What’s in a Fairytale?

                I have long been fascinated by folk- and fairytales.  This genre of literature began as oral tales told by adults to adults.  In my imagination, I see a group of people circled around a fire in the dark, and someone starts speaking, telling an old story everyone has heard before.  It has been repeated so often that it is reduced to its bare essentials, much like a rock worn smooth at the bottom of a stream.  Everyone knows the plot, the conflict, and the outcome.  But like young children, they eagerly await the ending, the denouement when the whole tale will unravel like a ball of tangled yarn.

Eventually, these tales were written down.  Folktales centered on stories of the common people, while fairytales were peopled by princes, princesses, kings and queens.  The Grimm brothers, who were linguists, collected these tales and published them in Germany.  In France, Charles Perrault also recorded fairy tales.  In Denmark, Hans Christian Anderson wrote original or literary folk- and fairytales.  So the sources we know best in the west were essentially European.  Eventually, some of the tales were borrowed, illustrated, and presented as material read to children.  Much of the blood and gore of the originals (especially the Grimm collection) was excised.  The Victorians in the 19th century were zealous guardians of their children’s morality.  Their children were exposed to such collections as Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book which was exquisitely illustrated by Arthur Rackham and others.

And that brings us to today, when folk- and fairytales are almost exclusively the province of children’s literature.  Yet their origins tell us the tales originally resonated with the experiences of adults.  It is that implied tension that interests me in contemporary versions.  I’d like to explore Little Red Riding Hood, or Redcap, as she is often called, in the rest of this post as an example of a tale with at least two levels:  one for adults, another for children.

In this story, a child of indeterminate age is sent through the woods with a basket of food for her sick grandmother.  She is warned of the dangers in the woods before she leaves.  Indeed, a wolf makes its way to her grandmother’s house, eats her up and dons her clothes, and receives Little Red Riding Hood camouflaged as her grandmother.  A frightful scene ensues, but Redcap is saved by a woodsman who hears her cries and kills the wolf with his axe.  In most versions of the story, he hacks open the wolf’s stomach, and out pops an intact grandmother.  The last scene is one of thankfulness, reunion, and jubilation.

For adults, the tale reminds them of the contrast between the safety of home and the treachery of the woods, a place dark and foreboding filled with dangers.  It also reminds them of the bloodthirsty threat of the wolf, an outward symbol of a destructive creature we may all harbor within ourselves.  Finally, in some versions, the wolf takes the persona of a man who threatens to awaken Redcap to her sexuality.  In fact, I can remember attending a Children’s Literature Conference some years ago in which a French film of LRRH was shown which literally portrayed a seduction of a woman by a rather suave man (the “wolf”).

For children, the tale is a cautionary one.  Listen to advice from your elders, don’t speak to anyone while in dangerous environs, and scream for help when you need it.  Don’t trust appearances when you suspect someone has taken the place of another.  The world is essentially a hazardous place, and you need the protection of adults.

These two different interpretations are embodied by the illustrations accompanying the story.  The first interpretation appealing to an adult sensibility comes through in illustrations like the following:

“The wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.

A more benign interpretation aimed at the innocence of children is embodied in pictures like these, in which the wolf, when it appear at all, often looks like a very large dog:

“Oh, my! What big teeth you have!” She giggles and kicks her slippered feet.
As she claps her tiny hands she says “I always wanted to say that!”

So what’s in a fairytale is, to a degree, in the eye of the beholder since the illustrator’s interpretation can shape the underlying meaning for the intended reader.  And many tales are far more than they seem at first glance.

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