The Formidable Fairy Tale: A Writer’s Guide
Just mentioning the fairy tale calls to mind everything from the light and fluffy films of Walt Disney to the dark edginess of the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm. From feature films and TV series to graphic novels and literature, the fairy tale is finding prominence in current media trends. But what is trending is not necessarily good writing, and the fairy tale itself is made of more formidable stuff than magic fluff.
Whether re-interpreting a tale or borrowing motifs, fairy tales can offer the writer a rich source of story and creative inspiration. When working with fairy tales, however, it is important to keep in mind that they are, indeed, an original source, and one should approach them with as much insight and respect as any other form of canonized literature.
Sensationalism vs Substance
This recent trend by commercial writers has bastardized the fairy tale into a sensationalistic frenzy of marshmallow fluff: no nutritive substance to be found. The above mentioned 2005 film, The Brothers Grimm, is a fine example of this trend. While the film fulfills the norm of the action-fantasy film genre, it is an abusive misuse of the fairy tale in general. There is no evidence of any real thought or expression of the historical context and deeper meaning in the fairy and folk tale motifs used in the film. The film is not about the “fairy tale” or the Brothers Grimm, it is a film about making sensationalistic motifs, hacked apart from various folk and fairy tales, a quick fix for an audience hooked on junk food films.
The movie is indicative of the screenwriter’s approach to using the fairy tale for superficial entertainment. For example: The Queen in this film is a general “Evil Queen” archetype, but she serves no real or substantive purpose to the film’s story. The Queen’s action-her “want”-as a character is to stay young and beautiful forever. This motive is cliche and superficial, a motif skimmed off the top of the various Evil Queen archetypes found in fairy tales and other films using the fairy tale Evil Queen archetype. In The Brothers Grimm, the Queen serves only as stagnant conflict and vague obstacle. She is not a character: she is an object. This is beautifully illustrated in the climatic scene in which one of the film’s hero characters, Jakob Grimm, smashes a mirror and the Queen shatters into pieces. The destruction of the Queen resolves the bizarre and contrived curse that sort of connects all of the other fantastical eye-candy events of the film. This type of writing rips a few fairy tales apart and then sews back bits and pieces to create a tableau of unrelated tidbits. The result is a badly mismatched quilt with all the seams showing. It is a story that doesn’t really tell a story, and certainly not a fairy tale.
Another example of fairy tale bastardization in film can be found in the 2011 film, Red Riding Hood, written by David Leslie Johnson. Little Red Riding was an oral folk-tale first collected by the french author Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century, and then later by the German folklorists (real) Grimm Brothers in the nineteenth century. Johnson’s screenplay, Red Riding Hood, is a Gothic teen love story depicting overtly-sexualized wolf motifs weakly extrapolated out of the original fairy tale, as well as out of several modern fairy tales-most notably those by British fiction writer Angela Carter. While the film’s storyline has some promise as being a “who dunnit”- in which we do not know if the wolf is beau number 1 or 2, the father, or the grandmother-it strays away from the core of the original story so broadly that the film becomes just what it is: a shallow titillation of sensationalistic fluff.
For an example of a more substantive interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood within popular genre, read Angela Carter’s wolf stories in her collection entitled, The Bloody Chamber, and watch or read the screenplay amalgam of her stories entitled The Company of Wolves (1984). Though full of plenty of old-fashioned skin popping werewolves, Carter’s work engages the audience and reader so that they are drawn into the story, and are left to think.
The films mentioned above, The Brothers Grim and Red Riding Hood, are just two examples, out of many, that exhibit an extrinsic approach to working with fairy tales. This ignorant misuse of the fairytale is not only a bastardization of canonized literature, it is a dangerous misrepresentation of original fairy tales. It is dangerous because it misleads writer, audience, and reader into believing that 1) it is ok to rape and pillage a literary form, and 2) that the results are a “true” expressions or interpretations of the literary form.
But then, perhaps this is not entirely the writer’s fault. Like the infamous incest in Sophocles’ Oedipus, fairy tales do exude a certain kind of superficial sensationalistic residue that sticks to the mind, while the depth and richness of the human condition that is beneath the surface of the story is forgotten or overlooked. That’s what sells, the sticky gooey stuff, and it is what the audience, and the reader, have voluntarily bought into.
Until the writing gets better.
So what is a fairy tale, really?
The fairy tale has been a source of fascination and study for folklorists, ethnologists, and psychologists for decades. Most cultures worldwide have a tradition of oral folk tales that dates back for centuries. As a writer, reader or scholar of fairy tales, it is important and useful to distinguish between folk tales and fairy tales. As we will later see, the fairy tale has its roots in the folk tale. Stories such as Hansel and Gretal, Little Red Riding Hood, and the earlier version of Rumplestiltskin are examples of the folk fairy tale. Stories such as Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast, are examples of what is termed “literary fairy tales”. For the sake of brevity, we will focus on literary fairy tales as opposed to folk fairy tales, as a discussion of the significance of the folk fairy tale is a subject unto itself.
