Leslie Fiedler's introduction to Beyond the Looking Glass. The stereotypical image of fairy tales being told is an old woman entertaining a group of children. It wasn't always the case, but often fairy tales may have been told by grandmothers to their grandchildren. Especially if you consider the possibility of the teller being the paternal grandmother, you can start to see why their might be some bitterness towards the mother-who, to her, is a "supplanter", and why the fathers tend to get away without guilt.
Mother Goose image from here-artist??

Clearly this wouldn't apply to every scenario, but is an interesting way to think about it!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fairy Tales in Context: 20th Century America

"It is not always well to place
Unbounded Faith in Fairy Lore,
Believing that in every case
They all lived Happy evermore.

Stranger than Fiction though we deem
The Truth, it does not follow, too,
That Fairy Tales, because they seem
Still Stranger, must be still more True.

Far be it from me to assail
The Truthfulness of Fairy Writ,
But let us take a Well-Known Tale
And see what really came of it."
So begins the preface to the fairy tale parody "The Fairy Godmother-in-law" by Oliver Herford, which continues after Cinderella and the Prince get married. (Full text of the poem can be read here). From 1905, it challenges the ideas of love at first sight and happily ever after, even going into the complications of the fairy godmother making herself too much at home in the castle afterwards.

One of the issues I come across when looking into fairy tales is not understanding the context in which they were written.  It seems all the rage now to turn fairy tales "upside down"-turning heroes into villains and vice versa, and subverting the traditional stereotypes. In fact it can be difficult to find straight-up traditional fairy tales being created any more. Yet we seem to think this is a recent phenomenon, but questioning the old-fashioned ideals has been around for over a hundred years, as the above poem illustrates.

Take Disney for instance: so often people criticize the older Princess films for the passivity of the heroines, among other things. But on the other hand, as some people (including myself) have pointed out, when we consider the time period they were being made in (Snow White in the 30s, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the 50s), it's really not surprising. The world, and gender expectations, were very different back then. Consider: the nineteenth amendment, which gave women the right to vote, wasn't ratified until 1920-only 17 years before Snow White.

Yet the world was not completely constrained by traditions, even in the early 20th century. Jack Zipes points out that, to contrast to Snow White and her passivity and innocence, Tex Avery's independent and sexually liberated Red Riding Hood appeared right around the same time. Yet, though this Red is not afraid of the Wolf and can take care of herself, Catherine Orenstein thinks (and I agree) that the overall message is still a backwards one-that women's value is found mainly in sexual appeal. Plus, the culture at large reacted in different ways. Children would have seen it when they went to the cinema, but  parts of the film were censored, such as the wolf's lustful reactions to Red Rot Riding Hood performing.

The 1940s, the time of Rosie the Riveter and women patriotically leaving the home to do what was traditionally considered "men's work" for the sake of their country, interestingly produced no princess movies at Disney studios. In 1950 Cinderella made her appearance, followed by Sleeping Beauty in '56. The thing that is often hard for me to wrap my mind around is that, while some women did resent being reconfined to their homes after proving they could do other work, overall the country experienced a period where the ideal was traditional, domestic bliss. And really, I doubt if most of the women who worked in factories considered that to be their dream job, in addition to juggling raising kids as, essentially, single working moms. In a way it would have been nice to return to "normalcy". 


When I think of the most stereotypical and least liberated view of marriage, I picture the 50s housewife (in fact, read this for a very interesting interview with a 50s housewife and her reflecting on that time. It's much more complex than just "good" or "bad".) But is it any surprise that, in a time where American women were told it was their duty to obey their husbands, taking care of house and children, and it was the normal and acceptable thing to do, that females from Hollywood continued in their similar roles?
I was raised on reruns of "I Love Lucy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show". I still enjoy rewatching some of the Dick van Dyke episodes, but I was amazed to watch them later in life and see how they too promote the image that the wife should stay at home and obey her husband. Season 1, episode 5 of the Dick van Dyke show features a conflict in which somehow Rob's decision to go on a business trip or see his son in a school play turns into a debate between being independent or controlled by his wife, and it ends with him making a big speech about the man being the head of his household, to applause from the other businessmen in the airplane with him (this aired in 1961).

 But even though it seems incredibly backwards from our perspective, Van Dyke was actually making progress. The Lucy Show, which ran in the 50s, features a housewife who wants to be a performer but is foolish and completely incapable, truly needing a grounding, stable husband to get her out of all of her ridiculous messes. The famous chocolate scene is part of an episode which basically says that women are foolish for ever wanting to work outside of the home.
At least Laura Petrie, the wife in Van Dyke, was a capable mother who was actually a very successful dancer before she got married. Although multiple episodes enforce certain stereotypes (women should still stay home and take care of the family, women are insatiably curious) she is shown as more of an equal partner to her husband and not essentially another child who can't do anything right. Mary Tyler Moore went on to play an even more independent, working, single woman in the next decade in the Mary Tyler Moore show

The fact is, no matter how groundbreaking or progressive certain versions of fairy tales were in the first part of the century, from Oliver Herford in 1905 (who also did a parody of Sleeping Beauty, in which the Prince wants to be a poet but is so bad only he can put the Princess to sleep) to Tex Avery, to the collection of stories Peter Llewelyn Davies published in the 1934s, The Fairies Return-what most influences the public and our conception of fairy tales is what is mainstream.  Blockbuster movies and best-selling books reach the majority and create a picture of our culture, and reveal what we most want to pay for.

After "Sleeping Beauty", Disney studios went a while without producing any Princess films or fairy tales until "Little Mermaid" in 1989. I personally dislike the messages in this movie more than any other Disney, especially given the context and the original source, however, "Beauty and the Beast" in '91 brought a whole new wave of more feminist Princesses. And really it's been in recent years that Hollywood and Disney have brought us something new-subverted fairy tales in mainstream media. We now have sword-weilding Snow Whites, romantic wolves, mystery-solving Grimm descendants, and a whole mashup of fairy tale characters living in Storybrooke and continually challenging our preconceptions of old plots and characters.
And now, we have a recent string of Disney movies that continue to push boundaries-not of fairy tales in general, but of mainstream fairy tales; versions that will make significant impacts on how people view and think of fairy tales. Maybe a kiss isn't the ultimate act of true love; maybe villains are more complex and sympathetic than we thought. (We'll have to wait and see what message comes across from "Into the Woods" after the edits).

Context is very complex. Though we can generalize a culture, obviously not everyone thought exactly the same way. I can try reading as much as possible about an era but it's still not the same understanding as someone who lived through it. There are also a lot of mainstream parodies I could have mentioned which are more of a stepping stone to thinking about fairy tales in new ways, but being comical tends to make the audience not take it as seriously and/or actually enforces traditional messages by implying that it's funny to think of fairy tales in any other way.