by Sara Cassidy
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: January 2017
There are many ways to tell a story. To spin a tale. To skin a cat. Sometimes a story wants the facts, sometimes the poetry.
Fairy tales—those stories about imaginary and magical beings and lands—come in two varieties, as Joan Acocella explained in The New Yorker. There are the literary fairy tales conceived on the page—for example, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea or Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince—and then there are the oral tales, stories that travelled mouth to ear for centuries, even millennia.
When industrialization wore away at long-time domestic rhythms, the opportunities for storytelling, by parents to children, or labourers to one another, were diminished. A movement to preserve fairy tales rose up in Europe: German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm joined in, working at desks across from each other in the same room for decades, recording over 200 stories. Most of the fairy tales you can call to mind were preserved by the brothers’ pens.
I had three collections of fairy tales growing up. I remember the weight of each in my hand and the generosity of its spine when opened. More profoundly, what I remember is the sound of a silver twig snapped from a silver tree—a soldier’s proof of a musical underworld in The Twelve Dancing Princesses—or the thrill of Rumpelstiltskin’s rage.
“English novelist Angela Carter, who wrote some thrilling Grimm-based stories, [says that] asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball,” writes Acocella. “Every narrator reinvents the tale.”
Last year, researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon released amazing-but-maybe-not-shocking findings: fairy tales are far, far older than commonly believed (the Grimm brothers had their suspicions). Jack and the Beanstalk has been told, in various ways, the academics said, for 5,000 years. Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin for 4,000.
Luckily, the diversity of fairy tales does not end with the Brothers Grimm. Writers continue to write the stories afresh.
The Greater Victoria Public Library has shelves filled with versions of Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and more. Fill your boots! I highly recommend taking out a dozen versions of the same tale and read them with your children. They will learn an enormous amount about a story’s fluidity—how it can change and still keep its soul. They will learn about points of view, tone, even about the sanitizing of narrative.
Paul Galdone didn’t sanitize the end of Little Red Riding Hood. In his version, “the huntsmen skinned the wolf and took the skin home.” Imelda Staunton, in her version, recalls another traditional ending, one that I adore: after the huntsman slices the wolf open to free Red Riding Hood and her grandmother (who in every version emerge wonderfully whole and clean), the three fill the wolf with heavy stones before stitching him back up. In many versions, the wolf wakes and staggers about until he topples over dead. But in Staunton’s version, the wolf wakes desperately thirsty and hurries to the river. When he bends to drink, “the stones in his belly tipped him right into the water, and he was too heavy to get back out.”
The details may change, but Red Riding Hood retains its ancient warning against talking to strangers, or, more specifically, perhaps, for girls against talking to strange men. And against disobeying your mother’s advice. The story also plays with how easy it is to be led astray, how distraction can lead to disaster, and how something as wonderful as collecting flowers can have dangerous consequences.
Fairy tales endure because, for all their impossibilities—talking wolves, tiny men tearing themselves in two, pigs building houses of brick—they are filled with truths about being human.
In Rumpelstiltskin, a proud father gets carried away and boasts to the king that his amazing daughter can spin straw into gold. The girl pays for her father’s flight of fancy by getting locked by the king in a room of straw that she must transmute. She can’t, of course. Along comes Rumpelstiltskin to help her—in return for her firstborn. The story is about pride, the miller’s and Rumpelstiltskin’s, and about fair exchange: we cheer at Rumpelstitlskin’s end because he is punished for his extortion. Kids may wonder, doesn’t the girl owe him something? But is it her debt, or her father’s? Most tellings preserve the story’s basic bones: the father’s boasts (in one version, a mother’s), the girl weeping in distress, Rumpelstitskin saving the day, the girl’s three attempts to guess the little man’s name, his being overheard singing out the name (often as he dances around a fire). And, of course, his vanishing (well, in some stories, he just hops off. How I hated this unsatisfying ending as a child!). But there are lovely differences, too. Virginia Hamilton’s West Indian variant is rich in language and uniquely attends to the problem of why a young woman would unquestioningly marry a greedy man who locked her in a room three nights in a row. In Hamilton’s empowering version, he pays!
Illustrators also bring their unique interpretations to the page, emphasizing different plot points or details. Some, mercifully, remember that Rapunzel, for example, can have dark hair and brown eyes and black skin. I particularly like Peter Malone’s illustrations for the Kingfisher Book of Fairy Tales. The Fairy Tale Princess: Seven Classic Stories from the Enchanted Forest is worth checking out for Su Blackwell’s stunning illustrations made from newspapers, though Wendy Jones’s retellings are incredibly lackluster—perhaps you and your children can pinpoint what makes them so.
Sara Cassidy’s book for 8 – 12 year olds, A Boy Named Queen, is a 2016 Quill and Quire Book of the Year.
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