Which Version of the Story? Fairy Tales and Folk Lore

For reasons I have no clue about, unless it was related to waking up from a dream about doing lesson plans, my mind wandered into fairy-tale heroines and tropes. Oh, or it might have been snickering with a friend about taking a currently popular (and unhealthy) romance trope/reader cookie and subverting or flat inverting it. That was popular for a while in certain circles. You may recall the “self-rescuing princesses!” claims for some books, or last year’s “inverted re-telling of The Princess Bride.” (If you missed that, no great loss, I assure you.)

A while back I posted about a different writer’s frustration with the live-action and CG movie Maleficent, and how it collided with the ideas in Sleeping Beauty. These are both Disney productions, and thus Disney’s version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Those who have read the older versions know that Disney sweetened things a great deal, although the animated movie is a great story on its own. One of the blog commenters observed that she does not like the older fairy-tales and folk-tales, because they place too much emphasis on physical beauty as the only thing of value for a woman, with everything else coming a distant second at best.

I’ve been chewing on that for a while, and I’m not really sure that holds up, when you get away from Disney versions, the sweetened and domesticated editions of stories. I grew up with Andrew Lang, the original Grimm’s stories, and some Russian and Scandinavian stories, along with Greek mythology (unexpurgated). Some are certainly about beauty alone – The Little Goose Girl comes to mind, where it is her lovely hair and her attractiveness (and the talking head of her dead horse) that proves her nobility. Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” is another one. “The Princess and the Pea,” where physical sensitivity shows noble rank. But a lot of others . . . require the heroine to do a lot of work, or to atone for mistakes, in order to win her man or win her brother’s freedom.

The German Frau Pechta stories are about young women who help others, and who have strong domestic skills. That wins them supernatural aid. So too some of the Baba Yaga stories, where the girl (with the aid of her mother’s blessing) shows respect for Baba Yaga and completes tasks in order to get the wild spirit’s assistance. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” is another where the girl must endure hardship and show bravery in order to win back her love. “The Swan Princes” requires the princess to make shirts out of nettles* for her brothers in order to break evil magic. Some other stories, where the prince rescues the heroine, require her to trick her captors in order to stay alive or unmolested.

Those are not about beauty. Yes, they are about following social norms and being a good woman/daughter/betrothed. Yes, the girl is often described as being pretty or beautiful, just like the man is always good looking. The idea that interior goodness or wickedness is reflected in outward appearance goes back a long ways. But looks are also deceiving, as other stories show. The beautiful princess may be the evil one, or the witch-queen uses her looks to seduce the king and take over. (There’s a strong undercurrent of that in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, a book I do NOT recommend for young readers. Stick with The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword as teen reading.)

Andrew Lang toned down some of the stories in his collection. He was a Victorian, and had Victorian sensibilities about what was appropriate for young readers. However, a lot more death, mayhem, and misery are in those stories than people assume. The heroes and heroines have to pay for bad choices, for breaking the rules. There’s a reason for the trope of the evil step-parent, of the negligent blood-parent. If you read a lot of history, then read “The Children of Lir,” you sort of nod. Second wives demanding that their son inherit rather than the son of the first wife . . . The pattern shows up over and over in history. Heck, look at polygamous societies today. Hans Christian Anderson made up his fairy tales, for the most part, but they fit his society and time. The French stories, once you take off the pretty trimmings added to please the nobility, are darn grim and close to the bone, just like French peasant life. Balkan folk-lore is full of “don’t go with strangers, avoid strangers, stick close to home and stay with the group or else.” But often the girls have to be strong, and brave, and take risks to free themselves or their family members from supernatural ills. Or at least to preserve themselves until help can come.

So yes, the “beauty is what makes you successful/happy/loved” appears in some tales, and it’s probably not the best foundation for living your life. But dig a little farther and there’s a lot of self-preserving princesses, some who rescue their lovers, some who stand up to supernatural rulers on their own, and some who provide the critical key to help the prince defeat evil. Like so much, it depends on what you read and watch, and how widely you read and watch.

And I’m going to go right on messing with the current Paranormal Romance patterns in some of my stories. Because some Golden Calves need to be BBQed.

