Lately, an ever-darkening series of fairy tale reincarnations have flit their way across the silver screen, from “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” to “Snow White and the Huntsman and Disney’s “Maleficent.”
Of course, there have been recent, lighter fairy tales, most notably Disney’s “Frozen,” but the trend is for darker versions, which has disappointed some fairy tale fans while delighting others (and undoubtedly gaining new fans who, before this point, considered fairy tales as commensurate with stories for children). We can hardly accuse these recent writers with introducing dark themes to the original fairy tale archetypes, though, since in many ways these latest incarnations revert back to the darkness of the original stories themselves.
The very first version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as far as we know, is called “Sole, Luna e Talia,” (or Sun, Moon, and Talia) by Gaimbattista Basile. In it, the king who finds Talia, the sleeping princess, is so overwhelmed by her beauty that he gathers “the first fruits of love” from her while she’s still unconscious (hardly the subject for any children’s version of the fairy tale). He leaves her unconscious, and fairies come and help her in her plight, necessary because she gives birth to twins as a result of her encounter with the king. One of the infants then sucks a splinter of flax from her fingers, waking her up. (In this version, it is the flax that causes her to fall asleep, not a spindle.)
The king forgets about her until, one day, he suddenly remembers and is reunited with her and the two children (and they seem quite happy to have him back). Eventually, though, the king’s wife finds out about Talia and the twins, and she plots to have them killed and cooked into dishes for her husband as a form of revenge.
Like the huntsmen in Snow White, their cook finds he cannot kill the children, so he kills two young lambs instead. Days pass, and then the queen decides to summon Talia and kill her, too, ordering a fire to be lit for that purpose and commanding her out of her rich garments. However, before the mostly-naked Talia could be thrown into the fire, the king appears and discovers his wife’s treachery. He then has her thrown into the fire instead and marries Talia, and both of them are reunited with the twins.
When Perrault published “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” in the late 1600s, he changed some of the story so that the king kisses the princess upon seeing her, but he kept the cannibalistic elements, having the king’s mother be an ogress who wants to eat them and her daughter-in-law. When the Grimm Brothers wrote “Briar Rose” in the 1800s, they trimmed all objectionable content from the story, ending it just after the prince kisses Briar Rose awake.
So this raises some questions. Was the world darker when the fairy tales were first written so that gruesome stories were seen as a necessity to prepare children or even adults for the harsh realities of life? And, if so, has our world become correspondingly darker than that of the 1800s, to where we once again need such a horrific dose of violence and gore? Are storytellers like the classic Disney writers and the Brothers Grimm wrong for making these stories lighter, filling them with joy and happiness and goodness when we require something else, or are they right to change these stories until they become more like the dreams we dream than the realities we sometimes live?
© 2014 Andrea Lundgren