Originally for adults, many fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo. When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.
Adults consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them today, despite advances in logic, science and technology. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales.
That’s what we’re exploring on the latest episode of Essays On Air, the audio version of our Friday essay series. Today, Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics at the University of Newcastle, is reading her essay Why grown-ups still need fairy tales.
Join us as we read to you here at Essays On Air, a podcast from The Conversation.
It’s one of the more bizarre episodes to have seen the light of day since the #MeToo movement got going late last year. In November 2017, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that the mother of a schoolboy who had brought home a copy of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty was calling for the text to be banned. The reason she gave was that the heroine could not have consented to the kiss that released her from her enchanted sleep.
This news story emerged in the aftermath of the revelations of serial sexual harassment allegations against numerous Hollywood stars, generating the #MeToo hashtag, with which millions of women worldwide shared their experiences of sexual molestation and objectification.
Yet despite the headline – “Mother calls for Sleeping Beauty to be banned” – when you actually read the piece it turns out that, in fact, the mother had suggested that rather than ban the story, the tale might be used as a starting point for discussing personal consent and bodily autonomy with children.
This didn’t deter plenty of media outlets from jumping aboard the bandwagon – whether in support of the proposition that the fairy tale be banned or updated, or scoffing at the notion as needless censorship. And, of course, there was a follow up on the problems with other fairy tales.
While fairy tales have existed for millennia as oral folktales, they first entered print in their recognisable form in the 17th century – and initially among the aristocracy. Over the subsequent 300 years or so, fairy tales have frequently been a source of controversy and ideological battle.
A cursory glance at only a few examples illustrates the variety of ways in which they have caused anxiety and consternation. The Neapolitan courtier, Giambattista Basile first produced his collection of fairy tales (including Rapunzel and Cinderella) in 1634. A little later, the French académicien Charles Perrault published his Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (1797), containing such prized tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Blue Beard – and Sleeping Beauty. Written for an educated and urbane courtly readership, Perrault’s tales smuggle in risqué innuendo under the veil of moralism.
As a Rationalist, Locke feared that peasant superstition would damage the healthy development of children. In this period, fairy tales in Britain were circulated in the rude tradition of “chapbooks” (rough almanac prints sold by itinerant “chapmen”) and made little distinction between children and adult readers.
It was the pioneering publisher John Newbery (among others) who fused Locke’s respectable suspicion of rude chapbooks with an entrepreneurial appreciation of the potential market for children’s books. His A Pretty Little Pocket-Book (1744) cleverly replicated entertaining aspects of chapbooks – but shorn of their cruder elements in order to appease middle-class parents. This trend continued into the 19th century, when such celebrated authors and adaptors of fairy tales as Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, all tailored and censored their writings to avoid causing upset.
The Romantic generation of artists and writers venerated fairy tales for inspiring childhood fantasy and wonder and as texts that opposed the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But, in the wake of the French Revolution, political and literary culture came under immense scrutiny in Britain from a newly energised Conservative government and press.
With the increased policing of culture for signs of dangerous Jacobins and Democrats, conservative evangelical educationalists including Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer undertook the role of castigating children’s writers deemed politically and religiously seditious. One of their main targets was the anarchist philosopher – turned children’s publisher – William Godwin (the widower of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein). In order to escape censure, Godwin often published anonymously, or under a series of comical pseudonyms, such as Theophilus Marcliffe.
Godwin was involved with many Romantic-era writers now considered illustrious, but who at the time were often obscure figures. Two of these friends – the poet William Wordsworth and the essayist Charles Lamb – Godwin endeavoured to involve in his publishing, with revealing controversies.
Charles Lamb and his sister Mary are best-known for their highly popular Tales from Shakespeare (1807), which was published by Godwin. But when Godwin commissioned Charles to write an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey for children, the two got into an argument over Lamb’s initial refusal to tone down the gory scene in which the cyclops Polyphemus vomits the remains of Odysseus’ crewmen whom he had consumed. Godwin feared losing custom from a squeamish middle-class readership.
In 1811, Godwin wrote to Wordsworth – who had in youth briefly been his protégé – asking him to translate Beauty and the Beast from the French. Wordsworth’s cantankerous response is extraordinary (in part, he was irate for having to pay the postal fees). The poet responded to the philosopher that he could not bring himself to the task as:
I confess there is to me something disgusting to me in the notion of a human Being consenting to mate with a Beast, however amiable his qualities of heart.
Wordsworth was, in middle age, moving increasingly towards Toryism, and his astonishing response may be interpreted as underlining his rejection of Godwin’s radicalism. It also seems to indicate Wordsworth’s growing religious conservatism, as he justifies his statement by quoting from the poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost – describing Adam as set apart by God from animals: “Among the Beasts no mate for thee was found”.
