Fairy tales serve as powerful archetypes for me.
I’ve written before how the Little Red Riding Hood image is at the center of the story I am shaping into a book-length memoir (link to post). The girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the danger, and the huntsman are all there. In my post which describes how I found out I am a Highly Sensitive Person, I wrote about the function of “The Princess and the Pea,” and how I go through my life-like the girl who feels the pea underneath all those mattresses and featherbeds. In my last post, I wrote about my terror at meeting Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.
So it’s probably not a surprise that I love to read different versions of these tales. There are a lot of movies which remake the old stories. Ever After might be one of the most popular, but there have been many versions of the Snow White and Cinderella stories. If you want to watch a really creepy Red Riding Hood tale, check out Reese Witherspoon in Freeway.
Because the majority of these tales originated either from the ancient oral tradition of storytelling or from storytellers who lived hundreds of years ago, the cultural mores and expectations are different from those of today. That’s why seeing them through modern eyes, such as witnessing the Rapunzel character in Tangled showing herself to be the opposite of the helpless princess of days gone by, can be very satisfying.
Library shelves are jam-packed with picture book versions of these traditional stories which have been re-told, either by staying true to the original or by updating to conform to today’s viewpoints. There are also feminist versions for adults, such as are found side by side with the classic versions in Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.
Some of my favorites are the poems by Anne Sexton. She based each poem on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Note: these are not Disney versions.
Sexton passed away in 1974, and her book of fairy tale poems, titled Transformations, was published in 1972. So there are some dated references. At the very ending of “Cinderella,” Cindy and the prince are described this way:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle- aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
For fun, here’s the full text of Sexton’s Snow White version. See what you think–is it still relevant?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
by Anne SextonNo matter what life you lead the virgin is a lovely number: cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper, arms and legs made of Limoges, lips like Vin Du Rhône, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut. Open to say, Good Day Mama, and shut for the thrust of the unicorn. She is unsoiled. She is as white as a bonefish. Once there was a lovely virgin called Snow White. Say she was thirteen. Her stepmother, a beauty in her own right, though eaten, of course, by age, would hear of no beauty surpassing her own. Beauty is a simple passion, but, oh my friends, in the end you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes. The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred-- something like the weather forecast-- a mirror that proclaimed the one beauty of the land. She would ask, Looking glass upon the wall, who is fairest of us all? And the mirror would reply, You are the fairest of us all. Pride pumped in her like poison. Suddenly one day the mirror replied, Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you. Until that moment Snow White had been no more important than a dust mouse under the bed. But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand and four whiskers over her lip so she condemned Snow White to be hacked to death. Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter, and I will salt it and eat it. The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar's heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. Now I am fairest, she said, lapping her slim white fingers. Snow White walked in the wildwood for weeks and weeks. At each turn there were twenty doorways and at each stood a hungry wolf, his tongue lolling out like a worm. The birds called out lewdly, talking like pink parrots, and the snakes hung down in loops, each a noose for her sweet white neck. On the seventh week she came to the seventh mountain and there she found the dwarf house. It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage and completely equipped with seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks and seven chamber pots. Snow White ate seven chicken livers and lay down, at last, to sleep. The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin. They were wise and wattled like small czars. Yes. It's a good omen, they said, and will bring us luck. They stood on tiptoes to watch Snow White wake up. She told them about the mirror and the killer-queen and they asked her to stay and keep house. Beware of your stepmother, they said. Soon she will know you are here. While we are away in the mines during the day, you must not open the door. Looking glass upon the wall . . . The mirror told and so the queen dressed herself in rags and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White. She went across seven mountains. She came to the dwarf house and Snow White opened the door and bought a bit of lacing. The queen fastened it tightly around her bodice, as tight as an Ace bandage, so tight that Snow White swooned. She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy. When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace and she revived miraculously. She was as full of life as soda pop. Beware of your stepmother, they said. She will try once more. Looking glass upon the wall. . . Once more the mirror told and once more the queen dressed in rags and once more Snow White opened the door. This time she bought a poison comb, a curved eight-inch scorpion, and put it in her hair and swooned again. The dwarfs returned and took out the comb and she revived miraculously. She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie. Beware, beware, they said, but the mirror told, the queen came, Snow White, the dumb bunny, opened the door and she bit into a poison apple and fell down for the final time. When the dwarfs returned they undid her bodice, they looked for a comb, but it did no good. Though they washed her with wine and rubbed her with butter it was to no avail. She lay as still as a gold piece.The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves to bury her in the black ground so they made a glass coffin and set it upon the seventh mountain so that all who passed by could peek in upon her beauty. A prince came one June day and would not budge. He stayed so long his hair turned green and still he would not leave. The dwarfs took pity upon him and gave him the glass Snow White-- its doll's eyes shut forever-- to keep in his far-off castle. As the prince's men carried the coffin they stumbled and dropped it and the chunk of apple flew out of her throat and she woke up miraculously.And thus Snow White became the prince's bride. The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast and when she arrived there were red-hot iron shoes, in the manner of red-hot roller skates, clamped upon her feet. First your toes will smoke and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet. Meanwhile Snow White held court, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to her mirror as women do.