Monday, October 1, 2012


New Fairy Tales

Yesterday I was thinking about Little Red Riding Hood and how stupid she was, to the point where if her story were presented today, people wouldn't publish it. "She thinks a wolf is her grandmother?"

Same with Snow White. I recently reread the original, which is infinitely, delightfully darker than the Disney version (the evil queen/stepmother demands that Snow's heart be torn out and brought back to her to eat, salted, for instance, and then at the end Snow White finds a pair of magical molten iron shoes and makes her stepmother dance herself to death! What!! It's actually a lot to think about), but Snow White is straight up a moron. To the point where it's almost like, I don't care if you die, you're seriously bringing this on yourself. The queen keeps showing up in disguise to offer Snow White poisoned stuff to eat and use, and Snow White keeps eating and using it and almost dying, and her dwarf friends keep being like, "Snow White, STOP OPENING THE DOOR FOR THE WITCH," and she's like "Okay!" but then the next day the witch shows up and is like, "here's something," and Snow's like, "Great, let me get the door for you."

Anyway, Scott Ross of NBC Miami did a piece a few months ago about the Snow White phenomenon, tied to the Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron movies, and he asked a few people, me among them, for their thoughts. The article's been up since June, but my answer to one of his questions didn't make it into the piece, and I wanted to put it here, even though there's really no point.

"If you were to retool the story for today," he said in an email, "what major changes would you make? Or would you scrap the whole thing?"

I was going to make a dumb joke, like "she would have fallen into a lake and drifted happily to the bottom and died," but instead I thought about it seriously. Because if you consider the Snow White story, and its morals, and who gets rewarded and punished, and by what means ... it's kind of incredible. The world is so strange. Like, Snow is the good heroine, even though she murders her stepmother. At her own wedding. It's nuts! Nice wedding, also. "Should we do the murder shoes before or after cake?" "Oh, I don't know?"

So, this is the version I came up with. Although I haven't even gotten into how the prince falls in love with Snow while she's dead in a glass box, and then buys her, and then Snow wakes up and is into it. Actually maybe that would be kind of hot. Anyway, an alternative:

I'd probably have the stepmother come only once, with the apple. But it's a slow poison, and after she eats it, Snow White goes down by the river to do some washing. While she's there, the poison starts to take hold of her. Coincidentally, a handsome prince is hunting across the river, and he sees her frothing at the mouth / going into poison-induced shock, and so he comes over and makes her throw up / saves her life. She wakes up and is grateful, they're attracted to each other, and they start a relationship. Eventually they get married, and they invite her dad and her dad's (crazy) wife, as a gesture of good faith & forgiveness. The wife (a.k.a. the evil stepmother) gives the mirror to Snow White as a wedding present and secret curse — because she's learned that vanity can be even more sickening than poison, sometimes. Snow White then goes on to relive the jealousy-induced madness of her stepmother, and eventually passes the mirror on to her own daughter, who eventually usurps her in beauty, and so on and so on FOREVER.

And then thinking about Red Riding Hood just now, for no real reason, and then there's dopey Rapunzel, who gives up her boyfriend, and the selfish, promise-breaking girl in the original Rumplestiltskin. And Goldilocks was a jerk, too. But I guess they were all pretty. Also, "they" and "were." But they were. Although I do like the one about the woman who gets swallowed by a witch and cuts herself out with a knife.

A modern version of these gruesome but wonderful stories about idiots, maybe: once upon a time there was a beautiful girl who was walking down the street when she saw a sign that said "unlimited free drinks, forever." Because she had an unaddressed drinking problem, she went in and sat down at the bar, and a woman who hated her because they'd once dated the same guy was bartending and had put the sign out when she saw the beautiful girl coming. She gave her a tall glass of poison instead of booze, and the beautiful girl drank it and died. She fell backward off the barstool and broke through the floor, but underneath the floor was a dark and seemingly bottomless hole, because the bar used to be a prison, and someone had once escaped by digging himself out after seeing an influential movie. Her body fell down the hole in the floor for a long time until it hit water and floated into an underwater palace. She didn't know, though, because she was dead. Or was she? A mermaid king caught her, because he was the person who'd escaped from the bar-prison, and he'd found a way to live underwater by cutting himself in half and sewing his upper body to the lower half of a tuna. He put her in an air bubble, because he thought it was interesting to look at, and because it reminded him of when he'd lived on land and had put up taxidermy fish to mark important fishing achievements. And then one day a ship passed too close to them, and its propellers chopped them both to bits.

