Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Don't Trust your Parents, Avoiding Murdering Anyone and Prepare for Anything

Fairy tales are all the rage of late, especially dark versions which are retold on film and TV -- Disney's Maleficent and ABC's Once Upon a Time being just the latest manifestations. Of course these tales are many times removed from their source material, primarily the European folk tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

There's no need to rail against modern reinterpretations of the classic fairy tales. In fact it's very much in the tradition to retell fairy tales and to change them in the retelling as Philip Pullman reminds us in the introduction to his collection Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version which he published last year on the 200th anniversary of the original. There is nothing sacred about the contents of these stories. Each teller (or TV producer) can take them and change them and make them his or her own.

Still, going back to the "original" tales is simply a lot of fun. Pullman's collection is a great book for this. First of all, his selection includes most of the classic tales that appear in modern renditions, but it also includes rarer stories and some really strange ones like "The Juniper Tree." Secondly, his translations are clear and direct and when he adjusts or embellishes, it's for good reason, usually to make the telling a bit more entertaining. Also they come with informative, amusing notes and enlightening references to similar folktales from other traditions.

So let's review: what do the original tales tell us that the new versions don't?

  1. Parents are evil and it's not just the stepmothers. In the original tales, the mother is often as scheming and evil as the stepmother. In fact there's a long tradition, starting with the Grimms themselves of replacing mothers in the stories with stepmothers, so that their evil is easier to take. And while feminists have plenty to curse, fathers come off horribly as well, weak and easily manipulated, resigned to doing exactly what their wives tell them to do. In short, the parents often scheme together to neglect, sell, trade or simply dispose of their children (see "Rapunzel," "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Brother and Little Sister," etc.) Modern re-tellers don't stomach this kind of disrespect for parents. See Disney's Tangled.
  2. Things usually happen three times. Sometimes more. For instance, in Snow White the queen tries to off her stepdaughter three times, only "succeeding" the third time with the apple. It makes you question her intelligence even more than you do watching the Disney movie, which is saying something.
  3. Dead people--especially murdered dead people--do not stay dead. If you are in a fairy tale and you plan to kill someone, try something else. Some miracle or another will rescue your victim and you'll pay. Modern magical stories do this too, but not to nearly the degree of the original stories, which always surprises me.
  4. Animals talk. No one in one of the original tales is astonished when a frog or fish or duck starts speaking. These things apparently happen all the time. In contrast our contemporary re-tellings often include a lot of slapstick double-taking when a wee beastie shouts "Hey, you, princess, come here!"
  5. Girls marry young. Sometimes really young. And they often marry kings rather than princes. This is as unremarkable in the tales as a talking animal. It's a bit creepy, honestly, and it's understandable that modern re-tellings adjust ages to avoid the troubling subject.
  6. Some of the most famous moments in fairy tales aren't even in the originals. The princess, for example, never kisses the frog. Why would she? He grosses her out. Rather, she throws the frog against the wall and that's when he turns human, falling, precipitously, into her bed. Check it out. It's the first story in the Pullman collection.
  7. Fairy tales are messy. The originals often take totally weird turns. They seem to have moralistic messages that they suddenly abandon. Bits of information are withheld and then awkwardly revealed. They basically break all the rules of good storytelling. Many popular re-tellings fix these quirks. But in the originals the strangeness is half the fun. It's not merely the presence of magic and talking animals. Literally anything can happen in a fairy tale. Anything.

1 comment :

Man of la Book said...

Great post!

I think many people don't realize that fairy tales change with the times, that's the idea, to teach kids some lessons. It doesn't help a kid in suburbia to learn that he/she shouldn't walk in the forest.