*You treat the stems of nettles the same way you do flax – let the outer coating soften in water by rotting a little, then hackle and rett the fibers, spin them, and weave or knit the thread into cloth. It was a fiber that was available to the very poor when even gleaned wool was too scarce. Sort of like bark-fibers (bast) in Slavic countries.

12 thoughts on “Which Version of the Story? Fairy Tales and Folk Lore

  1. Even Sleeping Beauty depends on the girl trying to spin, as if “of COURSE she will spin, even as a princess” is a world baseline. (Yes I do know that it kinda was….)

  2. I recall diligence, honesty, and helpfulness being rather more important.
    Beauty could gain you the attention of the supernatural, but wasn’t much help for surviving it.

  3. The complete story of Rapunzel would curl the nose hairs of the soft minded.
    (Speaking of Rapunzel – the wheat and rape seed (canola) crops are failing. Prepare for rising prices and sparse shelves later on.)

  4. Also the way you ret the nettles – either in dew or in pools of water – can give you a golden or silvery effect on the finished fibers, which fits fairytales all over. 🙂

  5. Interesting take on the tropes, and the ‘differences’ in the approaches to them. I can’t help but think of Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion that turns most of the tropes on their heads in more ways than one. 🙂 Of course Moon IS a former Marine, so that might have played into her ‘take’ on the tropes too…LOL My only question is ‘what’ BBQ sauce? I like Stubb’s spicy myself… 😉

    • Heh. What’s really funny, in this context, about “Deed of Paksenarrion” is that it “turns most of those tropes on their heads” simply by being realistic.

  6. Deerskin is DEFINITELY not a kids’ book. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone under 21. For that matter, a lot of people over 21 aren’t ready for it either. One of the darkest “based on a fairy tale” stories I’ve ever read, exceeded only by Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose.

    I have never liked the Disney animated “Sleeping Beauty.” The classic story is compressed and distorted, the climax is rushed and much too choreographed, and the Princess is even more of a cipher than in most Disney animated films.

    What I find really interesting in the old märchen is the gender-flipped ones — those that take a familiar story and reverse the sexes of the main characters while keeping everything else more or less the same. There’s a gender-flipped version of “Cinderella,” and I vaguely recall reading such a version of “Sleeping Beauty.” Then there’s “East o’the Sun, West o’the Moon”, which takes the “prince on a quest to prove his worth” story, flips the main character into a princess, and combines it with elements of “Cupid and Psyche” to produce a very strong female protagonist – as strong as any I’ve seen in modern literature.

  7. Are we just ignoring Beauty and the Beast? Not the Disney which I cannot stand, but the original where the girl has to see beyond the surface to the essential goodness of the guy. The Disney version is unadulterated … bad boy reclaimed by goodness or beauty of girl. In the original she is also helping her father keep his word.

    • *waggles hand* Barring a cultural norm that “going into his house” meant that he could…um…abuse her, the Beast had to show he wasn’t evil by NOT hitting her or otherwise being more PG beast-behavior, plus getting hurt defending her. His only bad behavior is yelling.

    • Interesting. B&TB is one case (the only one I can think of offhand) where I prefer the Disney version. The classic de Beaumont version is weak as a dramatic story because all Beauty has to do is look past her prejudices and see the Beast for what he is, a good man victimized by an unfair, unjust curse — which shouldn’t be difficult given that he is unfailingly kind and generous to her. In the Disney version, the Beast deserved his curse and needed to earn release from it, which gave the midstory some punch. She still needs to see beyond his exterior… but he needs to create something there for her to see. So the story was focused on him as much as on her.

      [shrug] Just MHO. YMMV.

  8. We wouldn’t have many stories about good girls liking bad boys if it were so easy to recognize good but ugly guys for what they are. Cyrano? I feel like wolfwalker is proving my point.

    The thing that really offends me about Disney is that the Prince was nasty to the old lady in the rain (which is more than yelling) and she was nasty back, putting him and other innocents under a spell, and Belle was an incredible snob. Although a bookworm to end all bookworms myself I did not like her.

    Just my 2 cents…

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