Fairy Tales: Bring Back The Fear And The Strong Women

by: Charlotte Bond

Not only is February Women in Horror month, but 26 February is also Tell A Fairy Tale Day. It seems only apt to take the opportunity to explore the darker side of fairy tales – gore and all – and ponder: where have all the strong women gone?

 

Ask children to tell you a famous fairy tale and they’ll likely recount their favourite Disney movie. Alternatively, they might tell you about a book they’ve read at school or got from the library.

 

Whatever answer they give, the chances are that they won’t have been exposed to a version of that fairy tale which was as dark and cruel as the original version.

 

When Rapunzel was first published by the Grimm brothers, her plot to escape was discovered not because of her foolish exclamation, but because her belly was swelling with twins. But Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm felt that extra-marital sex wasn’t a suitable topic for their audience, so the next published version of their book introduced her verbal slip instead.

 

It’s worth noting that while allusions to teenage pregnancy were removed, the part where the prince falls from the tower and is blinded by thorns below is kept in. Violence is fine, but sex is out of the question.

 

The original book of Grimm’s tales was called Children’s and Household Tales. However, its reception was mixed as it was felt that the contents were not suitable for children – even though many of these tales had been told to adults and children alike for hundreds of years.

 

So, while the Grimms might have imposed their own political and social opinions on their versions, society also restrained the tales even further.

 

Red Riding Hood is a perfect example of a story that has been sanitized until all of the original meaning is lost.

 

Charles Perrault was the first to put a version of Little Red’s tale on paper in 1697. The Grimms added their own interpretation in 1812.

 

The most notable change between the two versions is the ending. In Perrault’s tale, the wolf eats both the grandmother and Little Red, then lies down to sleep. And that’s it. No happy ending (except for the wolf, of course).

 

But in the Grimm’s version (and in many versions afterwards), a hunter or woodcutter comes along and frees both women from the wolf’s belly. They spring forth miraculously unharmed.

 

The Grimms added a happy ending as a way of toning down a tale they thought too cruel and tragic. But since then, the story has been censored even further.

 

Pick up a modern version and you’ll find that the part where the woodcutter slices open the wolf is often omitted. Generally, the grandmother runs away or hides under the bed. Often the wolf runs away too, instead of being killed by the huntsman. Whatever the fate of the grandmother, Little Red is invariably saved before the wolf gets near her.

 

But removing these darker elements is denying an essential part of fairy tales: fear. While these tales might be filled with wonder and magic, they hold a deeper message that is diluted if you stray too far from the original.

 

Fear is necessary in fairy tales so that the audience – particularly children – can face that fear, explore it, and resolve it. How can a child know how to act in a dangerous situation if all mention of it has been expunged from their storybooks?

 

In pre-industrial times, wandering off into the woods and being eaten was more likely than today. But that doesn’t mean the message in Little Red’s tale is any less relevant to modern society. You only need to look at any of the devastating kidnapping cases where children have been lured from their gardens or taken from shopping centres to know that it’s just as important as ever to tell children not to talk to strangers.

 

Little Red Riding Hood works on a number of levels and delivers a variety of messages. Don’t go into the woods alone. Don’t talk to strangers. Ensure you look after the elderly.

 

However, these messages mean nothing if the tale doesn’t show the consequences of breaking these rules. Modern versions seem to say “Don’t go into the woods alone or talk to strangers because if you do, well, a woodcutter will come to save you, the wolf will run away, and it’ll all be a lark.”

 

Such a story serves no purpose at all. But return it to its original form and the message is: don’t do these things otherwise you put yourself and the people you love at risk. Keeping all these elements in the story means that the message gets through. Cutting them out just weakens the significance of the story.

 

But the horror and the gore are not the only things to be removed. Perhaps the most unforgivable part to be cut out of Little Red’s tale is her own part in it.

 

The intelligent and fascinating Jack Zipes brought together a wide selection of variations of this tale in his book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. He suggests that Perrault didn’t like women much and his attitude was reflected in his version.

