The Timelessness of Fairy Tales

October 17, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales lately. These are particularly fascinating for being so universal – essentially the same tales or characters appear all over the world, with variations dictated by differences in cultures. Consider the Baba Yaga  figure: the cannibalistic witch who preys particularly on children emerges time after time, often defeated by her intended prey but never entirely banished. Her dwellings are fantastical – whether it’s huts on chicken legs or houses made out of gingerbread, it’s clear that she lives well beyond the ordinary concerns of most of mankind. Baba Yaga, Baba Jaga or Baba Roga – or merely ‘the witch’ – appears in folklore across the UK, Poland, Russia, Croatia and Romania to name a few.

These worlds of witches, wolves and princesses are endlessly appealing; we’re as fascinated by them in adulthood as we are in childhood. There’s often a message hidden somewhere in the story which remains relevant no matter how old we get. The success of new creations such as Shrek, assorted Disney films and Gregory Maguire’s fairy tale retellings are testament to their enduring appeal.

That isn’t to say they aren’t considerably changed by these recreations. In recent decades there’s a noticeable sanitising of fairy tales – one might say they have become increasingly ‘Disneyfied’. That isn’t to say that all of the darker themes to fairy stories have been removed, but in their modern incarnations audiences can usually rely on reaching a colourful happy ending. ‘Happily Ever After’ is, after all, what most of us want. But that hasn’t always been the case. There’s a darker undercurrent to many older tellings of popular tales, and I’ll be exploring this in the new few months by going back to some of the original tellers of tales – the Brothers Grimm prominent among them.

This has given rise to some new writing projects. A recent story, ‘The Museum of Fairy Tales’, is an exercise in reinventing some popular characters – Hansel and Gretel, the ‘witch of the woods’ and the Big Bad Wolf – and setting them against the modern world’s obsessions with money and history, or tradition. Currently in the works is a similarly-motivated tale about a wannabe Swan Maiden and her accidental encounter with a real Swan Cloak. I’ve a feeling I’ll be occupied with fairy tales for some time.

There are some excellent publications exploring some of these ideas in fiction and articles. I’d certainly like to recommend ‘The Fairy Tale Review’, found here: http://www.fairytalereview.com/, and also New Fairy Tales, found here: http://www.newfairytales.co.uk/. Additional recommendations gratefully received!

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§ 2 Responses to The Timelessness of Fairy Tales

  • lyonesse2710 says:

    I can’t help wondering if we are perhaps doing children a disservice by over sanitizing fairy tales, and wonder if we are teaching them to set their expectations of life far too high by presenting them with a saccharine sweet ‘happily ever after’ without any of the sheer and often rather bloody hard work that has to be put in first, work that requires strength of will and character and a certain level of belief that the modern retellings often seem to lack. We can’t all have happily ever after delivered to us on a plate, after all!

    Incidentally, you might find this website interesting
    http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

  • lyonesse2710 says:

    There’s also this site
    http://endicottstudio.typepad.com/jomahome/
    Unfortunately the Journal of Mythic Arts is no longer running, but the back issues are fascinating and provide some really interesting food for thought. Endicott Studios has some fascinating stuff on there as well.

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