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Fairy tales – popularised by the Grimm Brothers – turn 200 this year. Do these stories still linger in your heart?

brunch Updated: Sep 29, 2012 16:22 IST
Shreya Sethuraman
Shreya Sethuraman
Hindustan Times

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, lived a pretty little princess. She was the epitome of beauty, with deep blue eyes, blood red lips, and long lustrous golden hair. However, her wicked stepmother had her locked up in a tall tower. Only a kiss from the bravest, most handsome prince could set the princess free.

One fine day, Prince Charming from the neighbouring kingdom saw the princess gazing from her window and instantly fell in love with her. The wicked stepmother sent dragons and warlocks to fight the prince and he defeated them all, banishing the stepmother. He went up to the princess, kissed her and swept her off her feet. With no obstacle left to overcome, the prince and princess got married with great pomp and lived happily ever after!

This could be any fairytale you read while growing up, along with its rosy ‘happily ever after’ end. These stories about beautiful damsels and ugly witches, handsome princes and evil queens (and more) became popular thanks to the Grimm brothers. The stories turn 200 this year – but are children reading fairy tales at all these days? And as grown-ups, have we fallen out of love with fairy tales? How much do we know about the Grimm brothers anyway?

The Brothers Grimm – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, and authors who collected folklore. Their work popularised stories such as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, among others. The brothers sourced tales from many people – friends, neighbours and elderly village folk. Their first collection of tales, Children’s and Household Tales, was published in 1812. “Fairy tales are a part and parcel of growing up,” says filmmaker Rajshree Ojha (director of the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Aisha), “and every girl dreams of finding a Prince Charming,” she adds. No matter how unrealistic that sounds! “You never really outgrow fairy tales, as they’re among the first stories you read,” says author Nilanjana Roy, who recently published her debut novel, The Wildings.

Rajesh Khar, assistant editor, Pratham Books, says, “Fairy tales are one of the best ways to talk about anything to a child. One creates an imaginative and creative world through these stories.” Popular culture has never been able to divorce itself from fairy tales, and there have been a number of movie adaptations too, the most recent being Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders, starring Oscar-winner Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart. An episode in Season 4 of the TV show Castle too, had the perpetrator dressing up her victims as characters from fairy tales.

Photo: Thinkstock



tales, just as good

While India has its own tradition of folk tales, such as the Panchatantra, European fairy tales have maintained their attraction. “The original Brothers Grimm tales were rather grim. What we’ve seen are the Disney versions, which are the censored versions,” says writer Omair Ahmad, whose book Jimmy the Terrorist, was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. He says that such versions do a “disservice to the original tales”. However, Khar believes that tweaking stories to have happy endings is probably a good idea. “Till children are old enough to chart their own course, it’s better to not have negative or gory endings, as that could leave lasting impressions on their minds,” he says.

A common theme in most of the fairytales is that the stepmother, stepsister, evil queen – in short, women – are the troublemakers. Why were they portrayed in such a fashion? “It could be a reflection of the society back then,” says Ojha. She also says that these clichés have been passed down generations and continue even in our soap operas. “Such portrayal of women was the cultural norm back when the Grimm brothers were writing,” says Roy.

As far as ‘step’ relations and the negativity attached to them is concerned, Ahmad says, “Sautela is not positive in our language either. The reality is that people progress faster than stories do.” Roy adds, “Marriage in those times was a mere transaction, without being romantic. Besides, without any wicked character, there wouldn’t be any story!” She also says that perhaps there was the fear of the power of single old women, which is why, dubbing them as witches was an easy way out.

Fairy tales are also not politically correct for present times. “Fairy tales have always been white-dominated. Maybe someday we’ll have a coloured Snow White or Cinderella,” says Ojha. Ahmad concurs, “Most of our original comic-strips were all white. Literature 30 years ago was extremely racist, because the times were like that. However, things are changing now.” On the other hand, Roy says that fairytales needn’t be politically correct at all. “Fairy tales are a form of escapism, and also cautionary, in the sense that they’re preparing children for the world outside,” she says. Roy also says that it would be incorrect to call these tales racist just because the characters were “white”.

Photo: Thinkstock

In a world of my own...

But it does feel good to be lost in the world of fairy tales, dreaming of a ‘knight in shining armour,’ no matter how silly that sounds. Bangalore-based teacher Priya Iyer says, “I preferred watching a series called Faerie Tale Theatre (also known as Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which was a live-action children’s television anthology series retelling popular fairytales) instead of reading. But if I had to choose one story, I’d pick Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs... I thought the dwarfs were cute and the stepmother was a strong character.” Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all, a phrase that’s seeped into our vocabulary, is from this particular tale in which Snow White has a stepmother, the evil queen, who wants her to die as she is jealous of Snow White’s beauty and youth.

