“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
-Neil Gaiman, Coraline (paraphrasing J.K. Chesterton)
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a little girl obsessed with princesses. She drew beautiful maidens wearing shimmering gowns threaded with silver and gold, and sparkling crowns embedded with precious stones, and she dreamed that one day a handsome prince might gallop up on his elegant steed and whisk her away to an ivory castle, where they would live happily ever after.
In real life, of course, it doesn’t work that way.
There might be a charming man who looks great on horseback—but beware any suitor who seems too good to be true. He likely has another woman or two tucked away somewhere, or abusive tendencies, or weird fantasies that don’t match yours. Plus, things change. It’s human nature to be on our best behavior and present our polished selves at first. But as the rose-colored glasses fade to brown, we stop blow-drying our hair, shaving our legs, and avoiding garlic. In other words, we let our scales and fiery breath show. (Yes, dear, reader. Sometimes we are the dragon.) And in truth, we know that no one is perfect—as we ourselves are not—and that we should not expect perfection in others, nor should we expect or even want to be saved by anyone.
Nay, as Neil Gaiman so aptly reminds us:
We don’t need princes to save us.
We know this. We know better. And yet. The fantasy endures, for so many.
Although today we may have a more sophisticated and cynical outlook, there are reasons that fairy tales have existed for thousands of years. Their seemingly simple structures can possess complicated cores, speaking to our subconscious, and reflecting the myriad ways in which people relate to one another. The modern stories we know and love are often an amalgamation of global myths and legends. As children, we enjoy them for the glimpse they provide into another, magical world, where bad things happen to good people, but where good—most of the time—prevails. As adults, we know fairy tales may be cautionary stories, meant to teach our young about the dangers of the world, and how to navigate it. It shows them that life is a struggle, but that, if we are brave, and meet hardship face on, if we make the right choices, we have within ourselves the tools to survive.
Bad, bad things happen in fairy tales. Particularly in the early European ones, where the evil parent was often the mother, not a stepmother, such as in Grimm’s 1812 “Snow White.” In Giambattista Basile’s 1634 rendition of “Sleeping Beauty,” the sleeping princess Talia is raped, and her rapist, a king, burns his wife alive when Talia awakens. In early versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red eats her own grandmother, or eagerly hops into bed naked with the wolf, who, predictably, devours her—all sexual innuendo intended.
Modern audiences have preferred happier endings. This is likely because historically these stories were intended to entertain adults, while today many of us only read them to our children. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in adult versions, particularly for well-known works that have been re-imagined. What happens when you take traditional tales and say “What if?”
This is the stuff from which fractured fairy tales are made.
Many of the original plot elements remain, but there is a crucial twist in the alchemy, which provides the new story an alternate universe in which to flourish. A universe in which princesses not only conquer dragons, princesses may actually be dragons.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Sati Benes Chock taught English in Tokyo before getting her MA in Japanese Literature at the University of Hawaii. She currently lives with her family in Honolulu, where she works at an art museum. Her short story, “The Eye of the Beholder,” will be published in the After the Happily Ever After anthology this December.
photo credit: jinterwas “One more story please?!”