The Dark History Of Your Favourite Fairy Tales

Illustrated by Robin Eisenberg.
Lately, there’s been a surge in live-action adaptations of classic fairy tales and folkloric kids’ stories, from the recent Beauty and the Beast and Snow White and the Huntsman to the 22 films planned to come out of Disney’s studios over the next few years. The stories we’re used to are fluffy, comforting, and obviously PG – once upon a time, good vs. bad, happily ever after – and yet the original fairy tales’ beginnings were much darker. Of course, there’s a reason we don’t show these versions to children, but there’s no doubt the roots of these folk stories have embedded themselves into our cultural landscape.
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One such adaptation that has departed from idyllic reimaginings is the excellent A Monster Calls, starring Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver. It’s a postmodern fairy tale following Connor, a young boy processing his mother’s illness through a fantasy world in which he befriends one of Tolkien's Ent-like monsters. The monster, a 21st-century reimagining of The Green Man, a pagan figure that symbolises the move from spring to summer and life to death, tells Connor three stories in a patchwork of riddles which he must decipher before he can finally let go of his mother. It’s a highly emotional, no-frills portrayal of grief and loss, but it still maintains the mystical and magical element of storytelling.
From single, older women being cast as the archetypal ‘witch’ or ‘spinster’, to anti-semitic portrayals of ‘money-swindling’ men, we’re perhaps not fully aware of the impact of fairy tales on our cultural landscape. I spoke to Dr. Miles Leeson, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Chichester University, about the classic tropes that have formed the way in which society views women and ‘the other’.
Attributing an author to classic fairy tales has proved difficult as they’ve mostly been told through word of mouth. What do we know about the origins of them?
Fairy tales have a long and complicated history of development; at once part of, but separate from, folklore and myth. In the same way we look at someone’s DNA to trace their family lineage, we look at tropes in these stories to trace their history. We originally thought fairy tales to be mid-European, but new research suggests that they’re not just pre-Christian, but pre-Western European. They go back nearly 4,000 years to the Persian empire, where Arabian Nights and Aladdin came from. Beauty and the Beast is certainly that old.
Have fairy tales always been bedtime stories for children?
They were used to tell each other stories, not just to entertain, but to educate and inform about the dangers that were out there. One of my favourite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote that stories didn’t start when the little boy came back into the village shouting “There’s a wolf!” but when villagers realised there wasn’t a wolf behind him. It’s the very beginning of fiction. Fairy tales have a huge part to play in people’s fears of something that wants to hurt or destroy us, or our family lives. They were primarily there for teaching purposes and much later, in 16th-century Italy, they became passed around in salons for entertainment for the upper classes. That moved through 18th-century France, then to Germany with the Brothers Grimm, and ultimately into the nursery.
There’s a myth that the Grimms traipsed around the German empire and listened in at the fireside to old women telling stories to their grandchildren, but that’s not quite what happened. Most people came to them and paid to hear their stories. The stories they told are really violent and erotically charged. They brought out about six or seven different editions, and each edition toned down the sex and violence so that by the end you get the stories we know now. In Rapunzel for example, the old woman realises the prince has visited her not because he’s climbed up the castle, but because she’s pregnant. Cinderella’s ugly sisters had their eyes pecked out at the end of the tales. It’s not unusual, though, as we see these themes in Shakespeare and Chaucer, too.
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How did fairy tales portray ‘outsiders’ – the old, the working classes, people of colour, women – in a negative light?
Many cultures throughout the Western tradition have used cliched 'types' to ostracise those who are deemed 'unnatural' (witches most often – how damaging that has been in 17th-century Europe and beyond), 'disfigured' in some way, or as a religious stereotype of an unwanted race (almost always Jews). The persecution of Jews, gypsies, old unmarried women, the disabled, and so on have often been supported by the use of fairy tales. And in turn, fairy tales have been changed and formed by a variety of cultures to promote the degradation of certain types of people.
Illustrated by Robin Eisenberg.
Outsiders, people that didn’t fit in, always had a disruptive part to play in the stories. If there’s a man and a woman who are ‘bound to fall in love’, then those who are marginalised are the ones to disrupt that – wicked stepmothers, Rumpelstiltskin, the wolf in the woods. Anybody outside of the white, upper-class, European male is either demure – like the girl he should marry, or the poor-girl-done-good like Cinderella – or plays a supporting role for comedic value, like the ugly stepsisters, for example.
People of colour are often portrayed as dangerous and connected with money, often associated with dishonest dealings. We see this in the way Rumpelstiltskin is portrayed by the Brothers Grimm: he becomes tied into this mythic Jewish figure which gets horribly used by the Nazis in Germany in the 1940s. People see fairy tales as throwaway children's stories, but they’re absolutely essential to how we understand Western culture. They tie into cultural and class concerns and into our emotional attachments to family and the places we come from. They help us to see how Europe has developed over time.
In A Monster Calls, fairy tales are used to help a young boy move through his mother’s illness and ultimately, to let go and process grief. Can you tell me a bit more about the allegories in the film?
The use of fantasy, folklore, and fairy tales within A Monster Calls is not as straightforward as it may initially seem. Patrick Ness, the author and screenwriter, appropriates various mythic tropes and subtly updates and transforms them, providing a narrative drive for the film but also enabling character development. Each relationship is positively altered by the recognition of the needs of others. This is achieved not only through suffering, but by the recognition that suffering is universal, and must be worked through via human engagement.
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The Monster is a version of The Green Man, and his relationship with Connor is arguably the most important of the film as, without the Monster, Connor would be unable to transition to a place of relative stability and acceptance. The three tales the Monster tells Connor are bricolaged fairy tales (a postmodern technique of taking classic fairy tales from the European and near-Eastern tradition and putting elements of them together in a patchwork). The specific character types of prince, king, witch, poor girl, stepmother and so on are reworked by Ness to enable Connor to work through his fears of loss and acceptance. The film shows that in every human there is both darkness and light, hero and villain: life is both messy and contingent, illnesses are unfair and can and do afflict the innocent. Connor comes not only to accept his mother’s death, and his working through of his nightmare, but also the qualities of both his departed father, and his distant grandmother. Fairy tales then provide not only solace and comfort, but a means to accept the present and move forward to an uncertain future.
I guess that’s why they were turned into children’s stories. They’re very good at making you realise that the problems and questions people face are universal – someone has felt the same way as you, albeit 3,000 years ago...
Exactly. The best thing about fairy tales is that they make you realise you’re not alone and that people have gone through this before, and they’ve survived and come out the other side.
A Monster Calls is available on digital download now and Blu-ray and DVD now.
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