Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fair Tales: Some Misconceptions and Personal Pet Peeves

OMG guys there are leaves! On the trees! Leaves!!! I have been waiting all winter long for this day to arrive. My day just got so much better. Oh, and I now have over 100 followers on Twitter now. Hooray for having an audience to reach! Thank you, everyone! But seriously, frackin' LEAVES.

You may not know this about me (or do you?), but I love fairy tales. Oddly enough, I actually wasn't a huge fan when I was a little girl (not that I can remember, anyway), but what I do remember is that when I was around 12 I found a copy of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and an obsession began. Well, that obsession cooled off after a while as many obsessions tend to do, but the Grimm Bros have always held a special place in my heart. I read almost the entire collection cover to cover, I looked up the histories of the most famous stories online, I wrote a paper on fairy tales in high school, I devoured fair tale adaptations in book, movie, and fan art form. Hell, I even drew inspiration from them myself for fantasy novel series that I've been slowly working on since I was 16 (technically since I was 13, but those were Dark Times in terms of writing that I'd rather not talk about).

So it will probably come as no surprise that I have a few pet peeves when it comes to how a lot of people tend to think and speak about fairy tales.

(Warning: RANT MODE ACTIVATED. General snarkiness and bad language ahead, because even though I'm in a good mood today, it's just too much fun acting like a bitchy blogger.)

1) Fairy Tales != Disney: Erm, no. This one should be obvious to most people, but Disney has so firmly cemented itself in western society's collective conscience as a teller of fairy tales, that it's not surprising that so many of its tropes have bled into our perception of fairy tales as a genre. By this point in time almost all of the most famous fairy tales have gotten the Disney treatment--Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk if you count their adaptation of Into the Woods--and I think it's fair to say that perhaps "the Disney treatment" has something to do with why a few of these tales are so much more well-known than the hundreds of others that are out there.

And that's great for Disney! I don't begrudge them anything, because I grew up on Disney animated movies and their fairy tales are classics for a reason. Even when they stray far from the source material, they're still fun and heartwarming films. But it's painfully obvious at times that fairy tales have become synonymous with Disney fairy tales. Yes, I do realize that most people probably know better, but I can't help but be irked when I hear/see people automatically associate concepts like "true love's kiss", goofy dwarf names, the evil queen wanting Snow White's heart (rather than lungs and liver), ugly stepsisters, and nature-loving princesses who can talk to animals with fairy tales as a whole. "True love's kiss" and its variations is a particularly big offender; it crops up in pretty much every adaptation of Snow White (who woke up after having the apple piece dislodged from her throat) or Sleeping Beauty (who simply woke up after 100 years in the Grimm Version, and in the Perrault version was awaken by a kiss who's only conditions were that it was by a prince after 100 years, so therefore more like a prophesied occurrence than a true spell-breaker, and NOT dependent on true love at all) these days, so much so that any kind of subversion where kissing is NOT even mentioned at all is immensely refreshing. It's kind of amazing how such a simple and relatively new concept has become so intertwined with a much older genre that we've come to expect it as the norm, and that it somehow feels like less of a fairy tale without it.

I will admit that I myself am "guilty" of Disneyfication, however. Upon rereading the unfinished draft of a novel based on Snow White I'd written when I was 13 (back in the Dark Times), I realized that I had unconsciously lifted a ton of the story from the Disney cartoon: Snow White washing the steps outside and singing to herself at a wishing well before meeting the prince, the magic mirror having the appearance of a mask-like face, the queen ordering the huntsman to place her heart (but also her liver) in a jeweled box, and of course, true love's kiss. Shit, when I put it that way it actually sounds like outright plagiarism, but I didn't think about it like that then. I think my intention was actually to distance my version from the Disney version, but on some level maybe I was trying to satirize it as well. I don't know, I was 13 and stupid and knew jack shit about satire or good writing. But most of that distinctly Disney stuff kind of crept into my story unintentionally, even though by that time I was in the midst of my Grimm Brothers obsession and definitely knew better. I will say this, though: when it's done well and not made to be too melodramatic, true love's kiss as a plot device can be pretty ok. It is hard to do well, but I'm a sucker for good(!) romance and damn it if I'm not going to find a not-terrible way to keep the TLK in my story!

Fuck Disney, I do what I want!
2) OTOH, Fairy Tales != The Brothers Grimm: This one is surprisingly not so obvious to a lot of people, and even though the G-Bros will forever be my personal preference when it comes to fairy tales, it still pisses me off that when people aren't automatically associating fairy tales with Disney, they're doing that same shit with these guys. It's like people have never heard of Charles Perrault, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (She wrote Beauty and the Beast? Anyone?), and Giambattista Basile.

Let's face it: in the comments section of any Youtube video having to do with Disney's Cinderella, or pretty much any time it's discussed on the internet, there's always going to be that one smug commenter who bust out the old, "Did you know that in the original Cinderella the stepsisters cut off their toes and had their eyes pecked out by birds?" And every time I see that shit I wanna be all up in that person's face all like:

This statement is wrong for several reasons: 1) This series of events is indeed a fairly accurate assessment of what happened in the Grimm version of Cinderella; 2) The Grimm version is not the "original" version of the story, not even close; 3) the Disney movie isn't even based on the Grimm version, but rather the Charles Perrault version, and is a surprisingly pretty close adaptation at that; 4) fuck you, because they say that it's based on the Perrault version right in the opening credits of the fucking movie.

