From Brothers Grimm to Disney: The evolution of Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a girl called Sabrina. On the days that she didn’t have to attend preschool, Sabrina would beg and beg her mother to take her to the video store. There were few things that brought Sabrina as much joy as a visit to the local Blockbuster. As soon as the car would pull up, she would race to the door, wave to Mary at the counter, take a left, then a right and make a beeline for the Disney section. Here, she would find all the classics: Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast. But, her absolute favourite was Sleeping Beauty. Sabrina would sit for hours on end watching and re-watching the fateful tale as Princess Aurora awaited true love’s first kiss.

Fast track 16 years and the Blockbuster is long gone, but the tale of Sleeping Beauty remains dear to my heart. So, you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that the beloved Disney rendition was nothing like Giambattista Basile’s original.

The 16th Century author and poet is credited for popularising a number of contemporary fairy tales that endure today. But, Basile’s early work, entitled Sun, Moon and Talia (modern day Sleeping Beauty), sounds more like date rape than it does fairy tale. In the 1634 version, the sleeping maiden gives birth to twins after a married King stumbles across her unconscious form and “plucks the fruits of love.” Enraged, the Queen plots for the children to be sent, killed and unknowingly served to the King for supper while Talia perishes in a fiery blaze. However, in a twist of fate, both Talia and the children are spared from death and our literary hero (sideward glance) saves the day by killing off his wife, the scorned Queen.

Turns out, the vast majority of our modern-day fairy tales had dark and downright gruesome origins. According to the original narratives, the Prince impregnates Rapunzel and is left blind for his misdemeanour; Cinderella’s step sisters have their eyes pecked out by doves after severing parts of their own feet; and the evil Queen is Snow White’s biological mother who plots the murder of her own child.

Believe it or not, it was the Grimm brothers who are credited with making these fairy tales tamer. Wilhelm Grimm altered the original storylines so drastically that he can be attributed with sanitising folktales, instigating the process that made them acceptable children’s literature. Although they were, by no means, jolly bed time stories, the Grimm brothers’ work certainly set the ball rolling for others to follow—namely, Walt Disney.

His 1937 rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set a new precedence for contemporary fairy tales, marking the transition from dark and foreboding narratives to light and whimsical ones suitable for family viewing. The animated film, which was the first of its kind for Disney, was a commercial success securing its place among the ten highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.

Since then, this notion of censoring fairy tales has become so widespread it was coined Disneyfication. Like globalisation, Disneyfication implies “the internationalisation of entertainment values of US mass culture.” It acts as a homogenising force that coerces local cultures to embrace its norms, practices and values. Disney’s attempt to child-proof fairy tales only enforces the belief that juvenile audiences ought to be sheltered from life’s woes. In effect, the world has come to view fairy tales through rose-coloured glasses, devoid of the grit and substance they once contained.

For instance, in the Disney production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the evil Queen is serendipitously struck by a bolt of lightning, falling from a cliff to her death. In the original tale, however, the Queen is tricked into attending Snow White’s wedding where she is sentenced to death by torture. The Queen is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and “dance” for the guests until she drops dead. Not exactly the kind of karmic retribution that Disney tends to favour. These older, grisly tales attempt to restore equilibrium through vigilante justice and brute force.

Indeed, this line of storytelling sought to impart valuable life lessons upon its audience. According to Jack David Zipes, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, fairy tales have evolved over thousands of years reflecting prevailing social-cultural conditions of the time. They contained messages of warning, initiation, celebration, ritual, worship and wonder to help listeners navigate their lives. These tales provide insight into the human condition, helping audiences of all ages make sense of the world around them.

For Zipes, shielding children from dark fairy tales is counterproductive against a backdrop of global struggle and conflict. In fact, child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, suggests that it is the scary parts in the narrative that help children deal with emotional issues. Fairy tales provide children with a symbolic space outside their immediate reality to address their anxieties safely.

Although Disney often fails to deliver on the fear front, recent editions to its portfolio, including Moana, Frozen and Wild, deliver on other kinds of important messaging. From themes of empowerment to self-discovery, these new age Princesses offer much more substance than the Disney Cinders who have gone before them (no offence, Sleeping Beauty). I would argue that these kinds of positive role models are just as, if not more, critical to a child’s early development.

For better or worse, I grew up with happy endings, with sanitised storylines, with sleeping Princesses and damsels in distress. I grew up racing to the video store, playing with wands and plastic Princess heels. But, most importantly, I grew up. Fairy tales will only take you so far. And then there’s life. So kids, sit back, relax and enjoy them while you can. It’s not every day you get to witness a happy ever after.

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