Tuesday, June 13, 2017

From Grimm Ever-Afters to Censored Once-Upon-a-Times

Our classic fairy tales have shockingly sinister origins. So what does their transformation to family-friendly entertainment tell us about ourselves? ♦ 
“Once upon a time . . . ”
   No matter how old you are, these are powerful, magical words, possessing a strong narrative connotation as the start of the traditional fairy tale as well as a strong nostalgic association. In fact, I bet you’ve just flashed back to your childhood, tucked into bed as your parents read you a bedtime story of knights in shining armor, fair maidens locked in towers, mystical mermaids, fantasylands, and so much more. But our contemporary conception of fairy tales as family-friendly classics that almost invariably end in “happily ever after” is pretty far removed from the darker, more grisly tales that inspired them.
  Let’s go back to nineteenth-century Germany when two infamous brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, first put together a collection of traditional fairy tales. The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, far from the popular, lighthearted versions we’re more familiar with today, were often shocking and quite gruesome. I hate to burst your bubble, but the Disney version of Cinderella you know so well has been dramatically altered from its source material. The original tale wasn’t filled with cheery little mice, a delightful fairy godmother, and a simple shoe-fitting that leads to happiness and marriage; instead, in the Grimm fairy tale, the wicked stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in an attempt to fit into the golden slipper, and their eyes are plucked out by birds as punishment for their falseness.
   Or consider The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, another fairy tale writer from the Brothers Grimm’s era. Compare the original to the well-known animated version and you'll see that Disney made drastic changes throughout the story. In the original, the little mermaid sacrifices not only her voice but her entire tongue to the sea witch and agrees to endure the excruciating pain of feeling like she is walking on knives with every stride she takes on land. On top of everything, she doesn’t even win over the prince! These are only a couple of examples of classic fairy tales that are pretty different from Disney’s “happily ever after” versions, which have been so altered that it’s even led to a term—“Disneyfication"—to describe the process.
   But Disneyfication, in spite of the term's mostly negative connotation, isn’t really a cynical marketing move on the part of an entertainment empire looking to make a buck; the process of transforming these tales has its roots in the art of oral storytelling. Fairy tales originated as oral tales passed on by word of mouth, not written down, thus holding the ability to be modified by the storyteller to fit the needs of the audience. It's a common misconception that fairy tales were created for children; actually, they were originally meant to be a form of adult entertainment, which makes sense given that the tales often contained raunchy or gruesome content. Over time, though, the audience for these tales shifted toward children, and at least part of that shift is thanks, once again, to the Walt Disney Company, which took many of these original fairy tales and transformed them to be rousing entertainments geared toward children in both their stories and themes. Children admire fairy tales and especially hold on to the idea of a “happily ever after” when something unfortunate is going on in their lives. This even carries over into adulthood, as we continue holding on to fairy tales with a death grip in an effort to understand reality, or sometimes to escape its grasp.
   Jack Zipes is a retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota who specializes in the social and political role of fairy tales and has successfully translated the entire Grimm collection into English. In his essay “Spells of Enchantment,” Zipes writes, “Fairy tales provide hope that social and political conditions can be changed.” We tend to remember fairy tales, holding out hope that we can better our world. Come on, ladies, don’t tell me you’ve never daydreamed about meeting your Prince Charming—or, guys, about being the chivalrous knight to sweep a girl off her feet. This is what Disney does so well, and this doesn't only appeal to children but to all of us. After all, Walt Disney himself said, “Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.”
   Family-friendly entertainment is Disney’s goal, so teaching a gory lesson in foot-modification isn’t exactly their prime focus; rather, they concentrate on keeping magic alive and radiating positivity. And our culture has generally admired and appreciated the Disney versions of fairy tales, as parents guide their children toward these positive messages, encouraging them to follow their dreams. We enjoy telling stories that allow us to aspire to change in our lives, and fairy tales have evolved to do just that.
  Stories have been a part of all cultures throughout history, from legends and myths to folk tales and fairy tales; indeed, storytelling is an essential part of both reflecting and shaping society. Fairy tales are unique because they are timeless and geographically unspecific, which leaves room in the stories for broad interpretation. And it’s precisely because of fairy tales’ adaptability that they’ve become an everlasting, utopian, positive force that sustains the hope of the listener, which is what our culture wants: to have the hope that everything will work out.
  • About the Author
    Melissa Phillips is a freshman Professional Writing major and German minor from Mason, Ohio. Alongside her passion for writing, she enjoys traveling, performing arts, and anything Disney. When not busy supervising various locations for the Kings Island Admissions Department, Melissa can be found sitting in King Library—caramel macchiato in hand, of course—studying and writing the night away.

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