Fairy Tales: Not just happily ever afters

I love fairy tales, so much so that I actually took a class in graduate school that focused solely on this subject. Something about them gets me really excited.

It’s not the happy endings. Because not every fairy tale has a happily ever after. Sure, in the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel gets the prince. But in Hans Christian Andersen’s version, she sacrifices herself and becomes sea foam drifting on the waves. Maybe we want every fairy tale to end happily, but they don’t always.

In retrospect, I think what draws me to fairy tales is their archetypical nature, their motifs, their psychological implications. These are seemingly simplistic stories told over and over, oral traditions that we’re still retelling, whether in bedtime stories, picture books, YA novels, movies, poems, even songs. They cross borders; some version of Cinderella appears in many cultures across the world. The “trappings” of the story change, but the archetypes are all intact.

Why do we need fairy tales? What draws us to these particular stories? I’m fascinated by the possibility that fairy tales have been, in a sense, cautionary tales. They tell us what to be or what not to be if we are to succeed. Gullibility, dishonesty, rudeness, ignoring the rules—these things result in punishment or worse in the world of the fairy tale. But honesty, cleverness, beauty, submissiveness, these traits most often ensure the victory of the protagonist. Cinderella might be submissive, but she gets the guy. Her sisters, more rude, less beautiful, are ultimately the losers of the tale. In the German version of the story, Aschenputtel, the stepsisters cut their toes off to fit into the shoe; at the end, they have their eyes pecked out by doves. In Snow White, the evil queen is punished, though her punishment depends on which version you read. (Anne Sexton gives an interesting interpretation in her poem “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” comparing the aging queen’s—and our own—desperate vanity to Snow White’s virginal beauty. “Beauty is a simple passion/but, oh my friends, in the end/you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes,” she wrote. Fairy tales aren’t always the whitewashed, sanitized versions that often spring to mind—maybe that’s why we keep exploring them.

They might be cautionary tales; they might be explorations of the human psyche. I’ll never be able to say they’re just stories. Because nothing is ever just a story. They’ve lasted a long time, long enough to evolve with us. Many of us are now appalled by Cinderella’s submissiveness. As feminists, we might even see her behavior as damaging. So the tales change, perhaps demanding more active, self-aware heroines; a happier, Hollywood-style ending; or simply a new lens through which to view the stories. Because they’re oral tales, they will always change along with society. One generation adds in new angles, and the next generation removes or adds as necessary. Whether written or spoken, we keep on telling fairy tales.

So what is your fave fairy tale? Why do you love that tale? One of my favorites is Bluebeard. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. It’s certainly a cautionary tale, reminding young women, especially, to trust their instincts. I guess it could be about obedience, too, but I think there’s something more going on. It’s also a horror story, a shiver tale. It’s creepy, eerie, goosebump-worthy, not so much a bedtime story as it is a fireside tale meant to scare the crap out of us. Each time I read it, I get something new, but I always get a chill.

I love a lot of different fairy tales for many reasons. Mostly, I just enjoy exploring them and wondering what it is that attracts us to them.

This post certainly isn’t a scholarly paper, though I really apologize if it sounds like one at times! This morning got me thinking about fairy tales and my ongoing interest in them. Must’ve been the fog and bird songs.

I’m looking forward to hearing what your favorite fairy tales are, and why. What do you think keeps drawing us back to these stories?

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4 thoughts on “Fairy Tales: Not just happily ever afters

  1. I agree that classic fairy tales are morality stories. They are ways of passing on values.
    My own favorite story however, has a twist. When I was a very little child I wanted The Little Red Hen told every night at bedtime. The hen who finds the grain, plants it, reaps it, grinds it and bakes a lovely loaf of bread. She asks the various animals for help but they are all too bust. They show up wanting a share of the bread but the hen tells them that since they didn’t help they would get no bread.
    BUT that was NOT the way I wanted it told. In my version the animals help and when finally the bread is baked they all have a party. Was this a foreshadowing of who I am? I grew up to be a social worker and rehab counselor and on the boards of several non-profits. Just one big helper. lol

  2. Yes – morality tales. And horror stories too.
    Even as a feminist, I have no desire to change the originals. They are what they are & of their time. (How else do we scare the children!)
    Theoretical approaches to interpreting fairy tales can be selective. Some feminist approaches, critical of fairy tales, tend to focus on those which evince ‘negative’ female role models; that is, heroines who are passive, submissive & helpless.
    In my view, there’s more to it than that. The re-claiming however, is something I enjoy playing with.
    The Red Shoes is one of my favorites. Like your Bluebeard it’s another tale about naivety. And it’s both deliciously scary & quite horrible.
    My feminist analysis finds TRS to be about injury to our psyche, our soul & our creativity. It warns women to beware their hurt, often defunct instincts; & the traps they can fall into if they pay them no heed.
    It’s about refusing to be captured & victimised. Wear your red shoes by all means; but make sure they are ones you made yourself, & into which you have sewn your own best spells!
    This is the story I would like to write a version of.
    Nice post – thank you 🙂

  3. I also enjoyed the Little Red Hen. I think it has a sense of justice to it that I appreciated: You don’t do the work, you don’t reap the rewards. Everyone has to do their fair share. I grew up in a family with fairly traditional gender roles, but I think I was born a feminist.
    Glad you’re such a big helper. We need more people like you in this world. 🙂

  4. I agree. There are plenty of active heroines in fairy tales, and these stories are products of their time. I also enjoy contemporary retellings; it’s always fun to see how each person interprets a fairy tale.
    I’ll have to go read The Red Shoes. It sounds familiar, but if I have read it, it’s been a long time. If you ever write a version of it, you’ll have to let me know!

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