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You've taken me to a dark place, Edith. You've put me in a bubble with your words.


Given that Snow White, at least in the Grimm's version, is all of seven years old when her mother/stepmother starts to get jealous, I can't precisely blame her for not having a terrible amount of common sense.

If you start going through folklore and fairy tales, you'll find a lot of truly messed-up things (and a surprising amount of clear references to sex, and to women who are clever and resourceful), and you will also notice that the Grimm's not only did a significant amount of editing once they decided that they were going to publish for a more general, rather than scholarly audience, including adding punishments and morals not always present in earlier versions, and combining elements of stories they deemed to be the same into one, but they also had a tendency to source their tales from women of their own approximate class. Many of the same stories were being collected/had been collected in other countries by other scholars (a fun compare/contrast is to take Charles Perrault's earlier collection, to which he added explicitly laid out morals (in verse form at times!) to some tales, but they're not the same morals as appear in the Grimm's versions).



Yes! THIS. The Grimms took a great deal of their material from exiled French Protestants who lived in Germany as refugees. They found that the French source material (most of it originating in courtly tales of the 17th century) was definitely not as didactic as they'd like. What's funny is that earlier French fairy tale writers like Perrault often thought that his source material (here I'm talking about Little Red Riding Hood specifically) wasn't didactic enough, so he had added a moral to his version. So basically, the further back you go, the less didactic, the less explicitly moral fairy tales become. (There's a great deal of debate on what Perrault's source material was, but folklorists agree that the material for Little Red Riding Hood is found in the French folklore tradition, which is obsesssed with wolves.)

More generally, the fairy tales coming out of the 19th century are so different to their forerunners, which were aimed at a courtly, adult audience (here, again, I'm referring to 17th century France.) The Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen were writing didactic literature aimed at children. Previous generations would have read (or would have heard) the actual fairy tales as adults.


@geek_tragedy I have a weird folklore hobby (my major academic training is in the sciences, but I do have a trained librarian for a mother - I guess it rubbed off?), but I absolutely love tracing stories from the published sources back to their roots (and laughing at the entire concept of "the original version" of most of the stories people are best familiar with today - with the exception of the Andersen stories and Beauty and the Beast, which are literary tales with a definite author, they're all edited and complied from a variety of prior written and oral sources), and comparing themes across cultures. I'm somewhat fascinated by the stories that pop up over and over across the world, though sometimes (since I often encounter them as illustrated children's books) it can be difficult to find out if the author took an existing tale and simply tagged it as "an X LRR/Cinderella/etc story" for marketing, or took elements of the existing culture and tales to write a new version, set in that environment but using the basic framework of the commonly-known European story.


Aren't characters in fairy tales also supposed to be examples of what to do/not to do? Like, "this sister did it this way and died a terrible death, but the good sister did it another way and married a handsome prince. Which would you rather do?"

Snow White's stepmother was consumed by jealousy (also used evil magic) and that is bad--she is punished at the end, and not just a slap on the wrist: jealousy is iron-shoes bad! Snow White was naive, and that is bad, too--if you trust strangers too much, you could die. But she didn't die: being too trusting is just "lie in a coma for a while" bad.

(And being pretty is ALWAYS good. That's how you get the princes.)


@SarahP Also blah blah blah psychoanalytic theory about working out our anxieties through archetypal works, etc etc.


@SarahP Everytime I type "psychoanalytic" I see the "anal" in the middle and fear I've made an embarrassing Freudian slip.


@SarahP Must... resist... Arrested... Development... reference...


@SarahP What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor cause he's hungry?


@SarahP OH MY GOD can we talk about the hypocrisy in that song?!


@Decca And what if his daddy was gone, somewhere smoking rock now, in and out of lockdown?


