One of the wonderful things about my husband writing papers and taking frequent trips to the library is that I occasionally find a gem of my own when I accompany him. Last week, I discovered The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes. Perhaps it reveals my bibliophilia, my obsession with the fantastic, or the fact that, while I graduated quite a while ago, my heart never fully parted ways from the study of literature, but we checked the book out and I looked up some of the stories that fascinate me most: Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. The Companion is really more of an encyclopedia for fairy tale scholarship. It discusses authors, concepts, and, of course, the tales themselves, summarizing their history and potential meanings and readings.
What struck me when going through these entries was the development or, rather, alteration the stories have undergone over time. Modern versions have removed many of the darker elements, an act I used to call Disneyfication, but really, the phenomenon goes beyond Disney’s classic renditions, not that all modern versions shun the darkness. Some embrace and revel in it.
But this post today is about the dampening down of those elements or their removal altogether. Let me provide some examples.
In older versions of Hansel and Gretel, their father abandons them in the woods at the behest of their mother or stepmother, depending on the version. But look at the recent Once Upon a Time episode, “True North,” depicting the tale. Hansel and Gretel lose their father because the evil queen arranges it. The whole story thereafter, in the modern world and in the fairy tale land, is about the children and father finding each other again and holding a deep and abiding love for one another that spans time, worlds, and magic. In modern times, the concept of parents abandoning their children is especially abhorrent, so it’s natural that such a version would alter that detail.
In early versions of Sleeping Beauty, the prince or king comes upon her sleeping and rapes her. She’s woken when her baby or twins, as in the version I read, are born and suckles the splinter from her finger. A kiss is far tamer and socially acceptable.
Beauty and the Beast demonstrates a subtler shift. Older versions depict the father, bereft of his wealth, coming into the garden of the Beast. He plucks a rose as a gift for his youngest daughter. In a rage, Beast intends to kill him, but the father agrees to send one of his daughters to the monster when he gets home instead. His youngest, most beloved daughter volunteers to sacrifice herself to the monster, and rest of the tale unfolds. In modern times, the father that sold his daughter to spare his own life would immediately fall into the category of villain, which is why Disney likely chose to have their Belle exchange herself for her father despite her father’s ardent protests.
In general, fairy tales have become socially conscious. They’ve taken greater effort to make their heroines and heroes admirable and their villains clear, cleaving a clear divide between good and evil. Parents, unless they are villainous like Snow White’s stepmother, are nurturing and loving, or absent entirely. And truly horrendous acts, like the rape of Sleeping Beauty, rarely touch modern versions of fairy tales.