17.9.07

On the Misuse of the Term 'Fairy Tale'

Everywhere I go, I see people saying things like, "Life isn't a fairy tale. There isn't always a happy ending." And I find myself exclaiming, often aloud: Have you ever actually read a fairy tale?!

I've read a lot of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and a few by the Brothers Grimm. Let me tell you, when people 'lived happily ever after' in their stories it was because they died and went to Heaven. In Andersen's The Garden of Paradise, a prince goes on an adventure and kisses a beautiful fairy, only to be thrown back to his everyday life and sternly warned by Death himself that he's on the road to damnation with such impropriety.

Andersen wrote quite callously about death, especially the deaths of naughty or unchristian children - who would go to Hell unless some quirk of angelic magic would save them. Another popular theme of Andersen's was the inherent superiority of royalty, perhaps best embodied by The Princess and the Pea, but by a number of other stories as well, in which royals, often unidentified and in great danger, are able to triumph merely due to being royals. In Andersen's fairy tales, royalty are never wrong, even when they are, in fact wrong. The Emperor's realisation that his New Clothes don't exist is merely a cause for him to continue with extra dignity (politics hasn't changed much these past two centuries it seems).

Of course, Andersen also wrote really imaginative stories, where strange creatures lurked in every nook and cranny, mysterious and terrifying events struck from nowhere and even inanimate objects had their own (often very sad) personalities. Far from 'happily ever after', Andersen's stories are full of unrequited love, loss, death, failure and every form of wistful melancholy you can think of. As in The Little Mermaid, even when someone finds true love, it probably won't be the person you wanted it to be. All this is perhaps not unsurprising for a man of confused sexuality living in deeply repressive times - actually, it's not all that surprising for a human being living in the real world.

The overriding theme for many of Andersen's fairy tales was of the necessity of being kindhearted even if we suffer endlessly with no respite but death. My favourite of Andersen's stories is The Wind's Tale about Waldemar Daa and his Daughters. It embodies all of this, but leaves out the Heaven bit and still manages to conclude that being compassionate is worth it.

Life isn't a fairy tale, no. Nightingales don't stay Death's hand with beautiful songs, bottles don't go on tragic adventures, goblins don't steal people's tongues in their sleep. I would even go so far as to say that the members of royal families don't have special powers and we shouldn't bank on there being an afterlife. But in many other ways, the fairy tales of old have a brutal honesty to them, and I get a bit annoyed when people assume that they don't.

7 comments:

zhoen said...

Agreed. I expect the phrase came after the softened- for-children-izing of the old stories.

LuluBunny said...

I blame Disney - they took the teeth out of everything - which at 31 years old I find annoying, but at 6 years old, I quite liked, lol ;)

Geosomin said...

I heartliy agree. A swedish friend of mine had a few old books of fairy tales from her Mom. Most ended horribly. They were morality lessons for children and adults. And in reality things are not always so happy. Heck, there are even all kinds of bad fairies and elves and such in old legends...they seem to be left out unless they are a needed plot device.

Disney keeps happyafying (yes I just ade that up) them...The Little Mermaid ended very differently in the old book I read it from.

A Disney film I'd like to see: I recall one particular Swedish fairy tale about a woman whose lover was killed so she kept his head in a potted plant pot and watered it with tears to be near her in her life of dispair with someone esle...definitley not Disney...

Diddums said...

Many fairy tales are absolutely miserable! Cinderella's mother died - that wasn't lovely. People do latch onto the 'happily ever after' line and forget all the rest. The princess gets her prince and all is right for her.

Another way to look at it, possibly, is that fairy tales are full of extremes.

Good - evil.
Diligent - lazy.
Beautiful - ugly.
Clever - stupid.
Rich - poor.

If you win your true love, there is nothing there about arguing, falling back out of love, rival princesses, your husband snoring at night... (I can't remember any, anyway)...

Real life is more grey and less certain than fairy tales, and I suppose everybody wants to be the prince or the princess, and have a bright and beautiful life surrounded by wealth and riches and white harts...

Actually I nearly typed 'surrounded by wealth and witches'. That too, perhaps.

Michelle said...

What a great point. The one that popped into my mind is The Little Match Girl. Not a happy story...

I think that The Emperor's New Clothes may actually be a criticism of the ways of the court, however.

Pacian said...

Perhaps, but it's not the out-and-out criticism that many take it to be. I can imagine someone of suitable pomposity arguing that the Emperor behaves correctly.

tinker said...

I've always wondered what Disney could do to prettify Bluebeard or the Little Match Girl...I think the studio heads have wisely figured out though, that there are some tales that even they can't candycoat and market to today's 5 to 10 year old demographic.