And yet, the name Grimm continues to be synonymous with fairy tales. No, Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimm fairy tale either--they never included any version of this story at all in their collections--and it is, in fact, an English fairy tale. Not Grimm, not Perrault, not German, French, or any of that shit. Why exactly this story was woven into the plot of Into the Woods is a bit perplexing considering all the Grimm fairy tales in it are highly faithful to the source material (at least in the first act), so Lepine and Sondheim obviously know better. But you know, I can't really complain about Into the Woods because it's my favorite musical and Jack fits into the story line perfectly. What I can complain about is the odd mishmash of fake British accents, real British accents, and WTF-you're-not-even-trying-are-you accents in the movie adaptation. But I suppose my beef with Hollywood automatically equating British accents with all things relating to history, fantasy, or royalty is a rant for another time.

3) While we're on the subject, let's talk about "original" versions in general: Returning briefly again to the Cinderella example, it seems as though smug assholes on the internet seem to love to talk about how much Disney has "sanitized" the "original" versions of old fairy tales (and yes, you might have noticed that I keep talking about Disney, but I guess it really is unavoidable). The "original version of Cinderella" that I mentioned previously is the classic, but every once in a while you'll hear someone mention the "original version of Sleeping Beauty, in which she was woken up by being raped, not kissed!" What they're probably referring to is the Italian fairy tale "Sun, Moon, and Talia" recorded by Giambattista Basile, which is certainly the tale that was the inspiration for Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" and Grimms' "Little Briar Rose". This in turn was based off of a number of older folktales, and it's roots can be traced back even farther to the medieval romance Perceforest. Many other versions of the Arne-Thomson Type 410 story also exist across cultures and history. The Cinderella archetype can be traced back even further and is wider-spread culturally.

You see where I'm going with this? The histories of many fairy tales are so old and their origins so convoluted that claiming that any of these older versions is the "original" is actually quite disingenuous. While there may be a lot of similarities between the classic story that we know today as "Sleeping Beauty" and "Sun, Moon, and Talia", Basile's version is still far enough removed from what we know as Sleeping Beauty today that it's really more of an influence than any kind of "original" version. Furthermore, there should be little doubt that when a modern author/screenwriter/whatever writes an adaptation of the tale, that they are not adapting SMT, but rather Sleeping Beauty like they claim to be doing. So please, don't waste your time arguing back and forth over what the "true" version of a fairy tale is and using it as a basis for some asinine complaint against Disney or whatever.

My God, are people annoying
4) Fairy Tales != Happily Ever After (or Prince Charming, or love at first sight, or a bunch of other bullshit): Fun fact: the phrase "the all lived happily ever after" is actually rarely used in fairy tales, or at least not Grimm Brothers tales. Well, maybe in translations specifically for children like Andrew Lang's color-coded Fairy Books or whatever (disclaimer: I don't actually know this for sure), but you get my point. Or maybe you don't but I'll do my best to elaborate.

Any time I hear someone utter the words, "fairy tale romance", "just like in a fairy tale", or "real life isn't a fairy tale" I wince internally. Why? Because no shit life isn't like a fairy tale, and I for one am glad it's not. Who wants to live in a world where talking wolves can swallow old ladies whole and are apparently so commonplace that a little girl isn't even afraid of one? A world in which mermaids don't have souls and misbehaving children doom innocent air spirits to wander the Earth for hundreds of years before they can go to heaven? A world in which a prince who is supposedly so captivated by a maiden's beauty that he must marry her, yet can't even recognize her until she tries on a fucking shoe, and almost takes the wrong girl home twice? And these are just some of the most well-known fairy tales, don't get me started on how bizarre and brutal some of the more obscure ones can be.

The point is, at some unknown point in history the phrase "fairy tale" came to represent everything good, pure, romantic, and enchanted, with the truest of true love and happily ever afters for all. Yeah, I guess you could say "fairy tale romance" is a thing because most of the really famous fairy tales end with a man and woman getting married, but take a good look at these stories. The romance is almost universally incredibly shallow, it's always just the man who appears to be falling in love (with her beauty, so really it's just lust) while we never hear the woman's opinion, and the happy ending is either a mixed blessing or tempered by the brutal and graphic punishment of the villain. Because nothing says romance like someone being stripped naked, placed in a barrel lined with sharp spikes, and dragged through the streets until dead!

I mean, maybe for some people it does...
So just what is it about fairy tales that people find so goddamn romantic? Is is the folksy, old-world charm kind of romance, or is it Disney once again playing tricks on us? Once again, I have nothing against Disney because I have a lot of wonderful childhood memories from watching Disney cartoons, but you have to admit that they really do all they can to play up the romance aspect of their fairy tales. What really gets to me though is the people who snarkily say that "real life isn't a fairy tale", as if life for the characters in fairy tales was always good and wonderful and totally easy. Yeah yeah, maybe they're talking about the "romantic" endings where the king/prince swoops in to marry the poor heroine and solve all her problems, but what about their lives before that? What about protagonists who aren't young, beautiful maidens? Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents, terrorized by a witch, and nearly cooked alive. Rapunzel and Maid Maleen were kept locked away in towers for years. Sleeping Beauty woke up after 100 years later in a time that was completely unfamiliar to her, and in Perrault's version had to deal with an ogress mother-in-law who wanted to eat her and her children. The Maiden with No Hands was a maiden who didn't have hands. The magical land of fairy tales is a cruel world indeed, and anyone who thinks that it is at all better than the real world is kidding themselves. I'll take boring reality over a fairy tale life any day, thanks!


  1. Interesting post. I have a copy of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm on my Kindle, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m hoping to get to it sometime this year.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Thanks! It's actually been kind of a while since I've picked up my copy (and I don't even have it with me on campus right now), so I'm a little be rusty on my obscure fairy tale knowledge. But it's definitely worth the read. If you have the translation by Jack Zipes then there should be a whole bunch of "fragmentary tales" at the end, too, which are pretty interesting. Their version of Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose) ends when she wakes up, but then there's a fragment that was clearly inspired by the violent 2nd half of Perrault's/Basile's version.