Once Upon a Bawdy and Bloody Time: Kelly Talks Fairy Tales

A confession: I would love to be a fairy tale scholar. Yes, I already have my useless English degree, but I just want to keep rackin’ ‘em up.

From the time I was a small child, I would go straight for the J398.2s in my local library (Dewey Decimal, what up). Folk tales, fairy stories, tall tales, fables from different countries. It was all there, and I lived in those worlds. When I was older, I loved reading expanded and new takes on the genre. Ella Enchanted was my absolute favorite. And to this day I still can’t resist a magical tale. So when signing up for my final semester as an undergrad, I saw a senior seminar based on the fairy tale tradition, so it was a no-brainer. I had the professor before, and loved her immensely. And hey – it was fairy tales. How much fun was that going to be? Well, it was fun. But also an extremely difficult class. There are so many ways to examine fairy tales, and a far richer history than I had imagined.

And the tales themselves. As a culture, we have a very rigid idea of fairy tales: they are children’s tales, filled with “happily ever afters” and “once upon a times.” The princess is beautiful and the prince is brave. Well after the very first class, I learned one thing:

Fairy tales are fucked up.

We’ve been given the watered down, boring versions of fairy tales for too long. (I’m looking at you, Walt Disney). Ok, so The Little Mermaid. Ariel wants to grow some legs so she can get away from her oppressive family. And heeey Prince Erik is hot. There is singing, a crustacean band, and a sweet message about finding your voice. (Also, instilling a want of manufactured goods). Well, kids – shit doesn’t go down like that in the original Hans Christian Anderson tale. Girl goes to the world above, but can never reveal herself to the prince. In the end, he marries another girl and the little mermaid is gonna DIE. But then she is given the chance to kill the prince and his wife, so that she can return to the ocean. However, she just loves him too much and wants to see him happy. So she returns to the ocean to die and turn into sea foam. But hark! Angels see how pure the little mermaid is and offer her the chance to earn a soul by flying around doing good deeds. FOR 300 YEARS. It is a terrible story, and don’t even get me started on “Little Match Girl.” And “The Little Mermaid” is just a very tame example of the messed-up tales, since Anderson was pushing Christianity down our throats.

It’s interesting that we have this whole genre of books now that are labeled “fractured fairy tales.” This is working off of the notion that fairy tales are inherently whole things. That they are these condensed little nuggets of virtue and good-triumphing-over-evil stories for children. So when the heroine is not a perfect princess, it is deviating wildly from what a fairy tale is. But fairy tales didn’t start out as just for children, and as I said before, the original ones were fucked up. The original tales were “fractured,” then over the years they were cleaned up, but now they’re becoming more like the earliest versions.

There are fairy, tall, and folk tales in every culture around the world. Telling stories is just part of human nature, and how we transmit our values and histories to the next generation. Fairy tales are an integral part of this tradition and I am not pretending any expertise on everything to know. More of a quick and dirty rundown of tales and the stories behind the tales that I think are interesting.

Like did you know there are a whole series of tales that the scholar Jack Zipes labels the “Incestuous Father”? Yup. You read that right. Usually, the mom dies and the dad decides he wants to have sex with his daughter. She is horrified and escapes his lecherous clutches by disguising herself in an animal-skin. She ends up in a prince’s house, and there she has to prove her virtue through hard work and a test of some kind. She did nothing wrong but she is the one who has to suffer. In some stories, the daughter even gets her limbs chopped off as part of her test. Now, I don’t remember that happening in any Disney film…

Oh and the original Sleeping Beauty tales. The princess was knocked out for 100 years by a magical thorn, and this prince comes along and sees how beautiful she is. He rapes her in her sleep, and she becomes pregnant. The baby is born and crawls up to her mother’s breast, but ends up sucking out the thorn. Sleeping Beauty wakes, and is thrilled to see the baby. Wouldn’t you be thrilled, dear reader? The tale ends usually with the prince marrying sleeping beauty, sometimes after killing off his current wife. What an absolute charmer, right?

Don’t get me started on Snow White. Just don’t. Domestic bullshit, creepy prince, BLARGH.

Ahem. Another interesting time is that of the French salon writers of the seventeenth century. There were a lot of women writers involved with this, and their tales were definitely not for children. The stories were pages and pages long and often dealt with very important political ideas of the time. Themes of women’s roles and the Enlightenment were written into their tales, along with nature versus nurture. A prominent member was Madame d’Aulnoy. She actually coined the term contes de fees (or fairy tales), and besides being an excellent writer, led an absolutely wild life. She even tried to frame her husband for treason so he would be jailed and/or executed (It was an arranged marriage).

There is a myriad of tales out there which are filled with very adult things – lots of sex, lots of intrigue, lots of poking fun at political leaders. There is even a tale with a cricket and a butt plug. Seriously. The original Little Red Riding Hood tales are dripping with bawdy sexual humor. And there is subtext like you wouldn’t believe – commentary on class differences, the Bubonic Plague, women’s rights. These stories are amazing.

So maybe at this point you are asking what the hell happened. How do most people write off fairy tales as boring kid stuff? Well, this is going to be reductive. But I am blaming those damn Grimm brothers. They were running around Germany, collecting tales from the common people. Trying to standardize the language and make some money. And do you know what they did – they took out all the juicy bits. They turned these bawdy tales into things fit for good Christian children. (Funny thing though, they still left in the violence. Like in their version of Cinderella – the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by birds. Lovely!) Since then, the idea that these stories should be didactic and happy things for kids has stuck.

One of my classmates had told a friend about our fairy tale seminar, and he scoffed at it, asking if it was before or after “Hopscotch 101.” While we all laughed at the joke, it still brought home the fact most adults would think the same thing. So it is time to take back the fairy tale! There is a rich history of political commentary, fantastic adventures, uncomfortable subjects, lurid scenes, and really hilarious twists that make fairy tales the stuff of adults. Go ahead and read some of the original tales, and I hope you will find them as deliciously fractured as I do.

Suggested reading/viewing:

Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories, definitely a feminist-leaning take on the classic tales. The title one is based on the BlueBeard tales, in which a man marries an innocent young girl. She discovers a chamber in which the man’s previous wives are all strung up on the walls, murdered by him. Very sinister stuff. But Carter makes it about desire and identity. She’s a badass.

Robert Coover – postmodernist extraordinaire. Briar Rose is this crazy novella length story of Sleeping Beauty. It’s both beautiful and funny and heartbreaking, with the narrative alternating between Briar Rose, the Prince, and the Old Hag.

Kill Bill 1& 2 – Really a take on Sleeping Beauty. Read the original and then watch the films.

The Great Fairy Tale Tradition – ed. Jack Zipes. I really love the way Zipes breaks down the stories into types, and then chronologically. His commentary is really insightful and direct, very readable.

Tales of Beedle the Bard – C’mon -there can’t be a post without a Harry Potter reference. JKR does a masterful job of capturing the tone of classic tales, while adding in some great feminist and humanist touches.


One thought on “Once Upon a Bawdy and Bloody Time: Kelly Talks Fairy Tales

  1. I’m so happy you posted about this! I love old fucked up fairy tales. =) I mean, that Prince Charming, what a dream boat.

    I find it strange that there are so few fun folk tales about America. The only good one I can think of is “Sleepy Hollow”. The rest, like Peter Rabbit and Babe and his Blue Ox, snoooore!

    Am totally going to be checking out “The Great Fairy Tale Tradition”. We touched upon Zipes in my Children’s Literature class, but only discussed fairy tales for two classes. I wish I had taken that seminar with you! Sounds way better than my Henry James seminar.

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