 

The essential elements of the Little Red Riding Hood story (numbered 333 in the Aarne Thompson Uther Classification) existed in oral traditions before Perrault put pen to paper. It appears that Perrault decided to pick and choose the bits he liked to incorporate into his own moral tale. One key thing that he cut out was the fact that, in the older versions, Little Red saved herself.

 

The details vary, but after entering the cottage, the little girl is encouraged to get undressed and climb into bed with the wolf. He instructs her to throw every item of clothing into the fire because she won’t need them anymore.

 

Little Red complies but, once in bed, she sees the danger she’s in. At that point, she devises an escape plan. She tells the wolf she needs to defecate. The wolf is cross and says she should just do it there and then. Little Red protests that she cannot possibly do it in the bed and must go outside.

 

As a compromise, she suggests that the wolf ties a rope around her waist to make sure she can’t run away. Except when she gets outside, she does just that after tying the rope to something else.

 

In some versions, the wolf chases after her. In many versions, she still gets away. One tale in particular has Little Red encountering laundresses at the river. They hold their sheets taut to make a cloth bridge. They allow Little Red to cross over it but when the wolf is in the middle of the bridge, they let go, and the wolf drowns.

 

Perrault’s audience were upper class. He wanted to pass on them the moral message that young girls could bring disaster on themselves. In his version, Little Red is clearly to be blamed for her own death because she was tempted from the path of domesticity (which led straight from her mother’s house to her grandmother’s).

 

The Grimms took Perrault’s story and moved Little Red on another few steps. In Zipes’s words, “Perrault fixed the ground rules… and these were extended by the Brothers Grimm and largely accepted by most writers and storytellers in the Western world.”

 

The Grimms got rid of the violence and gave Little Red a happy ending – but one where she is saved by a man (no laundresses in sight). They kept in the strong implication that the girl’s behaviour was the main factor in the events that followed. And they focussed on her disobedience as the main cause of all her strife.

 

They also added an addendum: a second, shorter story where Little Red is tempted by another wolf. This time she runs to her grandmother’s house and the old woman suggests that they fill a trough with water in which she’d previously boiled sausages.

 

The wolf, who is hiding on the roof, smells the aroma of sausages and leans over to investigate. He loses his balance, falls into the trough and drowns. Thus Little Red is saved yet again.

 

Little Red’s tale has gone from one about an independent and quick-witted young girl, to a lecture on why women are just asking to be violated if they happen to wear eye-catching clothes and walk in the wrong direction. But she isn’t alone in being vilified by the men who told her tale.

 

As we noted above, Rapunzel went from being a sensible, proactive young woman to a rather dumb one who participated in own destruction, simply because the Grimms disapproved of her choice of lifestyle.

 

In the original story of Hansel and Grettel, it wasn’t the evil stepmother who forced the father to lead the children into the woods. The mother was their biological mother, and the blame was shared equally between the parents.

 

And while Beauty and the Beast might at first glance appear a heart-warming tale of redemption, it was often used in the past as a tale to help girls accept an arranged marriage, even to someone they might find unattractive.

 

Fairy tales have been part of our culture for generations. They remain popular and relevant because they can be adapted to suit the needs of society. They allow us to explore fears and morals within the safety of our own heads.

 

So sure, change the fairy tales and update them – but leave in the fear and bring back our strong women.

Charlotte Bond

Charlotte is an author, ghostwriter, freelance editor, proofreader, and podcaster. She is also a reviewer for the Ginger Nuts of Horror website, as well as the British Fantasy Society.

 

Following her own advice, she’s written The Poisoned Crow, a dark fairy tale filled with horror, magic, and featuring a young woman who saves herself.

 

Her articles have appeared in such places as Tor.com, War History Online, and Writing Magazine.

 

She is a co-host of the podcast, Breaking the Glass Slipper, which in 2018 was shortlisted for a BFS award for best audio and was longlisted for a Hugo.

 

You can read more about her at www.charlottebond.co.uk. Her Twitter handle is @offred85. If you want a regular Twitter-length fairy tale on a Wednesday, you can follow The Singing Wolf @RavenWithCheese.

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