@iceberg oops I mean @Decca


@SarahP I love this book and its cover so much: http://www.flickr.com/photos/56781833@N06/5392595681/ ("Love" doesn't mean "agree with" in this case, to be clear.)


@Decca I love that you did this here


@Decca I can't have heard that song in close to ten years, and yet I still get it in my head on a fairly frequent basis. Why, brain?


@bot That's been on my to-read list forever!


A dark world where mermaids hang dead people on their walls instead of dead fish. "Oh, yeah, that's just a 160 pounder I caught by throwing a bottle of Corona tied to a string up onto a passing cruise ship. Yanked 'im right into the sea and had him stuffed so I could put him over my aquaplace." (A fireplace but for water.)

Tuna Surprise

Mermen. They're called mermen. You bait mermaids with lemon drop shots.


@Tuna Surprise

MerMAN! ::cough,cough,cough,cough:: MERMAN!!


@tessamae I heard a rumor that the plural form of "man" is "men"


@tessamae "Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty." *tailflick*


@Verity All the thumbs for adding 'tailflick'. :)


ohhhh my godddddd


im going to murder a different part of my own face every day until you write a book of these

evil melis

also in honor of october i will be commenting as evil melis only

Oh, squiggles

@(evil) melis If constantly picking at completely unprovoked adult acne counts as 'murdering a different part of my own face every day' then I will join you on this quest to get a book of these written.

all the kittens in the club gettin nipsy

@melis Sheila Heti already wrote one. It's very very good.


@all the kittens in the club gettin nipsy Thanks for the tip!!


@all the kittens in the club gettin nipsy
Oh my god your pin-name is FANTASTIC


Trichotillomania month!

all the kittens in the club gettin nipsy

@martinipie I do feel a little guilty for getting that song stuck in everyone's head every time I comment.


Snorting in class at "Nice wedding, also. 'Should we do the murder shoes before or after cake?' 'Oh, I don't know?'"

Although everyone knows cake comes after dancing. So.


@SarahDances Also, the guest who catches the bouquet goes into a coma and wakes up married, and the guest who catches the garter belt has to wear a bearskin for a year or else be taken by the devil.


Edith! I love your updated ending, why didn't they use it, it's perfect!

Murder shoes.


I think you could put a modern spin on the repeated giving and taking of poisonous things. I mean, repeatedly seeking love from toxic people who hurt you...that's a thing, right? And it will hurt and hurt and hurt you until you remove yourself from that person's power. I mean, it might be more direct for Snow White to be like "Hey, Evil Stepmom, it makes me feel badly about myself when you give me poison apples and hairbrushes and stuff, so I think this year I'd just really prefer just to spend my holidays at home with my friends instead, ok?"

Lily Rowan

@vunder Until I just googled, I really thought that "Toxic" by Britney Spears included the line " with a taste of a poison apple." But apparently not! Weird.


@vunder That is how Snow White would've talked to her Evil Stepmother if she'd written Ask Prudie for advice.

Harbinger of Something

Connected in that you said "fairy tales": everyone go read the comic book series Fables, by Bill Willingham! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fables_(comics)

Then come back and talk to me about it.

maybe partying will help

@Harbinger of Something

Fables! Yes! Also is there a Robin McKinley discussion in the offing??


@Harbinger of Something And then if you finish it and the withdrawal shakes start getting bad, you can read The Unwritten, which is like Fables but for Harry Potter.


@maybe partying will help I will discuss Robin McKinley with you! Where should we start?

Sgt. Grumbles

@maybe partying will help YES PLEASE. I could talk about "The Blue Sword" sash-cutting tournaments and giant cat-friends forever. Let's do this.


@Sgt. Grumbles Can we talk about Spindle's End? I think it's one of her under-appreciated books, but I love it so much. And it's a really interesting retelling of Sleeping Beauty, especially the way it handles the fairies' gifts.


@Harbinger of Something
Fables is the BEST, I love it so much. I recently watched all of ABC's Once Upon a Time, which is terrible and also really great, but more than once I found myself just wishing I could re-read Fables, which does similar things much better.


