Hello my beautiful princess and princesses! Tonight I have an amazing blog post for you – the first guest post. So without further ado I introduce: adult fairy tales.
Adult Fairy Tales
By Lynne Lumsden Green
Most fairy tales – while featuring supernatural elements like witches and giants – tend not to feature fairies as the main characters. The closest to proper ‘fairy’ tales would be Sleeping Beauty, with the Thirteenth Fairy who curses the princess, and Cinderella, with her fairy godmother. Even then, these characters are not the protagonists. Isn’t it strange that a whole genre would be so misnamed! Science Fiction always features science, Romance Fiction must have its romantic plot, but Fairy Tales need not contain fairies!
Fairy tales were originally oral tales told around household hearths, to entertain and educate both adults and children. This was an important job. Before there were books, iPods, or television, or any of the multitude of technological toys designed to entertain us, long winter evenings meant people were starved for diversions. The storytellers prevented the boredom that would lead to fights and bitterness. Their stories had to be exciting enough to keep small children interested, while at the same time they had to be sophisticated enough to intrigue the adults.
Not an easy task. The most successful tales were those that combined a lot of different features, such as magic, adventure, puzzles that needed to be solved, and a broad range of characters. Fairy tales were the original ‘blended’ genre.
It was only after people started to write these tales down that the genre was reclassified as a children’s genre. For example: the Grimm brothers originally collected their German oral tales for academics and adult readers. When they discovered that the stories were being read to children, they bowdlerised them to remove the overt sexual and violent content. There was a lot more sex, rape, and horrible murders in the original oral tales, such as Rapunzel’s pregnancy to her prince, and the Sleeping Beauty dozing through sexual assaults and pregnancies before being woken up. These were the grown-up versions of these stories; I suspect they were told after the smaller children had gone to bed.
Even with censored content, there are hints of these sexual innuendoes remaining in the modern versions. Consider for a moment Rumpelstiltskin’s name – what part of the male anatomy is rumpled skin that hardens to become a ‘stilt’? Cinderella’s glass slipper was originally made of fur – what part of the female anatomy does a fur slipper resemble? It is hard to purge every smutty detail from a story, particularly if you are naive to start with, but even the dirtiest mind can miss a metaphor or two.
It was during the Victorian era the ‘fairy tale’ reached its lowest point as an art form. The Victorians can be applauded for recognising that children weren’t miniature adults, and seeking to free them from working in factories and mines, and providing them with educations. However, they also favoured didactic stories with ‘morals’ for children.
Try reading The Water Babies by Reverend Charles Kingsley; it is the perfect example of what was considered a proper fairy tale for that era and did actually feature fairies. By the end of the book, you feel like you’ve sat through several sermons by a class-conscious, misogynistic racist. It was a text meant to indoctrinate the next generation of colonial explorers and governors into feeling superior to the ‘lower’ classes and races.
Please note that, during the Victorian era, fairies had also undergone a form of bowdlerisation, to become the pretty flower-dwelling creatures as illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker.
Disney has carried on in the Victorian tradition of distorting fairy tales to make them more palatable for their target audience of children. Ariel doesn’t die at the end of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Rapunzel doesn’t fall pregnant to a prince in Tangled. And yet, Disney also likes to keep the adults amused; I would point to the Genii in Aladdin as the best example of a character created to attract an adult audience. It has taken a long time for Disney to realise that half its audience are adults, but it got there in the end, heavily influenced by the popularity of the more sophisticated animated features from Studio Ghibli.
In this modern era, there has been a return to writing fairy tales for an adult audience. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (the book, not the movie), Barry Hughart’s The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, the short story collections and novels by A. S, Byatt, Angela Carter and Angela Slatter, are all excellent examples of ‘fairy’ stories written for an adult audience. This isn’t a return of the genre to its original roots as oral stories. Instead, these authors have taken the structure of the original fairy tales and given them a modern twist.
(If you want to read a beautifully-written, modern fairy tale for children, I can recommend Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.)
The beauty of the fairy tale is that it is adaptable. Unlike many other genres, its lack of strict rules is its strength and the main reason the genre has lasted for centuries, and will last for many more. Once a genre stops adapting, it stumbles into obscurity, until someone picks it up and gives it the update it needs, like the Western. We are in an era where categories are blending together to create new genres: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a good example. As previously noted, the fairy tale was always a blended genre.
It might be time to change the name of the genre, to prevent the misconception that fairy tales are only for children.
Her blog is Cogpunk Steamscribe’ on WordPress – Lynne Lumsden Green. The blog is about her adventures in the Steampunk genre and in taking up writing as a career.She will try to post on a weekly basis
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