“Why won’t you read me Cinderella?”
“I have another story, one you’ve never heard…”
Long after I had learned to read myself and stopped requesting bedtime stories, my dad let slip the reason he never bought me Cinderella or Snow White or any other classic fairy tale: he was angered by the fact that the story taught girls to wait around for a prince instead of taking their fate into their own hands. Mind you, this was decades ago, when the term political correctness had not been coined yet, and I remember looking up at him in surprise. After all, all children had Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty read to them, right?
Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment suggests that fairy tales were always used to help children and adolescents transition into adulthood: an idea, a lesson, a rule, can be imparted much more successfully in the context of a story. When we are immersed in a tale, we do not simply listen; we experience. In this way, the elders bestowed all their wisdom upon the young. Some of the lessons might seem dangerous at first (talk to strangers! Steal from the King! Kiss the dead girl!), but in the end, fairy tales were all about helping listeners take risks within the safe confines of storytelling and about guiding them to the right conclusions – the conclusions that benefitted the community as a whole.
Bettelheim wrote his theories a long time ago and since then, newer ideas and studies have come forth. Still, we cannot deny that the fairy tales we listened to as children have stayed with us. Perhaps, we encountered them when we were blank slates ourselves, or perhaps, they are designed to touch a much deeper chord inside us – after all, they have survived so long for a reason. They are adult narratives wrapped in magic. They warn us and tease us with all these things that will eventually happen to us, even if they throw a talking cat to distract us now and then.
Do they subconsciously guide us? I really hope not.
Recently, I wrote an article on the original versions of fairy tales, the details that Disney left out. You know the ones: Snow White and the prince have the stepmother dance on white hot iron shoes till she dies. Sleeping Beauty is raped by a wandering prince and only wakes up when the twins she gives birth to while unconscious, suck the flax out of her finger. Little Red Riding Hood slips naked into the wolf’s bed. Even when the brothers Grimm first collected fairy tales from the German countryside, the felt the need to leave out the goriest details and today, we have to sanitize their narratives even more. The times, thankfully, have changed.
However, as I researched my article, I felt increasingly uneasy – not because of what was left out, but because of what remained. Parents sacrificing their obedient children (Beauty and the Beast – or Hansel and Gretel). Princesses gladly marrying their rapists. Wives tolerating beastly husbands. When I reached Rumpelstiltskin, I was laughing in frustration. The gory detail that was left out in modern retellings is this tidbit: angered that the princess guessed his name, the villain kicks the ground so hard he is torn it two. However, the most horrible detail not only remains, but is always glossed over; the heroine became a princess by marrying the man who threatened thrice to kill her, if she did not spin straw into gold. Somehow, we accept this wedding as a happy end to her ordeal, even if she now has to sleep every night with the man who threatened her with death on a whim.
I can safely say, that I see my father’s point now.
Do I reread these fairy tales every chance I get? Absolutely. Like a bad romance, they stay with us, under our skin, even if the lessons they impart, the words they whispered in our ear, have long been deemed poisonous. Perhaps this is why I jumped at the chance of participating in Transmundane’s After the Happily Ever After anthology. It was a chance to reclaim the stories that touched us so deep, negotiate with them. Look them in the eye, and demand they finally tell the truth. As an adult, I will go deeper and deeper into them; I will just never read them to any child.
Dimitra Nikolaidou is a PhD candidate researching speculative fiction and role-playing games. When not examining the relationship between postmodernism and boggarts, she works as a magazine editor and freelance writer. She is the winner of 2015’s Wyrm’s Gauntlet speculative fiction competition, and she publishes non-fiction in Atlas Obscura and Cracked.
Photo credit: “Rumpelstiltskin” (c) Lady Garland