Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
Over the past decades there has been a resurgence of interest in fairy tales, not the revised and censured ones that had been laid by the Grimm brothers, but those re-tellings which seem to answer to a modern appetite for agency over apathy. “You don’t need princes to save you,” says Neil Gaiman while talking about his works, “I don’t have much patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.” Indeed, if we look at the new representations of such classics like Snow white (Snow White and the Huntsman), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent) or the Snow Queen (Frozen) the focus of these stories has been shifted to the female protagonists and to their ability to not only fight and defend themselves but also to be the ones in control of their destinies.
The Cinderella found in the recent collage of fairy tales Into the Woods directed by Rob Marshall becomes increasingly disillusioned by the royal life and, above all, by her prince/husband. In the end, she rejects her ‘happily ever after’ ending opting instead for a pleasant life with the Baker, his baby, Red Riding Hood and Jack. Though we do have a love story of some sort, the highly popular Frozen revolves around the strong bond between the two sisters Elsa and Anna. Similarly, the bond between Maleficent and the young Sleeping Beauty in Angelina Jolie’s adaptation goes beyond the stereotypical love between prince and princess and it clearly challenges the idea of true love. Is true love only found within the romantic sphere? The answer is clearly a big No.
These new twists and versions of the traditional happy ending reveal the cultural changes that are taking place in our society. Characters have become more complex and needy and, apart from rare examples, there are no absolute evil or good people inhabiting these fictional worlds. Fairy tales are more relevant than ever, but why?
In her short history of fairy tales Once Upon a Time, Marina Warner notes that fairy tale genre does not possess a precise literary form but it is “as fluid as conversation taking place over centuries.” Because of its peculiarity it has been able to morph through time according to sociological and historical changes, all the while crossing both literary and geographical borders. Tales from China, Japan, Australasia, India and the Caribbean and every subdivision within nation borders echoes each other revealing the presence of a universal imagination regarding the human condition and its desires and fears. Not surprisingly, the language of the psyche is abundant within this genre. Dark forests and dangerous places, poisoned apples, the red cape or the white snow, all symbolize deeper and concealed truths. Each element reflects the dark corners of humankind as well as the secrets of a particular individual.
Fairy tales have a kaleidoscopic quality in that their stories remain open for others to transform them. Writers have been recycling, adapting and gender bending the genre in a quest to answer to the intriguing question “What If.” What if, for instance, the roles of Red Riding Hood and the bad wolf were reversed and the red capped girl was the one luring the beast or what if she was a dormant werewolf herself? Angela Carter answered to these questions by writing two exquisite tales in The Bloody Chamber. In The company of Wolves Red Riding Hood is a virginal pubescent girl put against the seductive werewolf. Though her scarlet shawl is described as the color of sacrifice she is no victim. She gleefully accept the encounter with her seducer and in the end she is the one dominating him. On the other hand, The Werewolf sees the granny as the dangerous wolf who tries to kill her gran-daughter but ends up being chastised and killed by the villagers after being exposed by the girl. Red Riding Hood become thus the owner of the granny’s house. The decadent atmosphere and highly opulent language which perfectly frame these stories of ambiguous morality and sexuality is what made Carter’s dark fairy tale a masterpiece which continue to mesmerize readers and writers alike.
Of course, Carter is only one among many writers who made use of fairy tales as a discourse to challenge, destabilize and shape attitudes of our culture. See for example works such as Snow White, Blood Red (Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling), Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (Jack Zipes), Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (Philip Pullman) or Coraline (Neil Gaiman) just to name a few, all of which present a modern twist to their favorite classic stories.
Gaiman describes fairy tales as a loaded gun able to detonate at anytime revealing to its readers infinite possibilities of self-discovery and reinvention. In explaining how he came out with the idea of an evil Snow White in Snow, Glass, Apples, Gaiman notes that “the big problem with history and folk tales is that they are written by the winners and the problem with the wicked queen is not that she is wicked but that she didn’t go far enough.” In his Gothic vision Snow White is a deadly vampire. Her nightmarish and yet enthralling appearances –hair black as coal, her lips, redder than blood, her skins, snow-white– haunts the reader’s mind and the step-mother psyche up until the very last page.
Both Snow White and the Queen, which is not as wicked as we are led to believe, are smart, cunning and not afraid of going to great length to destroy their rival. In Gaiman’s literary world there are not passive characters, especially female ones. The Sleeper and the Spindle, present in his new collection of short stories Trigger Warning, intertwines the ending of Snow White with the events taking place after a princess from a neighboring kingdom (Sleeping Beauty) falls victim of a witch’s curse: a death-like sleep. The story presents a series of stock characters: the dwarfs, the two princesses, evil stepmothers, the forest of thorns and the kiss. However, some of them are equipped with new qualities and abilities: Snow White becomes an intrepid knight on a mission to save Sleeping Beauty and both kingdoms, she is able to resist the curse because she too was left sleeping in a glass coffin for a year and the dwarves become her traveling companions. Sleeping Beauty, we discover, has not been such a passive person after all. Though the characters seem familiar they are not quite the same. Even at the end of the tale we are not sure who is who and what exactly happened. Like many writers before and after him Gaiman’s imagination was ignited by the unavoidable question: What if… In his case, as he admits in the introduction to his story, “what if the women who were already the subjects of the stories had little more to do, and were active and not passive…?”
The more we read fairy tales (the modern and traditional versions) and about them, the more our fascination with this genre endures. The dark happenings and evil characters appearing again and again disturb our psyches and stir something within us and yet we are incredibly attracted to them. It could be argued that the idea that where there is darkness there is also the possibility of reaching the light, that if we are smart enough we can overcome fear and even beat it, is the reason why we keep on reading fairy stories and why they are still relevant today.