Everyone knows what a fairy tale is; stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. But what do they mean in their context as children’s stories, and how can that context be redefined for different audiences? As a lover of fairy tales, both modern and traditional, this is what I set out this week to answer.
Let’s start with the first question; why do we tell fairy tales to children? They’re cautionary stories, designed to teach us about the world. They are two-dimensional, with characters not having any development, and the storyline is completely linear. All of these make them easy to comprehend – their message is clear – and easy to understand from a linguistic standpoint. Let’s put this into action, using the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood. My quick retelling goes like this;
Little Red Riding Hood is going to grandma’s, her red hood wrapped tightly around her head. “Be careful,” Red Riding Hood’s mum said. “There are wolves in the forest on the way to grandma’s house. Stay on the road.” Red Riding Hood nodded, picking up her basket of sweets to take to grandma.
In the forest, Red makes sure she is following the road. Behind the trees, a wolf spots her. He’s awfully hungry, and Red looks ever so delicious. The wolf decides to follow Red for a time, before revealing himself.
“Hello little girl, where are you off too with all those sweets?” he asks.
“I’m going to my grandma’s, on the other side of the woods,” she answers.
“Isn’t that sweet of you? There are some lovely flowers just off the path over there, don’t you think that your grandma would love them?” he responds.
“Mother told me not to go off the path.”
“It’s okay, they are just on the other side of those trees. You can trust me.”
Red decides that she can trust him, and goes and picks some flowers. In the meantime, the wolf runs over to grandma’s house and eats her up. He then quickly disguises himself in grandma’s clothing and tucks himself into grandma’s bed.
A little bit later, Red shows up at her grandma’s house.
“Grandma, are you home?”
“Yes, darling, I’m in the bedroom.”
“Wow, grandma, what a deep voice you have.”
“All the better to greet you with.”
“Grandma, what big eyes you have.”
“All the better to see you with.”
“Grandma, what big hands you have.”
“All the better to grab you with!”
“Grandma, what big teeth you have.”
“All the better to eat you with!”
Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf. Depending on the story, someone comes to save her. But for this, we’re leaving it here.
Obviously the moral of the story is to not trust strangers and to always listen to your mother when she tells you to stay on the path. Otherwise, you too will be eaten by a big bad wolf.
Now here’s where fairy tales become interesting. Take the same story I just told you, and instead of thinking of a little girl and a literal wolf, replace them with about a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged hairy man. The story takes a much darker turn, right? But it still works pretty much the same. There’s a famous retelling that kind of follows this idea called Company of Wolves that reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a twisted comment on sexual predation and the bestial nature of humans, but it still follows the same format of the fairy tale. Another retelling, this time of Snow White, called Snow, Glass, Apples is probably one of my favourite fairy tale retellings because it twists the way you see Snow White as a character so much it becomes a horror story. The reason why they work, though, is because they’re targeted at an older audience. The audience has grown up knowing these stories for all their simplicity, but now they have the rubbings of cynicism from life to make them believe the stories for all their twisted darkness.
Which comes to the reason I love fairy tales and tales of faeries so much. Faeries, the traditional classification, are simply hyper-realistic humans. They are perfectly beautiful, they can’t lie and they live forever. Yet they’re feared because they, like any other human, twist the truth and play tricks on their unsuspecting victims. In Little Red Riding Hood, especially the versions where the hunter appears, she is a faerie. She reverses her fortunes, trapping and killing the wolf out of spite. She doesn’t die and she doesn’t lie, but she gets her way in the end. Writers can also use faeries to raise very real human problems. When I was thinking of writing this post, I was thinking of the Tithe series by Holly Black, and what kind of cautionary tale she was telling. Then it dawned on me; there are multiple. One of my favourites, though, was the representation of the abusive relationship between Nephamael and Corny (doesn’t hearing Corny as a character make you want to read this book?). Corny literally cannot get enough of Nephamael, because of the faerie’s charm, but every time they are together Nephamael plays ridiculous mind games and physically harms Corny. But if you take away the fact that Nephamael is a faerie, this could literally be any other human relationship and that’s the scary part. The fact that all of these tales come out of things that actually happen – rape and abuse – is really a scary thing. The redeeming part of this is that they always have a happy ending. The evil stepmother is always driven away, the prince falls in love with the girl, the wolf and the faerie die, and the girl is saved.
In short, the importance of fairy tales is that they are a cautionary tale about life. They show the worst in humanity, but they also provide hope. The truth is people go through these experiences and even though they’re not the same as the fairy tale it is the same thing that is happening. They see these things, even at young ages which is why fairy tales are told to children. The happy ending is integral because it shows that being good always wins, and that life goes on.