Throughout their history, fairy tales have caused consternation and outrage among the religious and the secular, the progressive and the conservative, wrestling over what goes on in the minds of growing children.
Recently, an English mother, Sarah Hall, prompted worldwide media coverage in response to her suggestion that Sleeping Beauty should be removed from the school curriculum for young children because of the “inappropriate sexual message” it sends about consent.
It’s not the only time fairytales have come under scrutiny recently. They are increasingly being targeted for “banning” within schools or avoidance by parents because of their perceived sexism, passive princesses, and reinforcement of marriage as girls’ ultimate goal. But can fairy tales actually be harmful as their critics believe?
Fairy tales were once told – and then written – by adults for adult audiences. Early versions of many tales were often bawdy, salacious and replete with sexual innuendo. Since the Grimm Brothers removed these elements to reconfigure the fairy tale for children in the early 19th century, fairy tales have been seen as ideal, imaginative stories for young people. Almost all of us know the most popular stories from childhood reading or Disney films.
Tradition is not reason enough to continue a cultural practice that has become outmoded. Nevertheless, there are a range of reasons why these calls to restrict children from reading fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty are misguided.
Children’s literature needn’t model ‘ideal’ behaviour
Initially, most children’s literature was didactic and preoccupied with instructing children in correct morals and drilling them with information.
Adult readers today would struggle to find any pleasure in children’s literature prior to 1850, let alone today’s kids. In order to provide “delight” as well as “instruction”, children’s books represent a range of behaviour, including, in the case of fairy tales, the attempted murder of children, and punishments such as feet being severed and birds pecking out human eyes.
Charles Perrault was the French author who added the famous motifs of the glass slipper and pumpkin coach to the Cinderella tale. In his version of Sleeping Beauty, after the Princess and the Prince marry in secret and have two children, the Prince’s mother is entirely unimpressed. Unsurprisingly within a fairy tale, the Prince’s mother is descended from ogres and she demands that the two children be killed and eaten for dinner by the whole family, with the macabre detail that the boy is to be served with Sauce Robert.
As in Snow White, in which the Huntsman refuses to kill the heroine and substitutes an animal heart for that of Snow White’s, no actual harm comes to the princess or her children but not before the ogress has prepared a tub full of vipers in a typical last-ditch attempt at villainy.
When we consider the norms of evil and violence in fairy tales – most of which are usually punished – it is bizarre to imagine every detail serving as a behavioural model for children. If we insisted that every character in children’s literature behaved precisely as we wish to teach children to behave then we would likely be presenting bland stories that no child would actually read.
Considering plot points in context
If we focus on one plot point, like the kiss in Sleeping Beauty, we can overlook the overall narrative context.
Within the tale, it becomes legend that the sleeping spell that has been cast on the Princess will only be broken after one-hundred years by the kiss of a king’s son. The narrative premise includes a premonition about how the magic will unfold and demands the resolution of the prince’s kiss to “save” the princess who must wait to be returned to consciousness.
While we might critique the emphasis on romance and passivity from a feminist perspective, the idea that the tale is promoting the equivalent of a Steubenville scenario in which an unconscious young woman is sexually assaulted ignores the magical logic of the fantasy world.
By that measure, we might see Prince Charming as a maniacal stalker as he demands all women in the kingdom try on the glass slipper in order to track down the attractive girl who failed to slip him her address before running off from the ball.
In Sleeping Beauty, it is significant that the Prince is told about the Princess being doomed to sleep until she is awakened by a king’s son. The Prince recognises that he is one of few people who can end the curse and resolves to tackle the brambles and thorns that surround the castle in which she is trapped in slumber.
Significantly, in the Grimms’ version, Little Brier-Rose, numerous young men try to push themselves through the thorny hedge and die miserably in the attempt. However the hedge turns into flowers for the Prince and allows him through. Only the right man, with the right motivations, and the one who can release the Princess from the curse – is permitted through.
Rather than being a parallel to a kiss taken without consent, the Sleeping Beauty kiss is akin to a paramedic giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an unconscious person who would most usually want to be revived.
Many versions of every fairy tale
The version of Sleeping Beauty targeted in the UK is part of the “Biff, Chip and Kipper” series designed to teach children to read. These books aim to educate children in the mechanics of reading and, as such, some of the literary nuance, symbolism, and visual artistry present in many fairy tales and picture books based upon them are no doubt lacking.
