Stories of Wonder, Imagination, and Cannibalism

Dave's banner for my From Beyond column

Dave's banner for my From Beyond column

(Article originally appeared in From Beyond, Q4 1999.)

It’s bedtime. Time for you (if you’re a kid) and your sister to turn off whatever video game you’re playing, time for you to brush your teeth and wash your face, time for you (if you’re a parent) to pick out a bedtime story. Little Jimmy wants you to read the latest issue of X-Men. Little Suzy prefers Sleeping Beauty. Which one do you pick? The latter choice, naturally, because it’s the sweeter, cuter, less-violent of the two…right? Well, maybe.

Fairy tales (as we know them today) have come a long way since their beginnings as methods of rebellion, spoken on the lips of housewives and peasants. They were stories filled with the familiar fantastic elements we’re used to, but they were also accompanied by gruesome and sometimes downright indecent details—in other words, they were not originally meant for children.

The term “fairy tale” comes from the French “contes des fee” and the German term “Marchen”, which distills (roughly) into, “story of wonder and enchantment”. True, these elements are present in a lot of fairy tales, but when Charles Perrault, a Paris-born writer, collected a number of tales (taken from the oral tradition) to be presented at the court of Versailles, he was intending his audience to be adults. That much is certain, judging by the “mature” nature of the stories, which often included acts of cruelty, violence and even cannibalism.

While many of us may recognize Perrault and the Grimm Brothers as the “godfathers” of literary fairy tales, their true origin, before they were ever collected and bound in a book, was the minds and mouths of women. The dear old Grimm Brothers merely collected their tales and altered them to suit their needs, but it was the women who created and told the stories to their children as a method of passing on information or as a means of voicing their opinions publicly in an era when women had few rights. These stories were the originals, often more inventive and more creative than Perrault’s versions. They were also “nastier” as well.

The Countess d’Aulnoy is an example of a woman who spoke out about the audacity of her own life through fairy tales. Unhappy with her marriage (she was married at age 15 to a man 30 years her senior), she attempted to frame her husband for high treason but was discovered and duly forced to flee Paris. Many of her stories are about women who are forced into marriages and basically “molded” into whatever society’s rule book says women should be at that moment in time.

Of course, before, during and after this literary movement, we still had the “classic” tales that we know and love today—before they were polished and toned-down.

“Little Red Riding Hood” has many variations, some in which she escapes from the big bad wolf and some in which she’s eaten as a lesson for some transgression. In an Italian version of the story, the grandmother has been eaten by an ogress (not a wolf) and our little heroin barely manages to escape with the help of a gate and a river to which she’d shown kindness earlier. In another version, little red riding hood escapes the ogress when she’s let outside (with a rope tied to her) to relieve herself. She ties the rope to a tree and flees the forest.

It may interest you to know that in both these versions, the girl is encouraged to eat part of her grandmother’s flesh as a sort of “coming of age” test. Societies which practiced cannibalism believed that one acquired the wisdom and power of the people they ate; little red riding hood eating her grandmother was a way for her to gain the “upper hand” against the ogress so that she could escape.

Perrault’s version had it’s own “coming of age” tendencies. Both little red riding hood and her grandmother are gobbled up by the wolf, after which time we’re informed that pretty little innocent girls should be wary of the intent of men who address them. They remain trapped in the wolf’s belly, the grandmother being punished for allowing the wolf to enter her home, the girl for flirting with strangers.

“Sleeping Beauty” ia another popular classic that many children know and love today. After all, who wouldn’t be charmed by a sweet princess being awakened by a charming prince—minus the elements of cannibalism, rape and adultery. The Arthurian tale, “Perceforest”, published around 1528, was perhaps the first incarnation of the tale. The story centers around a king who stumbles upon the sleeping princess in the woods and, when he’s unable to awaken her by normal means, rapes her. Shortly thereafter, he returns to his own wife and nine months later (whilst still fast asleep) Sleeping Beauty gives birth to twins. WHile trying to suckle, one of the children removes the affecting splinter from his mother’s finger and she wakes up. A year later, the king once again finds himself in a familiar part of the woods and discovers that Sleeping Beauty has awaken—and that she’s given birth to two healthy boys.

The king’s wife, who’s been unable to have children of her own, is not happy with this news (nor is she pleased with the fact that her husband has been sleeping around with comatose vixens) and consequently invites the twin children to the king’s court, where she orders the cook to kill them and make them into a tasty meal. The cook cannot bear to perform such an atrocity and so serves her goat instead. This only further enflames the queen’s rage, causing her to invite SLeeping Beauty to the court so that she can be burned at the stake for sleeping with her husband (even though the choice really wasn’t hers). At the nick of time, the king realizes what’s happening and has his insane wife killed. Everyone (more or less) lives happily ever after.

As if that weren’t enough, would you believe that Snow White was once a boy? Apparently, an early form of the tale titled “The Juniper Tree” casts Snow White as a boy who is mistreated by his mother and eventually killed and fed to his father in a stew. The boy is somehow resurrected and returns to kill his mother in the end.

A shorter version has a count and countess taking a ride together through the snowy woods, whereupon the count expresses his wish for a young girl with skin as white as the snow, with lips as red as the berries on the trees, and with hair as black as a raven’s wing. Almost immediately, Snow White appears at the side of the road. The countess is (naturally) jealous and so purposely drops her glove onto the ground and asks Snow White to retrieve it. Once the girl hops from the carriage, the countess has the driver race off, much to the count’s dismay.

Those are just several; examples of what common fairy tales used to be, when they were known only by word of mouth. In each case, there is a moral of some kind to be learned. These morals remain with us today, even if the more fantastic elements of the story have been diluted over time.

Fairy tales only remain what they were in that they speak out about the quirks of society while simultaneously entertaining—something we still do today in movies, video games, books and many other art forms. Fairy tales continue today as the only true tradition that anyone in any part of the world can relate to, as each telling reminds us where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. It’s almost like silently passing the torch from generation to generation, and that’s much more than just a princess and a couple of dwarves dancing around to silly songs.