And they lived happily ever after.
What do those words call to mind? If you said “fairy tales,” you would be in the vast majority of people. At first blush, fairy tales are innocent, childhood stories meant to instill right and wrong virtues in children before bedtime. More recent scrutinization of fairy tales have uncovered gruesome plots and disturbing subtexts which has fed the dark literature craze. A quick check of IMDB shows us everything from multiple G-rated to a few R-rated Snow White offerings and everything in-between.
Fairy tales are undergoing a revisionist take in modern times. The most basic revision is switching the genders of the main characters—the little Merman, anyone? Some are wonderfully executed as in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, and some…less than wonderful. Why are people attracted to fairy tales, why do we feel the need to change them, and does any of it matter?
If someone wrote a straight fairy tale story or produced a high-budget fairy tale movie in modern times, they would be thrown out on their ear. The closest we have to an original fairy tale in the classic sense is The Princess Bride. There have been a lot of good fairy tales written, but have there been any that will stick around for centuries? As good as it is, even The Princess Bride winks at the audience where Snow White or Sleeping Beauty never would. We know we shouldn’t be attracted to one-dimensional characters, tried-and-true plots, and thin backstory, but we can’t help but seek them out. Why is that? I think it has to do with a back-to-the-basics approach that a story, told well, is always successful. A tale that fires the imagination is always welcome, if not by critics then by the paying audience. It’s why summer blockbusters with the thinnest of plots succeed. We want a simple world. We want a chiseled jaw hero or heroine. We want to see evil defeated soundly. Every so often we like to see a dark hero (Batman), a complex world (the Matrix), or evil slip through our fingers (any horror movie that set up a sequel). Yet a steady stream of the opposite does not do our psyches well, and then we long for Rapunzel to let down her hair. Why? Because it’s about time someone saved that poor girl!
And as an aside, I am fine with women saving men or boys too. We’ve gotten into our heads saving a woman is sexist. Heck, if I’m being held captive in a bank and a woman police officer charges in, I say “Thank God! Please save me!” The idea we can all save ourselves is a lie, and possibly a topic for a future blog. “Saving people” is a great theme and shouldn’t be dismissed because there are male chauvinists in the world.
If these are such good stories, why do we change them? Because everyone knows them and no one wants to see the same story played out once again. Cue the revisionism. I’m not against revisionist stories if they’re clever, but, quite frankly, they are often mishandled. After reading one, I long to reread the original and, when I do, I realize why it was so fantastic in the first place. Revisionist tales, whether they be fairy tales, superheroes, science fiction, fantasy, classic literature, whatever, often start the wrong way. They start with a taking an existing idea and twisting it around. Instead, it should start in a writer’s mind with a complex character, an arc, plot points, setting, etc. After this story is coming together, the author should say “Hey, this is a lot like so-and-so, but changed a little.” For example, someone has an idea about writing a story about a man who has been kidnapped and out of society for a number of years. The writer wants to explore the man’s disassociation and re-integration with the modern world through the help of a secondary character. The main character is locked in an impenetrable prison, one filled with traps and other challenges. Cue a second main character, a female black ops agent who feels her career is over for some recent failure. Her supervisor assigns her this task. Suddenly, the author says “Hey, this is a little like Rapunzel” and then starts to assemble the pieces to mirror the classic fairy tale. Note the idea didn’t start as “Let’s do Rapunzel as a spy story.” There are too many missed opportunities with this approach and too much winking at the audience. You can almost hear the author say “How clever I am” as you read the novel.
Please note that revisionist is not the same as extending or providing backstory to a fairy tale. Stephen Sondheim’s excellent Into the Woods is not revisionist, but an extension of the fairy tales we know. He builds on characters we know and love and puts them in uncomfortable, modern situations to see how they fare. This story is first and foremost a reflection on parenting, on successes and failure, on viewpoint. I don’t know how he came up with the idea, but the themes are universal and don’t need fairy tale settings and characters to make its point. The fact that it uses fairy tale conventions is genius.
So why change them? Because we want to retell them, but we also want to put our own spin on them. This is fine and follows a long tradition of oral telling. Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not the first version of the story. Many people told the story and added or subtracted from it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Whether original versions or revisions thereof, do we really need fairy tales? What can Snow White tell us in our jaded world of terrorism levels? Is Sleeping Beauty a passive female character waiting for her prince to wake her up? And what relevance does a story like the Little Mermaid, in which she gives up her true prince because of his love for another, have with today’s message of “take what you can get?”
The answer is “you betcha they can teach us a thing or two.” If you believe fairy tales as childhood bedtime stories, you’re sadly missing out. A fairy tale is a short story, and if short stories still have relevance then so do fairy tales.
Let’s pick on Rapunzel. Oh heaven help us, the stereotype. Brought up by an evil stepmother, stuck in a tower, waiting for her prince to come. The prince climbs up the tower by her hair, and then what? Do you know the story? Do you think that he rescues her and carries her off to his castle? Why don’t you to read it again?
The story of Rapunzel is fascinating in many ways. Is the witch so bad? She asks for Rapunzel from her parents who willingly give her over. She tries to keep her “child” sheltered from the world until the prince hears her, and they bond over the sweet songs she sings. The prince visits her until Rapunzel lets it slip the prince has been there. The witch, in a rage, beats her, cuts her hair and sends her into the desert. The prince returns, the witch lowers the hair, the prince climbs it and is frightened by the witch. He escapes but loses his eyesight and wanders around aimlessly for years until he hears Rapunzel again. When he does, she comes to him with his two children by her side. She cries into his eyes, heals him, and they live a long and happy life.
Is this an irrelevant tale? Oh probably. We don’t have parents who want to shelter their children by locking them in their houses, hoping their electronic devices will entertain them instead of the world. Boys and girls don’t bond over music anymore. Thankfully, teenage girls don’t rebel against their mothers and let it slip they’re seeing a boy behind their backs. Fortunately for us, we are a patient world—we don’t need to hear about people wandering around for years in search of their true love—because we don’t have get-rich-quick schemes and road rage anymore. We also have eradicated teenage pregnancy. And a family reuniting? Phhht. That never happens anymore. Lucky for us, all of this is in our past and Rapunzel has nothing left to offer us.
Is this a sexist tale? Here again, we have a young woman pining for a handsome prince and being rescued by the same. My version states this when the prince enters Rapunzel’s room. “Rapunzel was greatly terrified when she saw that a man had come in to her, for she had never seen one before…” Not pining, but reacting as an intelligent woman should when a stranger invades her house. You object. She’s still a fairly passive, modest maiden. There’s no strength to her you say. I say you try raising two children in the middle of a desert. This doesn’t sound like a faint-hearted woman to me. But, you say, the prince saves poor Rapunzel. Can you tell me exactly in which way he accomplishes this feat? Rapunzel, because of the prince, is beaten, her hair is cut, and she’s abandoned. The prince blinds himself in his escape and he wanders around. And then what happens? “…Rapunzel knew him, and fell on his neck and wept. And when her tears touched his eyes they became clear again, and he could see with them as well as ever.” Who saved who?
But then he whisks her away to his castle and makes her a princess. Granted! And if I were a prince and this maiden was the mother of my two children, raising my kids against the odds and restoring my sight, you bet I would whisk her away to my castle and marry her. Let a woman like that get away? Not on your life!
To me, Rapunzel is the heroine of this tale. And if you distill the relevant points in the tale, you’ll see the story is just as good, if not better, than most modern short stories, and a whole lot more entertaining too.
I submit, and will stand by this final point. Namely, the world would be a better place if we all took the time to read more fairy tales.