It is important to recall that there is no definitive version of a fairy tale. Calls for “bans” of a particular tale ignore variations between, say, Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty complete with cannibalistic, viper-wielding ogress and the Grimms’ less violent adaptation.
Rather than eschewing fairy tales entirely, parents and educators would be better placed to look to quality adaptations and retellings by outstanding children’s authors, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, which merges Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
In this tale, the Queen sets out on a journey armed with a sword to save the Princess and is the one who rescues her through a kiss.
There is even a picture book version called Sleeping Bobby in which the gender roles are entirely reversed. Numerous parodies such as John Scieszka’s The Frog Prince Continued, in which the Princess’s married life with the frog is far from “happily ever after”, can also be a way for older readers to begin to question and play with the conventional gender expectations of some fairy tales.
Reweaving old stories into new
Fairy tales have been undergoing a continuous process of being rewoven into new stories for hundreds of years.
Just as many old tales have fallen out of favour and are no longer known, so too might some contemporary favourites eventually stop being told to children, potentially replaced by reworked versions or entirely new stories.
This storytelling method of old wine being poured into new bottles has a rich tradition and does not require our intervention. After all, the people who ban books in stories are always the villains, not the heroes.
For as long as we have been able to stand upright and speak, we have told stories. They explained the mysteries of the world: birth, death, the seasons, day and night. They were the origins of human creativity, expressed in words but also in pictures, as evidenced by the cave paintings of Chauvet (France) and Maros (Indonesia). On the walls of these caves, the paintings, which date back to around 30-40,000 BC, tell us myths or sacred narratives of the spirits of the land, the fauna of the regions, and humankind’s relationship to them.
As humanity progressed, other types of stories developed. These were not concerned with the mysteries of the meaning of life but with everyday, domestic matters. While they were more mundane in the issues they explored, such tales were no less spectacular in their creativity and inclusion of the supernatural.
These smaller, everyday stories, combining the world of humans with fantastical creatures and seemingly impossible plots are now classified as fairy tales or folk tales. Such tales, originating in pre-literate societies and told by the folk (or the average person), capture the hopes and dreams of humanity. They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage.
Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong. Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete. Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo. When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed and Christian morality intervened, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.
Despite these changes, it is apparent that fairy tales are still needed today, even for grown-ups. In an uncanny, sometimes inexplicable way, we consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them, despite advances in logic, science and technology. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the tellers, we are the greedy consumers.
‘Fairy tale’ princesses and ‘wicked witches’
The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, has been cast – like her life – as a fairy tale. Throughout the year, she has been commemorated in articles with headings such as “a troubled fairy tale”, “beyond a fairy tale”, and “just another fairy tale”. While these articles have endeavoured to deconstruct the familiar narrative, they have not been entirely successful.
The notion of a fairy tale princess has also characterised the coverage of Princess Mary of Denmark and Duchess Catherine of Cambridge. Even after 13 years of marriage, our own “Aussie princess” is described as living a fairy tale, evident in 2017 media stories with titles such as “Princess Mary and Prince Frederik’s fairy tale royal romance”. Likewise, Kate, once a commoner, now a princess, has featured in articles titled “Prince William and Duchess Kate’s fairy-tale love story” and “Kate’s Most Royal Fairy Tale Gown (To Date)”. As the titles of some of these stories show, they also feature the mandatory prince charming (William), or the prince who is revealed to be not-so-charming after all (Charles). Others extend the fairy tale formula to include wicked stepmothers (Di’s real life stepmother) and wicked witches (Camilla).
Is such recourse to fairy tales merely a media stunt to sell stories packaged in an easily consumable, gossip-laden snack box? Or do these articles reflect that deep-seated compulsion of ours to tell and, in turn, to listen to stories? The answers are “yes” and “yes”. But let’s forget the media’s role and look at the more interesting latter point.
In this tale, the beautiful Psyche is visited at night by an invisible lover – hearing only a voice – whom she is led to believe is a monster. While recorded by the novelist, Apuleius, the story is almost certainly much older; perhaps having its origins in myth and ritual, and handed down by word of mouth.
The research of Dr Jamie Tehrani has unearthed an early date for Red Riding Hood, which he has traced back to at least 2,000 years; not originating in Asia, as once believed, but most likely in Europe. Other tales studied by Tehrani have been dated to as early as 6,000 years ago.
Fairy tales are excellent narratives with which to think through a range of human experiences: joy, disbelief, disappointment, fear, envy, disaster, greed, devastation, lust, and grief (just to name a few). They provide forms of expression to shed light not only on our own lives but on the lives beyond our own. And, contrary to the impression that fairy tales always end happily ever after, this is not the case – therein lies much of their power.