The literary fairy tale was first configured in Europe, specifically France, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a type of parlor game of the aristocracy. It is important to understand that fairy tales were intended for an educated aristocratic adult, not children.
According to fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes:
“The literary fairy tale was first developed in salons by aristocratic women as a type of parlor game by the middle of the seventeenth century. They set the ground work for the institutionalization of the fairy tale as a ‘proper’ genre intended first for educated adult audiences and only later for children who were to be educated according to the code of civilite` that was being elaborated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” (Zipes. Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale. The University Press of Kentucky. 1994).
The salon story teller would borrow from a well-known folk tale, change the given circumstances and characters to fit aristocratic social values and create a ‘new’ story. A fine example of this type of metamorphosis can be found in the story of Rumplestiltskin. In earlier folk or peasant versions, the story follows the journey of a young woman who can only spin flax into gold: something that would be considered “useless” in peasant society where a young woman’s future is dependent on her ability to spin flax or wool into yarn. In later salon versions, the young woman marries a King and is commanded to spin straw into gold. The young woman in this version has no skill as a spinner and has also been elevated to marrying into aristocracy. This example shows the influence of the gradual shift in socio-economic conditions of the time period.
As a side note on folk tales, Rumplestiltskin was one of many folk tales about spinning told amongst peasant women. The female protagonists in these spinning stories solved their own problems with the help of other women, and spinning itself was clearly the lucrative province of women. With the gradual shift of woven fabric becoming the industry of men, spinning declined in the homes of peasant women, and we find the later “fairy tale” version of Rumplestiltskin. Rumplestiltskin, not the young woman, becomes the central character to the story; he is the one doing the spinning.
The Literary Fairy Tale as Written Form
By the late seventeenth century, the popularity and societal acceptance of salon fairy tales as an art form amongst the aristocracy led to the writing down of the stories by both male and female writers. It is interesting to note that one of the reasons for this was in oppositional response to the current trend in literature at the time: that of classic Greek and Latin. And it was women who initially led the way in the institutionalizing and the writing down of the salon fairytale. The tales were specific as a means for them (women) to conceive and elaborate on other alternatives in society other than those prescribed to them by men. The fairy tale was vehicle for aristocratic women to imagine and express how their lives might be improved according tho their own sensibilities.
Zipes quotes German scholar Renate Baader from her analysis of the social and literary differences between the male and female salon writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
“While [Charles] Perrault’s bourgeois and male tales with happy ends had pledged themselves to a moral that called for Griseldis [Cinderella] to serve as a model for women, the women writers [at the time] had to make an effort to defend the insights that had been gained in the past decades…how to redeem their own wish reality in the fairy tale. They [women writers] probably remembered how feminine faults had been revalorized by men and how the aristocratic woman had responded to this in their self-portraits. Those aristocratic women had commonly refused to place themselves in the service of social mobility. Instead they put forward their demands for moral, intellectual, and psychological self-determination” (Zipes).
Zipes states that women writers of the time wanted to present the aristocratic woman’s view point with regards to topics such as love, fidelity, tenderness, and arranged marriages. Zipes portrays one such writer, Madame D’ Aulnoy, as creating settings in her stories that put women in greater control of their destinies. Also, D’ Aulnoy’s narrative strategies exposed the decadent practices and behavior amongst her class. Especially any such behavior that degraded an independent women.
D’ Aulnoy was fascinated with the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In D’ Aulnoy’s fairy tale, The Green Serpent, there is a direct linear connection to Psyche and Cupid and then to D’ Aulnoy’s protege’s ( Madem de Villineuve) famous Beauty and the Beast.
The basic plot of The Green Serpent: a young aristocratic woman with admirable qualities is cursed, finds a suitor who is also cursed. The young woman, first named Laurette then Queen Discrete, gives in to curiosity and she sneaks a look at her new husband, who is a dreadful serpent creature. This transgression brings down the wrath of the bad fairy, Magotine, that cursed them both in the first place. Queen Discrete performs several impossible tasks, and with the help of the good fairy, Protectre, she redeems herself and attains her lover’s freedom. In Psyche and Cupid, Psyche was afraid her unseen lover was a monster. In The Green Serpent, and later in Beauty and the Beast, the female protagonists lover is a monster.
