And they all lived happily ever after – or not
Fee-fi-foe-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman... how we love fairy tales, even when they scare us silly
The fairy-tale has long been a staple of family life – although it is an ever-changing genre.
There are the tales that young children like to listen to in bed – the ones we know so well that no book is necessary. Cinderella, Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood: tales that began in various forms as folk tales. Rags to riches stories that promise a golden future for the pure of heart, and cautionary tales. “If you talk to strange wolves in the forest, no good will come of it. Indeed, in Charles Perrault’s Red Riding Hood, the wolf eats the little girl. Red Riding Hood tends to come off better these days. Many of the Frenchman’s stories have ended up as pantomimes but in their unadorned telling they have a moral core that, had the three-piece suite been a household standard in the late l8th century, would have undoubtedly seen children hurtling to hide behind the sofa. Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots are also among his stories, some of which influenced the work, 100 years later, of the Grimm brothers. While all fairy-tales may begin “Once upon a time,” they have not always ended with “They lived happily ever after.”
Famously, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen became the bane of author Charles Dickens’ life when he outstayed his welcome at the author’s home. He said he would stay for a fortnight but hung on for five insufferable weeks. He was, by all accounts, socially inept and a bore. What might have been a lasting friendship between two of the best storytellers of all time turned into an icy stand-off with Dickens no longer engaging with Andersen and Andersen wondering why.
Nonetheless, Andersen’s deeply affecting tales such as The Little Matchgirl and The Little Mermaid have had many a parent blubbing while reading the stories to their children. He also wrote The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, The Tinderbox and The Emperor’s New Clothes, producing a raft of new fairy stories.
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The origins of many of the popular stories are lost in the mists of time, although one of the earliest compilations to arrive on British bookshelves was 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights (first translated into English in 1706). Considered the source of fairy-tales including Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin, it is recorded on Wikipedia that these most famous stories were later European additions to the Arabian Nights.
You cannot write about fairy-tales without mention of Roald Dahl, of course. Though modern and mischievous in their telling, Dahl’s tales such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are honourable additions to the genre – plus there are his re-imaginings of classic tales in Revolting Rhymes. In his Cinderella, our heroine does not marry the power-crazed, bloodthirsty prince and his Jack and the Beanstalk centres on personal hygiene.
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But whether up-cycled, revamped or reworked, fairy-tales are as much a part of family life as ever they were. I note that the colour-titled fairy-tale books I read as a child are still available. They were put together at the turn of the 20th century and there are 12 of them... from The Blue Fairy Book to the Pink Fairy Book by way of the violet, crimson, brown and orange fairy books. There is even a grey one, although 50 shades are not involved.
Some of the tales are believed to be vested in truth. The story of Snow White, for example, may have been inspired by the life of Margarete von Waldeck, the daughter of a German nobleman who mysteriously died before she could marry her prince.
One of the tales the Grimm brothers collected was that of Rumpelstiltskin, although the character had different names in various parts of Europe, from Trit-a-Trot in Ireland to Whuppity Stoorie in Scotland. It is one of the tales Disney has yet to adapt, I believe. But you can’t ignore the impact of Disney on fairy-tales. The names of the seven dwarfs, for example. Most of us would be able to name at least four, I imagine (they are Doc, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Bashful, Grumpy and Happy) but the original story doesn’t give them names. The Disney Little Mermaid has a happy ending but, sadly, the original Hans Christian Andersen version does not. Having traded in her beautiful voice for painful feet, the mermaid does not win the heart of the handsome prince and so she becomes the foam atop the waves as the sea crashes on the beach. Sob.
Look away now if you like happy endings.
– In Carlo Collodi’s original, dark tale of Pinocchio, the puppet accidentally kills his wise friend, the cricket.
– In a Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, her stepsisters chop off their toes and heels in an attempt to fit their feet into the crystal slipper.
– In a version of Sleeping Beauty a passing king happens upon her sleeping form and rapes her. She later gives birth to twins, while still asleep.
– In Little Red Riding Hood, the girl is forced to eat her own grandmother.
– While the witch may have tried to fatten up Hansel and Gretel for her supper, it was their own mother who deliberately sent them into the forest to perish.
– Sad to relate, in some versions of the Three Little Pigs, the one who builds his house from straw and the one who builds his house from sticks are eaten by the wolf.
– In the Grimm story of the Princess and the Frog, HRH slams the amphibian into a wall... whereupon he is transformed.