They helped our ancestors make sense of the unpredictability or randomness of life. They repeated familiar experiences of unfairness, misfortune, bad luck, and ill-treatment and sometimes showed us how courage, determination and ingenuity could be employed even by the most disempowered to change the course of events.
Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, tells how a chance encounter with a stranger (an old man who provides magic beans) can bring about terrible danger (meeting a giant) but also terrific good fortune (acquiring a hen that lays golden eggs). The tale also celebrates how a poor boy can make the most of an arbitrarily dangerous situation that could have gone either way – being eaten or becoming rich – through his bravery and his intellect.
Fairytales also celebrated unexpected good fortune and acts of kindness and heroism, thereby reinforcing – even restoring – our faith in humanity. As tales of the folk, they not only entertained, but reflected the turmoils and triumphs of the lower classes, and enabled them to fantasise about how the “other half” lived.
Cinderalla and social criticism
But tales of kings, queens, princes and princesses – of which there are many – are not only a means of mental escape for the poor. They are also a means of social criticism.
In Cinderella, as recorded by Charles Perrault, the two stepsisters may have every material possession imaginable, but their cruelty renders them grotesque. And, of course, the lowly Cinderella triumphs. In the German version, Aschenputtel, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, the fate of the stepsisters is very different. Whereas Perrault’s version has the kindly Cinderella forgive them, the Grimms – clearly working from another tradition – describe how they have their eyes plucked out by pigeons!
Such stories of fantasising about a royal life and simultaneously despising it may have functioned as an emotional release similar to the ancient Greek experience of catharsis (the shedding of anxieties through watching outrageous tragedies and obscene comedies).
Taking the fascination with Diana’s life as a fairy tale, for example, we still employ the cathartic release of the genre to interrogate her and, for those of us so inclined, to find some meaning in the Di phenomenon. From the romantic courtship, to the wedding of the century and that dress, to motherhood, glamour, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, alienation and a new love cut short by an early death.
Some, of course, have criticised the warm, fuzzy emotionalism that has sprung from the fairy tale of Di’s life. If it is not to your liking, there are more robust tales with powerful messages of resistance and resilience. In tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Donkeyskin, the young protagonists are persecuted and abused by predators.
There is much to complain about in these tales from a politically correct or feminist perspective. They are violent and subversive: Gretel pushes a witch into an oven and in Perrault’s version of Donkeyskin, a king wishes to marry his daughter following the death of his wife. But they are more than narratives of abuse. They are also about courage and ingenuity on the part of the young survivors.
Donkeyskin, variants of which are extant in English (Catskin) and German (All-Kinds-Of-Fur), champions the bravery and inherent goodness of the young heroine who dresses in the skin of a donkey and leaves the palace in order to escape her father’s desires. Her subsequent life as a servant, filthy, humiliated, reviled and renamed “Donkeyskin” by her fellow servants, never crushes her soul.
Within the fantasy and the convenient appearance of supernatural assistants or a romantic ending, both of which feature in Donkeyskin, these stories are powerful reminders that evil exists in the world in the form of human beings – but it is not definitive or unconquerable.
More dissident responses have included the photographs of Dina Goldstein, whose Fallen Princesses series (2007-2009) is an astute response to the Disney princess phenomenon of unattainable, debilitating images of femininity and romance in bowdlerised versions of the original tales. Here, Goldstein critiques the superficiality of the princess stereotype, reminding us that it is as facile for children as the Diana fairy tale dream is for adults.
Before Goldstein, photographer Sarah Moon also challenged the dilution of fairy tales in the modern west through her provocative (sometimes banned) interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. In this powerful rendition, Moon takes her child reader back to the original and raw meanings embedded in the tale through her exploration of the theme of the human predator in the symbolic guise of the wolf.
Moon’s decision to return to the terror and drama of the Grimms’ version is testimony to the need to challenge the dilution and contamination of the tales. Even the Grimms were guilty of adding and subtracting to the material, particularly when it came to the insertion of overt Christian morality. Equally if not more so, the Disneyfication of fairy tales has stripped them of the power and the pain to which Moon returns.
Writers and poets have also responded to the tales and, like Moon, have regularly sought to return them to their once formidable status. Women authors in particular have created powerful, sometimes heartbreaking – but always real and truthful – new versions.
Among the thousands of old tales in new clothes is the literature of second wave feminists, including the suite entitled Transformations (1971) by renegade poet Anne Sexton, who takes the domesticity of the original tales and mocks, ridicules, cherishes and – literally – transforms them. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a magnificent collection of retellings of famous fairy tales, is full of female empowerment, sensuality and violence in a tour de force that both reinstates the potency of the stories and re-imagines them.