While the tale makes the most conservative of modern feminist minds cringe, The Green Serpent, is clearly an intelligent, if genteel, woman’s story written for other women. Not by men for women. The main characters in the story are female and the plot is driven by women. When looking at this tale and others, it is important to keep in mind the social circumstances under which they were written. In reading these three stories, the modern writer gains the perspective of how myths and fairy tales influence each other and evolve not only as literature, but also as storytelling.
Early writers of the literary fairy tale included: Madame D’ Aulony, Mademoiselle L’Heritier, Madame de Murat, Madame de Villineuve, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, and Charles Perrault. It wasn’t until well into the nineteenth century that the Brothers Grimm began collecting and compiling collections of folk and fairy tales.
Interpreting Fairy Tales
Probably the most important task of a modern writer who wants to work with fairy tales is to interpret the fairy tales on multiple levels: socio/economic, folk-lorical, historical, and psychological. It is also important to read as many unadulterated versions of the original tale whenever possible. For it is in the original tale that we find the bones of the story.
One approach to interpreting fairy tales is through Jungian psychology. Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz puts it this way:
“Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes…in myths or legends we get at the basic patterns of the human psyche through an overlay of cultural material…the fairy tale is its own best explanation: that is, its meaning is contained in the totality of its motifs connected by the thread of the story” (von Franz. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Shambhala Press. 1970).
The basic premise of the Jungian approach to interpretation is that the fairy tale, folk tale or myth contains archetypes that correlate with the fixed archetypes of the human psyche: persona, ego, shadow, anima/animus and self. The fairy tale plays out a psychic drama with the characters and content of the story flowing as motifs through the archetypes within the story and the human psyche to represent the action within the human psyche and the psyche of the story.
Here is an abbreviated example: In Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, Bluebeard, a young woman agrees to marry a rich and strange man with a beard of indigo blue. She is at first frightened of the man but soon gets used to him. He leaves her in his vast house and in charge of his keys. He tells her she can unlock any and every door in the house except for one. The young woman’s older sisters come to visit and convince the younger woman to disobey. They find and open the forbidden chamber that is in the basement. Inside the chamber are the bloody remains of the corpses of the man’s previous wives. The key begins to bleed so that the young woman cannot hide her transgression. When Bluebeard returns he questions her and discovers the bloody key. He becomes enraged and threatens to kill her. The young girl begs for time to compose herself and Bluebeard acquiesces. The young woman sends for her brothers who arrive in time to kill Bluebeard and save the young girl.
On the surface, this tale appears to be a teaching tale about the perils of marriage and the violence of men. It also defames the sin of female curiosity. But if we look at it from a Jungian perspective, the fairy tale reveals a depth of meaning:
The young girl is the ego of the female psyche. Bluebeard is the inner shadow content. The older sisters are the female psyche’s intuitive function that questions “what is hidden?” The chamber is the deep unconscious mind where truth needs to be discovered The key is the catalyst for uncovering the truth. The horror within the chamber is the horror of the truth that needs to be dealt with. Once the truth is uncovered, it bleeds and cannot be ignored. The brothers are the female psyche’s animus (male content) that is activated as psychic muscle to help the psyche overcome the murderous intent of her psyche’s shadow. The shadow is subdued, and a new order is established in the psyche.
A Writer’s Wrap-Up
Writers are storytellers. We make up lies. We tell the truth through lies so that our stories are true lies. The fairy tale is a lie that expresses the deepest of human truths: those of the psyche through the imagination. The fairy tale expresses these truths of the psyche, through the imagination, in ways that are universal to the human condition. They deserve our appreciation and respect. However, they beg for creative relativity and expression in our modern lives. Like Shakespeare, the fairytale expresses timeless motifs that are craved by readers and audiences. Films like The Brothers Grimm and Red Riding Hood are popular because of this craving of the modern human soul. As writers, we can, and must, do our best to express the truth within the core of the tale.
The key here is to understand that regardless of how one approaches it, the fairy tale is a formidable phenomenon. The more the writer delves into a tale, the more riches will be revealed to the writer and reflect in their writing. While original fairy tales are canonized literature, the more the writer understands the material, the more unconventional, creative leeway they will find.
List of Good Reads and Resources for the Writer
So what constitutes “good” writing in regards to fairy tale, folk or mythic content? Depth. Knowledge. Sincerity. Creativity. And the ability to work a fairy tale, myth or folk tale, from the inside out, rather than the outside out.
Here are some recommended screenplays, stage plays, fiction and scholarly resources. Each reveals a reverence, respect, knowledge and sensitivity on the part of the writer in working with their chosen myth, folk or fairy tale content.
Works of Fiction
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.
Forests of the Night by Tanith Lee.
My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer.
The Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes.
Tales of Enchantment, compiled and translated by Jack Zipes.
Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale by Jack Zipes.
The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie Louise von Franz.
Woman Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
What do you think? Leave a comment.