Mumbai-based lawyer Vinita Sithapathy, 26, recalls that her favourite fairy tale was Hansel and Gretel. Sithapathy says that while she may not read fairy tales now, if she had kids, she probably would. “But I’d tell them not to believe these stories, since they stereotype things. I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up with gender stereotypes.”

Hansel and Gretel are siblings, abandoned in the woods by their poor father and conniving stepmother. The hungry kids land up in a gingerbread house, which is occupied by a wicked witch. She welcomes them into her house, imprisoning Hansel to fatten him and eventually eat him up, while Gretel is made to slog. However, the siblings turn out to be too smart for the witch and push her into an oven, thus saving their lives. They end up living happily ever after.

Despite having been around for what seems like forever and despite the dozens of other entertainment options for children these days, bookstores report that fairy tale compilations continue to sell briskly. New Book Land, in Delhi’s Janpath, sells close to 40 such books a month. Mirza Salim Baig, the proprietor of the bookshop, says that fairy tales sell particularly well during the summer break. “The popular ones include Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Thumbelina”, he says. “While the younger kids like the books with larger fonts and lots of pictures, most of the older ones opt for The Complete Illustrated Works of the Brothers Grimm,” he adds.

So, do girls and boys both enjoy reading fairy tales? Binay Upadhyay of Bahrisons Kids in Khan Market says it’s girls who generally lap up fairytales. “These are classics and are sometimes even recommended in schools,” he says. Purnendu Kabi, head of sales (north), Pratham Books, however, believes that fairy tales don’t enjoy the same popularity with children these days as they did once upon a time. “Kids are now more curious about the untold,” he says. But he too maintains that fairy tales are more popular with girls, while boys prefer science fiction.

Sex, love and fairytales
Can these tales be interpreted in a sexual way? The original versions also had undertones of sex, the more famous version being French author Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), written in 1697. “Yes, they can be interpreted so,” says Ahmad. “The Alif-Laila stories (based on The Arabian Nights) were extremely sexual in nature. Even Snow White could be interpreted so, with the aging queen jealous of the sexual purity of the young Snow White,” he adds.

Agrees Roy: “In one of the classics – Cinderella – the slipper is a stand-in for female genitals. And in one of the brutal versions of Sleeping Beauty, the prince walks in, sees her asleep, and then rapes her.” This version has the damsel wake up to find herself a mother of two kids! However, Ojha maintains that deep down people do want a fairy tale life. “It’s a form of hope for people, something detached from reality, but still a hope,” she says. Roy too says, “everybody returns to fairy tales sometime.”

So hitch your wagon to hope, and maybe, you’ll have a happily ever after!

Photo: Thinkstock

Twists in the tale?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

: One interpretation is the contrast between impure and pure womanhood. While the evil queen and Snow White might be equally beautiful, what creates a difference is the gap between their levels of purity. The magical mirror feeds on the evil queen’s jealousy and her obsession with Snow White’s youth.

Little Red Riding Hood: Various sexual retellings of this tale have her being a lesbian or shooting down the wolf while sending the hunter off to a self-help group. Susan Brownmiller (American feminist, journalist, author, and activist) in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, writes, “Little Red Riding Hood is a parable of rape,” with the main character an utterly passive victim.

Sleeping Beauty: The evil fairy is jealous of the damsel’s beauty. The pricking of her finger and the blood represents the onset of her period and sexual maturity. The thorns surrounding the castle represent the thorns of a rose, which say that love always includes some suffering.

Cinderella: The slippers that Cinderella wore to the ball and which eventually got her the prince are a source of bondage for her. According to ancient German marriage customs, the father of the bride presents the groom with one of his daughter’s shoes. The placing of the shoe on Cinderella’s foot was an act of bondage.

Sources: Wearing Cinderella Slippers, Melissa Howard; Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairytale by Catherine Orenstein; Different Shades of Snow White, Mark Wilson in; Fairytales and Female Sexuality by Sarah Seltzer in RH Reality Check

You have a fairytale hangover if...
*You wish for a ‘happily ever after.’
*You think your hair is long and strong enough for Prince Charming to use it as a rope.
*You dream of being locked up in a tall tower, only to be rescued by Prince Charming.
*You actually believe in Prince Charming.
*You leave a trail of food in a park so that you don’t forget the route back.
*You think kissing a frog will turn it into a handsome prince (it won’t and you’re probably gross to even think it will)!

From HT Brunch, September 30

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First Published: Sep 29, 2012 16:02 IST