There’s something about fairy tales that has captured the minds of generations for centuries, whether through traditional oral storytelling, in written form or their portrayal to the masses through animation and film. However, it can be hard for the fairy tale genre to break the mold set forth by Disney and its sanitised narratives.
For example, in the original tale of Cinderella, the stepsisters’ eyes were plucked out by pigeons as punishment for their wickedness. Even worse, Rapunzel woke from her slumber after being raped by the prince, and raised her twins alone. And, in a twist that the producers at Disney could never, ever commit to film, The Little Mermaid, who fell in love with the prince ends up dying – turned into sea foam when he chooses someone else.
The notion of the “dark” fairy tale is by no means new, but increasingly they have become a careful, trepidatious balance between light and dark, and between “traditional” and “feminist” in their empowerment of women, who are most often at the centre of the narratives. Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella was criticised more for the slimness of principal star Lily James’ waistline than anything dark, while Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods has been criticised for being less than child-friendly – it is always amusing when unsuspecting parents bring their children to a performance, only to leave before the second act!
The modern-day fairy tale for adults seems like a far-fetched fantasy, when we expect them to be written for children.
Danielle Wood, winner of the 2002 Australian/Vogel Literary award, a senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania and author of several fairy tale oriented books, is in a unique position as she is a mother who writes fairy tales. In being exposed to elements of adult and child views of these narratives, she has been able to implement a multifaceted approach to her writing built on these experiences. Mothers Grimm, published in 2014 by Allen & Unwin, deals with motherhood, satirising the ideal of the “perfect” fairy tale mother – she claims that the “good mother” is as much a fairy tale as the big bad wolf. She theorises that different fairy tales become relevant at different periods. “At the moment, we’re particularly interested in those tales like ‘Rapunzel’ (Tangled), ‘Snow White’ (Snow White and the Huntsman) and even ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Maleficent) that interrogate the relationships between women, and especially the relationships between different kinds of mothers and daughters.”
This inter-generational appeal being reflected in modern retellings is promising as it not only recognises the effect of a fairy tale beyond a child’s worldview, but acts as an improvement on the representation of women in these stories – transforming outdated moral codes into something fresh. This is particularly relevant considering how women are often pitted against one another in traditional stories – such as the Evil Queen wishing to kill Snow White, her adopted daughter; the Wicked Stepmother and stepsisters’ resentment of Cinderella; Maleficent punishing Aurora for her parent’s mistakes – rarely are female friendships and dynamics positive in these instances. Women are also concerningly pitted against one another in modern, real-life media, where gossip columns consistently attempt to create a vicious diatribe of competition. It is in the ability of fairy tales to transform to suit modern concerns that the genre finds its ongoing power. “What I love about fairy tales is their endless malleability. And, at different times in history, different fairy tales seem to come to the fore and present themselves as blueprints to help us work through our preoccupations and anxieties,” Wood said.
Fairy tales have always had a uniquely feminine aspect, yet most of the stories as they are commonly known were reconstructed from original tales by men – the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Walt Disney. In an older version of Little Red Riding Hood, the story ended with Little Red using her wits to deceive the wolf and escape independently. Another version had Little Red and her grandmother teaming up to smoke the wolf out the chimney. In the popular Perrault version, Little Red and her grandmother are saved by a huntsman who is conveniently walking through the woods and hears their cries.
Wood praises a recent turn towards finding the feminine in fairy tales, particularly in reinforcing positive dynamics. “Women have always been the tellers of fairy tales, but they have not always had the opportunity to be their publishers or most well-recognised proponents. In recent years there has been increasing focus – in fiction and scholarly work – on the women who were writing fairy tales at the same time as Perrault, and the women who told tales to the Grimms. So, perhaps the 20th and 21st century retellings of the tales, by women, are just fairy tales finding their way home?”
Reilly McCarron, the creator of Australia’s very own Fairy Tale Society, and owner of healing business Faerie Bard, aims to use her talents as an oral storyteller and musician to retain older, bawdier versions of fairy tales. Like Danielle Wood, McCarron believes that the concept of transformation is key to the resilience of fairy tales. Fairy tales are about reinvention, and transformation is a key element in many stories. It is something that humans understand on a deeper level, the idea that one can grow and transform throughout life, battle metaphorical wolves and dragons, and survive. “Fairy tales are perfectly shaped little stories which reveal the dynamics of the human condition through symbolic motifs and metaphor. They provide a safe stage on which dangerous emotional states can be played out, where dark inner world landscapes are illuminated, where deep insights and wise guidance is found,” McCarron said.
McCarron turns to an older form of storytelling to depict fairy tales – that of oral storytelling – and believes they can enable audiences to heal. “Fairy tales themselves undergo endless transformation as new tellers and artists recreate them in new ways.” This connection between the shifting, transforming narrative and human life holds a deep meaning for McCarron. “Fairy tales illuminate complex psychological states in simplistic ways. The story thread follows through on the journey of transformation until some form of justice or resolution has been reached. Because the tale is simple and entertaining it can be swallowed whole, allowing the seeds of insight to take root in the mind of the listener.”
One of her favourite fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty, was the inspiration for her 2012 show “Sleeping Kingdom, Waking Beauty,” which demonstrated the darkness that can be overcome and understood through the narrative of a rape survivor. The show was hailed by critics, including Paul Nolan of Performing Arts Hub, “The piece was a relevant comment on modern life choices and enlightenment on the road to adulthood during any era.”
“I [retold] this tale to reveal the sleeping/dissociating girl’s inner journey, from which she wakes with a deep understanding of herself,” McCarron said. She believes in the resonance of fairy tales because they are, at heart, full of humanity and real world difficulties. With such symbolically complex narratives, it is hard to believe fairy tales are often dismissed as “just” children’s stories, as if their meanings are not relevant to adult experience. Likewise, it is a genre that, given its propensity for balancing darkness and hope in real-life morality lessons, could perhaps seek to avoid condescending to children. “The fairy tales I told to adults were older versions of popular tales and included some of the sex, humour, and horror which had been edited out of popular versions like Disney. Many adults enjoyed hearing tales they thought they knew but didn’t quite; these versions had more to offer the mature mind,” said McCarron.
The performative nature of fairy tales is something McCarron would like to uphold, as a traditional feature of a genre that is always being transformed and modernised. “The Australian Fairy Tale Society has inspired Fairy Tale Rings to sprout up across the country where people gather together to perform, read, bring artworks, and discuss a tale together, and there are many other groups around Australia doing similar things. But it doesn’t have to be a storyteller performing to an audience, parents of young children keep this tradition alive at bedtime everywhere.”
Danielle Wood has faith that the tales will continue to be created and shared for a long time to come. Fairy tales are uniquely poised to be able to tell the same stories over again with different values and reflections, allowing them to be continually modernised and transformed. “People have responded to Mothers Grimm by saying ‘oh yes, fairy tale retellings are very in, aren’t they?’ But I’m not sure that they’ve ever really been out, and I can’t see why that would change.”
‘Transformation: Spinning straw into green and gold’ is the theme of the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s second conference to be held on Sunday 21st June (Winter Solstice) at the NSW Writers’ Centre.
Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm, published by Allen & Unwin, can be purchased through major Australian bookstores. She will also be at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the 22nd of May for a panel on Myths, Fairy tales and the Need to Believe.