@maybe partying will help ROBIN MCKINLEY EEEEEEEEEEEE! ahem. Deerskin! And yes, I loved Spindles End. I had to read Rose Daughter twice before I could get into it, but that may have been because Beauty was my favorite all through middle and high school.

@Sgt. Grumbles, I got my chestnut gelding right after reading Blue Sword and may, or may not have named him in honor of Sungold. AND Harry and Corlath! Their love! My truest and deepest desire is for Miyazaki to make The Blue Sword as an animated film.

Harbinger of Something

@TattyEmu That sounds like the perfect idea I always wanted but didn't know until you told me I wanted it.

@maybe partying will help Yes! I love her she is great, and I agree about Spindle's End. I read that about once a year, it is one of my all time favorite books.


@maybe partying will help Oh man, you just reminded me I have the last two trades of Unwritten, as yet unread (see? see what I did there?). I need to get on that.

Also, Robin McKinley is amazing, and even her recent vampire romance, which I was prepared to be sad about, was fun to read and not gross and stalkery with weird power-disparity overtones.


@Harbinger of Something I really liked her handling of the concept of magic in the world of a fairy tale in Spindle's End. I also enjoy her specific brand of empowerment for classic fairytale heroines, especially as an antidote to Disney's versions, which were of course the first versions I was familiar with. Even her most fantastic (in the fantasy sense of the word) scenarios always come across as practical.


@TattyEmu Did anyone else read her book of short stories? The Door in the Hedge? I loved her retelling of the Frog Prince--simple, sweet, slightly clumsy but still ultimately victorious heroine.


@Harbinger of Something I love Fables SO much, but am also nerdy enough that it bugged me that they combined both Snow Whites into one character. I don't feel like their stories are at all meldable, plus their names aren't even spelled the same way! (Schneewittchen vs Schneeweißchen)

Also, yes, Robin McKinley, yes, Spindle's End, I wrote a book report on it in the 9th grade, and all our book reports were posted on the class website, and all but like the two other book-nerd girls in the class were just like "the fuck are you reading, Squishycat".


@maybe partying will help Can I talk about how I read Deerskin as an 11-year-old, thinking it was one of her young adult books, and didn't get it at ALL?


@smidge I went on a quest to purchase The Door in the Hedge recently. I loved the story about the Princess and the Stag. I love how none of her heroines are at all worried about having more than one lover in a lifetime. AND I love Luthe.


Does anyone want to talk about 'Jack and the Mad Dog'? I thought it was great, but I'm a sucker for anything that's about getting older and regrets.


I'm thinking of being (my version) of Red for Halloween! I have a big basket and some blood, still need to find the perfect severed wolf head.


@JessicaLovejoy "I have a big basket and some blood." Perfect.


@JessicaLovejoy This is what I did last year, though I didn't use a head but I had a bloody paw (from a wolfman costume) in a basket with a blood-and-fur-covered knife. I hope you find the head though--that is so, so fabulous! (Also, standard fake blood didn't work too well on the furry parts so I used cheap red nail polish.)

Oh, squiggles

I cannot fully express the hate I had for Goldilocks as a child. This is a close approximation of my thoughts when I first heard the story:

"Bitch, that's not your house"
"Wtf, that's someone's breakfast!"
"You broke his chair! Are you at least going to leave a note?"
"Boundaries, Goldy. Look it up"
"She deserved to get et"


I've always adored original versions of fairy tales over the Disney guys because they were so fucked up. One of my most cherished possessions is a book of poorly translated fairy tales that my dad used to read to my brother and me. It's called "The Book of Goodnight Stories" and has a different story for each day of the year. Some tales are longer, spanning several days, some are short. All are some fucked up shit. My dad always said it was especially difficult to read because he had to constantly edit it as he read, both for grammar and content. But my brother and I were OBSESSED with them and so he was forced to read them to us every night.

So now I have the book and can't wait to one day read it's kukoo shit to my kids.


@tessamae ARE YOU ME? I seriously sort of want to have kids just for the exclusive reason of reading that insane-ass book to them. I loved that book so, so, so much. Even though it got me in trouble in kindergarden for not knowing that "ass" was a bad word...b/c it was ALL OVER that book (n donkey form).

