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Fairy tales from Grimm to glamorous

Folk stories were once gruesomely ever after

Hermann Vogel illustrated the Grimm version of Cinderella, called Ash Girl, in 1894.

October 25, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Once upon a time there was a damsel in distress. A prince came and whisked her away, and they lived happily ever after. At least that’s the heartwarming story most people know.

Fairy tales have evolved through the centuries from horrifying parables with death and gore into clean, shiny stories with talking animals. Take a look back through time to see how it all began.

Happily ever after

The first full-length Disney film, Snow White, was released during the Great Depression. It gives us the adorable chatty animals and Seven Dwarfs. Watching the always cheerful but intensely naïve Snow White and the whistling dwarfs helped people forget about woeful reality.

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“There is a Disney brand that suggests that Americans can’t cope with an unhappy ending,” says Milbre Burch, an MU doctoral candidate in theater with a minor in folklore. The ability to adapt a gruesome story into a wholesome tale is one of the many reasons why Disney stories are so successful. The Disney version of Cinderella, complete with an evil stepmother, fairy godmother and talking mice who sew dresses, has only the bare bones of the harsher original.

Grimm, gory lessons

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn’t devise the plots for their famous fables. They were German scholars in the 1800s interested first in linguistics and eventually in perpetuating German nationalism through the pastoral folk stories they collected, says Ryan Habermeyer, a doctoral candidate in English at MU. “It was an ideal — a utopian fantasy — they had that these stories would bring everyone together,” Habermeyer says.

With each of the seven editions they published, the brothers nipped and tucked plots and characters to fit their Protestant values. The Grimm tales might cross the line compared to fairy tales today, but their moral scare tactics kept kids in line.

In their telling of Ash Girl, there were no talking mice, and the fairy godmother role was played by a tree. The slipper was gold, not glass, and the evil stepsisters chopped off parts of their feet to make the footwear fit. To make matters worse, pigeons pecked the stepsisters’ eyes out at the wedding. In Snow White, the Evil Queen is forced to dance to her death in hot iron shoes. And people today say 3-inch heels
are murder.

Storytelling’s oral origins

Prior to the 1600s, stories weren’t written down but spoken. Children were treated like tiny adults then, which is part of the reason oral folktales were used for community entertainment rather than moral lessons. The plots were more disturbing than the Brothers Grimm tales and included vulgar themes such as necrophilia and cannibalism.

In earlier versions of Snow White, the Evil Queen eats Snow White’s heart. And the whistling dwarfs were instead thieves who kept Snow White around for more than just a clean house and hot meals.

Plots during this time weren’t solidified the same way as written versions; the tellers adapted the tales to fit the listeners’ culture. Burch explains that as tales passed from person to person and culture to culture, elements were left out or changed as each storyteller interacted with the audience.

A new spin

A trend in fairy tales is to “fracture” or modify the story. Sarah Howard, children’s manager at Daniel Boone Regional Library, says there are several ways of fracturing fairy tales: telling the story from a different character’s viewpoint, reversing roles or putting the plot in a modern setting. Lately, many fairy tales are being filtered through postmodernist and feminist lenses.

Burch says only the stories that are established and written down can be fractured. Otherwise, adaptations and changes are part of the normal evolution of how stories can express different parts of the human existence.

Cinderella is submissive in most versions of the story. But in Ella Enchanted, a fractured version that went from book to movie, Ella is born with a gift, or burden, of obedience. She can’t disobey a direct order though she tries to fight her “curse.”

Without basic knowledge for the traditional tale, Howard says the audience can’t truly appreciate the fractured version. If the wolf suddenly became the good guy, and the three little pigs tried to break into his house, would you get the humor if you didn’t know how the story traditionally is told?

Burch believes that fractured stories, if they are well-developed, can often stand on their own. But she says that audiences usually will miss the deeper meaning behind the changes unless they are familiar with the original.

No matter when or where they are told, fairy tales teach people how to navigate life by using metaphors. Through them, without realizing it, kids and adults learn the difference between right and wrong.

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