Novelist, poet and essayist, Margaret Atwood also transforms the originals. Her response to The Girl Without Hands, which tells the story of a young woman who agrees to sacrifice her hands in order to save her father from the devil, in a poem of the same name is a profound meditation on the continuation of both abuse and survival.
The fairy tales first preserved by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm – retold, bastardised, edited, annotated, banned and reclaimed – belong ultimately to the folk who first told them. And the folk continue to tell and retell them. Closer to home than the Black Forest, a new show at the The Ian Potter Museum of Art contains work by international and Australian artists, including Tracy Moffatt and Sally Smart. The show returns – once again – to fairy tales to express social concerns and anxieties surrounding issues such as the abuse of power, injustice and exploitation.
Fairy tales are, indeed, good to think with, and their retellings shed light on cultural, societal and artistic movements. Both children and adults should read more fairy tales – both the original and the transformed versions, for they are one of our cultural touchstones.
Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was one of the most popular European fairy tale authors in 19th century England. While today Andersen is known for his agonised mermaids, disabled tin soldiers and disenfranchised match sellers, his Victorian readers celebrated tales that raised environmental concerns during an age of rapid industrialisation.
According to a recent international research project, human activity has been the leading cause of global warming since the early stages of the Industrial Revolution – decades before scientists had previously estimated. Global warming is not a 20th-century phenomenon; rather, humans have been impacting the environment for over 180 years.
From 1760 to 1914 in England, vast numbers of people moved from the country to the city for financial security. London’s population swelled, prompting a century-long struggle with filth. An outdated sewage system released all human waste into the capital’s water supply, smoke poured from both factory and domestic chimneys and streets were caked with coal, mud, vegetable matter and animal waste.
As urban life became increasingly distanced from nature, Andersen’s fairy tales thrived. While Victorian fantasy literature often romanticised nature as an escape from the encroaching industrial landscape, Andersen showed human characters as the source of environmental degradation.
For example, Andersen’s stories The Fir Tree, The Daisy and The Flax, feature plants that are tortured and abused by human characters. In these stories, talking plants suffer the dangers of industry.
Despite the pain they experience, these plants are selfless providers willing to compromise their personal happiness for human interest. These sympathetic depictions of nature, during a century of environmental devastation, encouraged children to reflect on their impact on the landscape.
Other tales, such as The Great Sea Serpent, detail the emerging conflict between animals and technology. The story describes fish reacting to the installation of the transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran the length of the Atlantic ocean between Europe and America.
With the chaos of the installation, schools of fish become separated, sea-anemones “were so agitated that they threw up their stomachs” and the cod and flounders who once “lived peacefully” began to eat their neighbours.
When the fish rally together to destroy the cable, a shark is impaled by a sword-fish and “great fishes and small, sea-anemones and snails rushed at one another, ate each other, mashed and squeezed in” while “the cable lay quietly and attended to its affairs”. The telegraph cable is not a positive technological breakthrough, but a threat to the environment.
A microscopic (yet equally voracious) ecosystem and its parallels with increasingly hostile cities is the subject of Andersen’s Drop of Water. A sorcerer named Creep-and-Crawl examines an extract of ditch water using a microscopic lens. He notices organisms that “hopped and jumped about, pulled one another and pecked one another”. Seeing the organism’s violent, unruly conduct, his colleague assumes that the creatures must be living in a capital city.
The Victorian public was equally horrified by the organisms that were hidden in its drinking water. The fear of contaminated water was well founded: an antiquated sewage system directed London’s cesspools to the Thames, which was the capital’s water reserve. Chemicals from factories were also released into the river, spreading waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
Andersen’s contemporaries also exaggerated microscopic images of organisms (otherwise known as “monster soup”) in contemporary journals. In these illustrations, samples of water from the Thames were filled with a host of aggressive, potentially deadly beasts.
For example, an anonymous illustration published in Punch magazine in 1850 shows hybrid and humanoid creatures wearing tuxedos in a petri dish. Amidst the chaos, small worm-like creatures spell out the word “pestilence”.
William Heath’s coloured engraving from 1828 features winged creatures, hybrid animals and crustaceans with protruding fangs; the woman viewing the contaminated water is so disgusted that she drops her cup and saucer.
By exploring the repercussions of an industrialised landscape, Andersen’s fairy tales provided commentary on a very real, looming threat to the English landscape and its population.
Today, with the steady rise of dystopian literature, ecofiction and climate change fiction (otherwise known as “cli fi”), we see similar artistic responses to environmental change which steer readers away from complacency. As authors seek to express the gravity and severity of ecological crises, their literature holds the potential to inspire radical change.