It also had some pretty messed-up moral lessons for an impressionable young girl...let's just say I still, as a grown-ass lady, give $ to the homeless b/c I'm sort of deep-down convinced that they might actually be vengeful fairies, wicked queens down on their luck, or wish-granting imps in disguise.


@jule_b_sorry IT IS THE BEST. AHHHH! I can't believe someone else has actually read it!

Wish-granting imps. So, so many wish-granting imps.


You need to write the proposed fairy tale at the bottom as a book. Seriously. I would buy it.


So much what I come here for.


Is anyone familiar with The Red Shoes? It's one of my favorites and pretty macabre, what with the dancing through thorns and heart exploding.


Ok, if we're talking about fairy tales. What is up with Donkeyskin? Parents in fairy tales are THE WORST! But now that I'm thinking about it, I would totally watch that movie. Why are we just retelling the same old stories when there are tons and tons of creepy fairy tales out there to make movies out of?

Also, thank you to my mother who mostly just read me feminist folk tales. http://www.amazon.com/Tatterhood-Other-Tales-Johnston-Phelps/dp/0912670509/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349121164&sr=8-1&keywords=tatterhood


@rallisaurus My parents gave me a book of fairy tales with girls as the heroines which included "Petronella" by Jay Williams. It had really cool silhouette illustrations. I wish I had it for my daughter but now I can't fiiiinnnnd it... *sob* Why can't my parents be a bit more packrat-ish?


A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.


My recent reading of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer definitely opened me up to retold fairy tales. Check it out!


@ohnoohno I loooooooove that book and came here to recc it!


If there is anyone unaware of the genius that is The 10th Kingdom, you must go look it up now. If you have any nostalgia for the nineties and enjoy old fashioned campy television miniseries, it is for you.

tea tray in the sky.

@TattyEmu The Singing Ring!

Barry Grant

Now THIS is the Edith I've been missing!


Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples" is another creepy and awful version of the story, told from the Queen's point of view:



@nzle Came here to say this. "Snow, Glass, Apples" gets straight at the dark, horrible, frightening heart of that story. It will mess you up, but in an awesome way.


@nzle Shuddery good. Also, have you read Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan"? It's a take on the Narnia stories that will break your mind. I sort of can't decide if I could honestly say that like these two or not, because they're so upsetting, but they're definitely brilliant.


@lookimadeahat Ahhhhh looking it up now! Narnia crossed with Neil Gaiman is everything I like! And I know what you mean about it being upsetting but brilliant.


That might be one of the most horrifyingly beautiful things I have ever read.

Mrs. Beeton

The most insane one of all is "The Youth Who Could Not Shiver." This dude galavants around town playing with corpses and demons totally oblivious to how horrifying it all is, and then only learns to shiver WHEN HIS WIFE THROWS A BUCKET OF WATER ON HIM.



Hey, for some reason the mirror at the top of the page is not working on my screen? Like, I have new glasses and wanted to see how they looked, and I saw this article, and I was like "OH SCORE, MIRROR" and now this mirror is broken, and I think it gave my computer a virus because I google image searched "MIRORR" and NONE of them are showing my reflection, they just stay all whitish grey and stupid ARGH this day.


I can't even articulate my delight with this.

Miss Violet

I still have my mother's old copy of Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book which I practically memorized as a kid. There are some familiar stories in that first collection, and some stories I had never heard before - all with their dark edges fairly intact, which I loved. But by the time you get to the later collections (Orange, Pink, Grey, Violet?) the stories are even more obscure and gruesome. I also loved that the the tone of the stories was rather matter-of-fact (ie, of COURSE murder shoes).

Also didn't Angela Carter have a collection of adult fairy tales with a feminist edge - The Bloody Chamber? I remember enjoying that a lot. And then there's that decent Francesca Lia Block collection of retellings, The Rose and the Beast. I wonder if loving these dark stories as a kid sent me straight to the crime section as an adult? Or was I always headed there...


