Many of us have grown up with the older versions of fairy tales, visceral stories that were handed down from generation to generation. I certainly recall the earlier folk tales, devouring each tale with zeal, especially those of the Brothers Grimm. The Brothers collected and revised an enormous number of oral and written narratives covering a breadth of folklore traditions. Many of these have been cannibalised by Disney and the film industry, transformed into either sickly sweet concoctions or vehicles dripping in blood and nothing else. Being a lover of things gothic, this writer revels in the exploration of mysteries hiding in the great forests of the imagination. Where’s the harm in breaking through the hardened layers of bland camouflage to reveal the reality of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. It’s plain where I stand but not a viewpoint many would agree with.
With tongue firmly in cheek I now march forward in this short and irreverent take on a few favourites. These fairy tales have a subtext that’s worth exploring. Nothing is as it seems, which makes them worth reading. They’re not sanitised but exist in forms that aren’t easy to face. We must ask ourselves why this is so.
Rapunzel is the result of a magical pregnancy due to her mother eating rapunzel lettuce from a sorceress’s garden. The child is demanded as payment by the sorceress and whisked away to a lonely tower in a remote forest at the age of 12. Her only company is the old woman until the fateful day years later a handsome prince comes by and ends up knowing her in the biblical sense. Their trysts do not remain a secret and results in Rapunzel losing her glorious hair and the prince trying to commit suicide, becoming blind and the pregnant woman being banished into the ends of the earth. The prince finds her eventually, a mother of twins, miraculously recovering his sight. They live happily ever after. What do we have here? Child trafficking and teenage pregnancy.
The familiar tale of bereavement and difficult relations with new stepfamily. Cinderella’s mother dies and her father remarries but life turns out to be very difficult for her. Relegated to the position of a servant she leads a terrible life, everything taken away from her including her father by her stepmother and stepsisters. The local prince announces his matrimonial intentions and precipitates frenzy amongst the singletons in the kingdom. Of course Cinderella will not have any part in this affair and her stepmother sees to that but it seems nature has other ideas. Instead of the pumpkin and a fairy godmother we have her dead mother’s spirit and doves helping out. The glass slipper becomes an instrument of torture as the stepsisters mutilate their feet to get into the shoes and eventually have their eyes pecked out by doves. It seems justice is brutally served. Malice abounds in the tale, as does a lingering sense of loss, apathy and brutality. The family are obvious candidates for therapy.
Hansel and Gretel
The story of a poor woodcutter and his wife who abandon their daughter and son in the forest due to their dire straits. Social services would have a field day. The father is emotionally blackmailed into abandoning their children and the dirty deed is carried out but the children manage to find their way back home each time. Eventually this becomes impossible and they find their way to a house made of bread, hunger soon forces them to gorge on the house. The building is really a lure to attract children to the house of a cannibal, an old woman who is a witch. They are soon trapped and preparations are made to cook Hansel but Gretel manages to trick the witch into climbing into the oven and is killed. The children escape with treasures found in the cottage and return home to find their father has been widowed. Child abandonment, a serial killer, psychological trauma. Not a pleasant story is it?
Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood)
Supernatural goings on in the forest, which do not end well for a wolf. The familiar Little Red Riding Hood is in fact Little Red Cap, beloved of all who meet her and her family. Her grandmother as a special gift gives the jolly young woman a red, velvet cap. A day comes when she is asked to visit her sick grandmother, whose house lies in the forest. She is told not to stray from the path under any circumstance. The journey through the forest brings Little Red Cap into contact with a wolf, an amicable enough encounter. Strange that the girl does not question the fact that this creature is not what he appears to be. She falls into temptation and strays from the path, encouraged seductively by the beast. Away she goes with the fairies as the beast makes his way to the grandmother’s house. She becomes the main course, as does the girl. Not very bright that child. A passing huntsman rescues them and the wolf is killed and skinned. Questionable practice to send a child out on their own into a strange place don’t you think? Who is the real victim here the wild beast or the humans? The story appears to have rather Freudian overtones, steeped in symbolism (look up the red cap mushroom the Fly Agaric, its associations might interest you).
A perfect child is asked for and the Universe delivers. Skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony. The story has a tragic ending as the child’s mother dies in childbirth. As again the widower remarries within a year but the stepmother appears to be a psychotic character who suffers from pathological jealously. She orders Snow White to be killed and her heart and lungs brought to her as proof. This is not done but animal organs substituted by the huntsman. Cannibalism rears its head again. The young woman ends up in the home of seven dwarves, who promise all to her if she stays with them. Interesting…More murder attempts follow, asphyxiation and poisonings. Until the very last one, a poisoned apple sends her into a deep coma. Our beauty lies in resplendence in a glass coffin until passing prince spies her and begs to buy her from the dwarves. Eventually she awakens and they marry. Jealous stepmother is invited to the wedding and is unmasked, forced to wear red-hot shoes and dance until she dies. An inventive but horrific method of torture.
I sense this post is really about the dangers of losing our connection with the greater world, its realities and us. Our modern, technologically advanced societies contain many marvels but it comes at a price. The great forests of steel, glass and concrete grow ever higher and push back the boundaries between wilderness and ‘civilisation.’ Humanity stands on the boundary staring back at the wolves, bears and fantastical inhabitants of ‘out there’. In reality are we staring at older, wilder versions of ourselves? There’s no sense in trying to tame that which refuses to roll over and admit defeat. I was struggling with taming the ‘wild things’ over the last few years and now appear to be standing on the cusp of a breakthrough. I stare back at the inhabitants of ‘out there’, foot poised over the boundary. Funny how insights can appear in the most unlikely of places.