I tend to get blank looks when I tell people I’m into fairy tales. “Mmm,” they say, nod and smile slightly, then quickly move on to another topic. I can imagine what’s going on behind those humour-the-weird-person smiles: “Fairy tales,” they think. “Princesses singing in meadows, princes riding to the rescue, kissy-kiss, Happily Ever After. Ugh, kiddie stuff. Why would anyone bother?”
Oh, but you’ve got it wrong, people. So very wrong.
Mind you, I don’t blame you. The average English-speaking person’s exposure to fairy tales is extremely limited, to maybe a dozen commonly known stories – and that’s being generous: “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Snow White”, “The Frog Prince”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, “Aladdin”. Any others I’ve forgotten? Okay, maybe “The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen”, but, actually, I’d almost be willing to lay you a bet that you don’t really know those stories at all. You probably know the Disney version, which has a different ending from the original Andersen tale, or rather, in the case of “The Snow Queen”, has nothing whatsoever to do with the original (beyond there being snow and a queen).
But laying aside the fact that even in those tales, the “heroic prince rescues passive princess” trope only appears in the Disney version, and with many of them not even there (Cinderella’s prince, for example, is purely decorative), the idea that “fairy tales” equate to “a few simple tales for children” is simply wrong.
For starters, numbers. The Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales alone comprises 200 tales (Yes. Two Hundred.), and that’s only the best known collection of German stories. It doesn’t even begin to cover collections like “The Arabian Nights“, Perrault, Afanasyev, Andersen, or any of a myriad of canons of folktales and literary fairy tales.
And then, there is the content. Take another look at the title of this post. No, that is not a typo; I didn’t forget to put a second s on “princes”. Even in the very small selection of the aforementioned fairy tales, there is only one tale in which you could say that a prince rescues a princess, and that’s “Sleeping Beauty” – and even here, “rescue” is a doubtful term. Again, please forget Disney for a moment (good ol’ Walt has a few things to answer for); in the written version, all the prince does is show up in the right place at the right time, rather unheroically.
One story of a prince’s rescue attempt – but two of maidens rescuing princes from enchantments (“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince”), with possibly a third one thrown in (“Rapunzel” – the prince loses his eyesight after the witch chucks him out of the tower, and Rapunzel cries on him, which cures it), and two more of girls triumphing against the odds and getting a trophy prince as their grand prize at the end (“Cinderella” and “Snow White”). But poor boys aren’t left out either – Jack climbs up the beanstalk and whups the giant’s butt; from what I remember, princesses aren’t really involved.
So, fairy tales are about princes being heroic? Not so much.
But one of the biggest reasons I’m so deeply fascinated with fairy tales, or let’s rather call them folktales for now, is their sheer complexity. Yes, on the surface they’re simple. They can be for children – hence the Grimms’ title Children’s– and Household Tales. “There was a girl who had a mean stepmom and stepsisters, and they bullied her and made her do all the work…” I mean, there’s even a Sesame Street version of this, with Elmo in the starring role. And it works! But if you read the story carefully, and start thinking about it, start imagining what it could have looked like, what the girl felt, why her father might have acted the way he did, how very plucky she was to do what she did – you could spend the rest of your life writing retellings of “Cinderella” alone. To add to the hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of “Cinderella” tales out there already.
As for rescuing princes, I was just re-reading the Grimms’ “The Twelve Brothers”, which is one of the “brothers turned into birds” tales (there are two others in Grimm, “The Six Swans” and “The Seven Ravens“). A king has twelve sons. He decides that if the thirteenth child is a girl, he’ll have the twelve boys killed so that the girl gets all the wealth. Mom warns them, they run away. Baby Sister grows up and goes to find her brothers; they get turned into ravens; she rescues them by being extremely heroic.
I mean, wow! What I’ve just given you is the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes version, but of course the Grimms run into several pages, 1800 words worth – and that’s in the typical folktale style of telling a lot of the story in very bald language without going into much detail. But if you read the tale, and start to imagine “what really happened”, or rather “what could possibly have really been happening”, you’ve got the plot for several full-length novels. A psychopath father, obsessed with wealth, so elaborately planning the murder of his twelve sons he already has the coffins made up, complete with sawdust filling and little silk pillows… A mother who is being forced to hold the key to the chamber where those macabre caskets are lined up, waiting for her boys… Twelve young men, fleeing into the forest, vowing to kill the first woman they come across in revenge for what their father threatened to do to them because of a girl… And that’s only the first third of the story! Stephen King, move over; the Grimms had you beat 200 years ago.
And then of course the story goes on, about the sister’s heroism – seven years of silence, no talking, no laughing. It’s the latter that is nearly her undoing, because she is accused of being wicked; no good and true person would be so stern and serious. But what if this princess had a really strong sense of humour? What if she found practically everything funny – and had to supress her laughter? What if… It goes on and on.
Are you still surprised I’m so into these tales? Probably not – but then, you’ve known me for a while. And while you might have given me one of those blank looks when I first started going on about fairy tales, you’ve long been used to me by now. Or maybe, I’ve even infected you with my enthusiasm…
Why not? Spells have been broken before now. Princes have been rescued by princesses or merchants’ daughters; stable boys have defeated ogres and giants. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…
Life, the Universe, and Fairy Tales. They’re not as simple as you think.