Two things:
1. Every time someone says "original version" of a fairy tale I break out in hives.
2. Those movies and shows and novels and so on being made this year? Those are modern versions of fairy tales, in that they are fairy tales, being told now, reflecting extremely contemporary ideas about gender, power, good and evil, all of which are very historically situated/contextually-informed concepts. They may or may not have a contemporary setting, but that's really just window dressing. Every time you tell a fairy tale in the present, it is a modern fairy tale. Part of what defines it as a "fairy tale," though, is a sense of distance and removal, a "times-of-yore" quality, no matter when it is being/has been told. (Susan Stewart calls this "artifactualization.") Anyone telling stories about "times gone by" is projecting backwards into an imaginary past and using that to compose a sense of the present. It's that self-consciousness (that "gotcha! you recognize this story!" quality) that makes something a fairy tale, not the presence of princesses, gowns, magic, witches, or fairies (which is pretty clear since retellings of fairy tales discard all those things or swap them out for celebutantes, grouchy headmistresses, and so on with no problems).

In conclusion, Dear Edith, please hire me for a recurring writing feature on fairy tales.
A folklorist who sometimes writes about fairy tales for my job


@bluewindgirl Lots of the new shows and films make nerd rage a little, because they a) have a tendency to not actually be all that good and b) behave as though they think they're doing something new, and not only are they not (which is fine), but they aren't even doing the old thing in a new way - I can count SO MANY fairytale and folklore-based works (books, films, poems, plays, games...) that are intelligent and interesting and sometimes even groundbreaking, or at the very least entertaining and also not stupid that are getting no acknowledgement (as far as I can tell, they're not even seeing an increase in sales or consumption) and grrrrrrr. NERD RAGE IS GO.


@squishycat True! Nerd Rage approved, for 99% of popular culture. But I try to hate things because they are terrible, not because they are "inauthentic," because there are a lot more OUATs out there than Angela Carters. Or even Fables...es.
I mean, it's an arguable point, but I think fairy tales by sheer volume owe more to vernacular/popular/"low" culture than they do literary/artistic/"high" culture-- which is what has made it so appealing for so many writers/artists/designers/whatevers: you take something humble and elevate it. That's what 16th century French writers were doing, expressly. So it seems a little unfair to turn around and say that all these terrible pop culture adaptations are betraying the artistic legacy of fairy tales. I suppose the real argument is whether audiences *now* have worse taste than previous generations-- fairy tales are serving the needs of roughly the same segment of the population that they always have.


@bluewindgirl It really doesn't bother me if a work isn't literary or "highbrow" - I am all for brain candy funtimes, and also quality-but-approachable (Gail Carson Levine is a good example here in the YA category, I think). It's the presentation of works as something they're not that bugs me (and also when they are just terrible and not funny-terrible or cheesy-ridiculous-terrible but simply plain-old terrible, which sadly is a category a lot of things are falling into), especially when, for example, one is taking an assumed passive female character and making her Do Things, except failing to actually give her any real agency or personality in the process, and making her female antagonist even more Evil Lady Stereotype than she is in the story that *invented* that Evil Lady Stereotype.


I have a MA in folklore, and I concentrated on fairy tales!!!

Very useful only in this very context. And about on e every ten years...


I've always been bothered by the Frog Prince- my parents emphasized the "always keep your promises, always be careful what promises you make" aspect. Screw that.

A dude can do you a huge favor, make you promise to repay him, impress your father, and hold you to your word. But if he tries to pressure you into sex, backhand that jerk into a wall.

Then he will become a handsome prince and marry you. It's not perfect.


I love this post and the weirdness of fairy tales so much.
Also I had the Brother Grimm version as a kid and I remember thninking that not only was Snow White so so stupid but murder by laces was a surprisingly weak choice for a woman who would eat a salted human heart.
That makes me sound like a really creepy child.


"The New Yorker" had a great article called "The Lure of the Fairy Tale" not long ago. It, too, touches on the shoes of red-hot iron from "Snow White." Read it here: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/07/23/120723crbo_books_acocella
As a not-youngest child, I always resented the fact that older siblings were always evil.


Yes, that was lovely!

Also, I've always been happy to have that excuse for my evil tendencies...


Reading that last story has firmly placed "Petrov Yelyena and Me" by Flight of the Conchords in my head.

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