Who wouldn’t want to be swept up to the fairy tale ball? A place of magic and wonder and happily ever afters. And reading a fairy tale is like going to a masked ball, with all the glitz and glamour and more than a little danger.
And I love fairy tales, and fairy tale balls. But…
While fairy tales are often messages of hope and optimism and doing the right thing, sometimes their original meanings were wrapped around a nugget of corruption. Secret messages, handed down from mothers to daughters to keep them safe, were often lost as men like Hans Christian Andersen and others made fairy tales their own.
And so the question is always can we take the good, and throw away the evil?
I say yes.
Layers of meaning in deceptively simple text, may well be why fairy tales are endlessly fascinating. Stories where almost every protagonist strives to do the right thing and create their own happily ever afters. And we take what we want from any tale, ignoring what we do not want to see. Like the unfortunately common fawning over royalty—a trait that has been taken up by too many fantasy stories. And yet, it’s never that simple.
Take the Ugly Duckling & Beauty and the Beast
In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale was apparently about how royal he thought he was! Truly. He thought that despite being a clumsy kid his royal lineage shone through, or as Wikipedia kindly put it: “…that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage.“ Fortunately, this original meaning did not stick, and for most it’s a story about not not judging a person by their looks, and giving everyone the chance to flourish.
Beauty and the Beast is an even more divisive piece of literature, and also a much-loved tale of a girl, who, depending on who you ask, either:
Discovers beauty is on the inside
Is a victim of Stockholm syndrome
For me, it was always the latter. I can’t read the original without urging Beauty to run away! Of course, that doesn’t mean my interpretation is right.
Still, the idea that beauty is on the inside is a powerful one, because it’s so true. It hardly matters how pretty someone is if they’re ugly on the inside. And of course Belle Rose/Beauty is a beautiful character, both on the inside and the outside. Belle Rose, by sacrificing herself for her family, is eventually rewarded for her generous nature by finding her prince. And that’s lovely, unless you’re me and you’re begging her to escape. (And while I understand if you disagree, I’d also suggest imagining a gender-swap novel around the premise of locking someone in a room with no company until they do what you want. ) So yes, to modern sensibilities, the original is problematic—which is why…
Rewrites of fairy tales are so exciting.
What was the magic that the author saw? What was the gem of truth that needed to be revealed to the world? And did the hero get the happily ever after they deserved?
Of course, the answer to that should almost always be “yes”. These are fairy tales after all. Meant to bring us hope and answers in a world that may not always have either. The weight of generations worth of knowledge, and nonsense, hidden in sparse words and archetypal images. There’s a lot to discover. A lot to throw away. And a lot of room for interpretation to allow those nuggets of truth to shine shine brightly. Modern retellings often do just that, transforming stories for a modern audience. A sophisticated audience that wants the best of human nature to shine through.
So don’t despair if you discover that your favourite fairy tales was akin to a bully hiding in a hero suit, because for may authors, that’s half the fun. Recreating that story to destroy the bully and have the true heroes—the steadfast and good of heart—win it all. And by “it all” I don’t mean a crown, or even a fairy tale ball, but true agency and the freedom to live ones best life.
Read more about fairy tales:
A Tale of Two Fairy Tales: Snow Song by Sally Gardner and The Left Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix