The Influence of Fairy Tales

After reading Robin’s post about her granddaughters and the new Cinderella movie the other day, I was thinking about how I’ve always been influenced by fairy tales and folk tales. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty was my earliest film-version fairy tale–and I loved both Flora and the music passionately. Not to mention how the colors changed! I mentioned Flora’s influence here.

When my daughter was little I had mixed feelings about the movies and illustrations of these old tales because I began to see the stories through my Korean daughter’s eyes. I’ve written both on this blog and on our adoption blog about these subjects in the past. The story of race in fairy tales was here where I wrote about my daughter’s notion of Cinderella as a blonde.

There are over 700 versions of Cinderella from around the world. The only countries that didn’t have true Cinderella stories were African countries, but there have been more contemporary Cinderella stories remedying that “deficit.” The oldest version of Cinderella is Chinese and developed when people still lived in caves. The size of the shoe was added in when foot binding entered the culture. Lots of icky little cultural “shoulds” like foot binding or fetishizing the size of women’s feet enter our stories without us realizing what we are teaching our children.

The tales, particularly the European ones, feature cannibalism, dismemberment, incest, and other immoral activities. Stepmothers are usually nasty creatures out to, at best, neglect their charges and, at worst, to murder them. Of course, there is a reason for mean stepmothers. There were a lot of stepmothers in the days when many women died in childbirth. And with limited incomes or primogeniture, women wanted to ensure the inheritance (and therefore survival) of their own children, not the older children of first wives. In my own family, over 150 years ago in the Netherlands, my great-great-grandfather and his brother were sent by their stepmother to live in the orphanage when their father died.

We can deny the horrors and sometimes the violence or we can delete it as Disney did, but the old tales spring from difficult lives. Does the grit and nastiness deter me from reading them? Hah. No. And, like most of us, there are certain tales that have stuck with me. Become part of who I am. I’ve written about the role of “The Princess and the Pea” in my life here and the role of Little Red Riding Hood here.

In Doll God I explored some of the tales that influenced me in my life. Not all, by any stretch, but some. Snow White, for instance. I had no idea she did influence me, but for some reason she showed up in two poems in my book! “Snow’s Locked Box” was just published in Grist Journal, which is mainly a print journal, so you would need to get a copy to read it at this time. The poem features Snow White in her coffin out in the woods. There is also a poem in the book about the Japanese tale of the stone cutter, relating it to the artist wishing to be both art and artist.

The older I get, the more I dislike violence and unhappy endings. I’d rather see Ariel end up with her prince than see the Little Mermaid as mere foam on the ocean, as Andersen first wrote her ending. I haven’t seen the new Cinderella movie or Frozen because I’m always behind in my movie viewing. But I loved Tangled and Puss in Boots, which reminds me of my cat Mac.

Nevertheless, the older tales, with all their horrors, have their grip on me. Once read, I can’t unread them. And there is no doubt that they have shown me a more complex world than Disney ever could.

What tales influenced you?




Filed under Children's Literature, Essay, Fiction, Poetry Collection, Writing

14 responses to “The Influence of Fairy Tales

  1. This is fascinating, Luanne. I had no idea there were so many versions of Cinderella, dating back so long ago.
    “The older I get, the more I dislike violence and unhappy endings.” I with you on this. That’s probably why I enjoy the Hallmark Channel so much. 🙂

  2. Middle daughter has been slightly obsessive about Cinderella since age 3. As she grows up, it’s less and less, but she’s 12 and can’t wait to see the new movie.

  3. I watched Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” as a kid before I read the original fairy tale (still a kid that time). I remember feeling surprised and confused about that fairy tale. It was so far from the Disney version and my heart just broke over the fate of that little mermaid. While the cartoon movie remains one of my favorite childhood films, I did like the original fairy tale better. You can just imagine my reaction when I learned a rather revolting version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Lol.

  4. You are such a gifted writer. I really enjoyed reading this. Fairy tales have been a huge influence on me too. I dedicated a Pinterest page to capturing some of the beautiful illustrations that came with much of my childhood reading. Two of my favorites were Beauty and the Beast, and Rapunzel–saving and being saved by love–ah, don’t you love it!

  5. Like you, as I grow older, I tend to avoid violent, depressing stories. Maybe it’s because people produce less testosterone as they age.

    Re: the power and near ubiquity of fairy tales, they seem to be attached to the collective unconscious so have a very long history with humans.

    Here’s something else to consider about evil stepmothers. Why did so many women die in childbirth? It seems unnatural for so many animal mothers (we are animals) to die that way, so maybe environmental factors led to maternal deaths. Bound feet, other kinds of captivity, poor diet, disease, and overbreeding might lead to poor maternal health.

    Some moms died, and dads remarried, and the stepmoms cared more about their own offspring. What about the occasional dad dying and the mom remarrying and the stepdad caring more for his own offspring? (I’m reminded of a male cat that kills another tom’s kittens so the female will go into heat.)

    Of course, I’m skirting around the vast and ancient crater of misogyny. This is something else that I don’t like to think about as I grow older.

  6. Fairy tales make a fascinating subject. There are so many aspects of them, so many issues, then and now. I would hate to have grown up without them, but I can see that some of them – a lot of them had their foundations in a crueler world. That’s the part I don’t like to think about.

  7. Interesting post, Luanne!
    I’m a bit fascinated by fairy tales, too, and about how many of the stories are universal, or at least have many of the same aspects to them. I remember reading the rather violent Grimm brothers version when I was a child. My daughters enjoyed the Disney versions, and also I remember my older daughter in particular loved “Mufaro’s Daughters,” an African version of Cinderella. I used to read and act out in a silly way the Disney Cinderella for my younger daughter.
    I did a bit of research on fairy tales when working on my Encyclopedia of Rape–Little Red Riding Hood was a cautionary tale, for sure. She was a young woman, not a child, in the Perault version, and even in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, there’s a subtle rape theme there (and of course cautions throughout the entire show–be careful what you’ll find when you enter the woods. . .)

    I’ll have to look at your links when I get a chance later today.

  8. I had a big book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I hated it. I would get nightmares from the stories. Never did like fairy tales after that experience.

  9. anjum wasim dar

    Dear Luanne a very realistic truthful article. I have grown up with Fairy Tales Adventures Horror Stories Murder Mysteries and Comedy movies like of Laurel and Hardy.Many Fairy Tales were read acted out and seen on the big and later mini screen…Now I realize that Alice in Wonderland was one book which influenced me the most..Cinderella, Snow White with 7 dwarfs and Red Riding Hood remain prominent…In my teaching I found English Literature knowledge missing in my students…the generation after 20 years of Independence from the British rulers and after 30 years those whom I met as Teachers also knew hardly anything of Nursery Rhymes or Fairy Tales..The result ..I wrote a story ‘A Tale of All Tales’ for my English Language story telling lesson for In service Teacher Trainees to introduce as many Characters and the features of Fairy Tales…but yes what type of influence fairy tales were making…Snow White living with 7 men…Rapunzel..? Red Riding Hood in the forest alone? and well..lying killing tricking looting poisoning…except for one story perhaps which I find telling many times to my younger cousins..’The House in the Woods’ where the Prince is punished for being bad tempered…So much can be written on this..’Alice’s story inspired me to the extent of writing two long Adventure stories…which have yet to see the publishing light….third one is in the form of the story board….

  10. Sigh. I thought it said the” flatulence” of fairy tales …

  11. When I taught ninth grade, I loved to tell them we were going to read Cinderella in class, then I’d give them the Grimm version. It was twisted to fun to stand at the front of the room while they read silently and watch their eyes slowly pop out of their heads. About a page in, I could see them start to look around the room wondering if they were the only ones who’d never heard this version of the story, LOL! Sick fun, but fun nonetheless.

  12. I loved your take on fairy tales, Luanne. I thought you might be interested in reading this from the First Day,

  13. I always found fairy tales disturbing and didn’t read them to my children, but they did, of course, watch the Disney movies. All the Disney movies, ha! They never seemed as dark at the real thing. Fascinating what you share about Cinderella, I had no idea. Troubling isn’t it the not-so-subtle messages sent out from so many of these ‘grim’ stories. I am way out of the loop with children’s movies, but did at last watch Frozen recently with my daughter. I liked the message of true love…but I won’t say anymore for fear of spoilers. You will be surprised, I can guarantee that! Enjoy your hiatus Luanne, see you soon 🙂 xoxo

  14. I love Disney! But it’s hard, with a Black daughter, to take all the blondes, all the fair skin, all the skinny little waists. We’ve got Tiana and Doc McStuffins, and that’s about it.

    I’m not sure what fairy tales influenced me. I know that I always wanted a dress like Cinderella’s, though. 🙂

    When I was in high school, I was in a local production of “Into the Woods” (as Granny). I was given a book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Those were some gruesome guys. I think there’s one that’s called “Two Children Played at Bloodletting.” I’ll let you guess what that’s about.

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