Sources of Wisdom in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have traditionally featured beings (fairy or otherwise) who were characterized by their wisdom and knowledge: old men with long white beards, old women, talking plants and animals, or the fairies themselves. The main character would encounter a being like this, and his future would be entirely determined on how he responded to the wisdom and instructions dispensed by them. (I think to some degree, this is one reason why fairy tales were considered suitable material for children’s stories, because at one point they emphasized obedience and listening to one’s elders along with the other aspects of a sterling character and a good citizen.)

Not every traditional fairy tale has a source of wisdom (the original “Briar Rose” does not), but when they do, such wisdom had better be heeded…or the character suffers. This plot device is followed by works like Phantastes and even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Anodos suffers when he doesn’t listen to the wisdom of those around him, and people like Isildur and Frodo suffer when they succumb to the Ring, ignoring the advice of Elrond and Sam, respectively.

Nowadays, however, our fairy tales are quite different. Most characters don’t listen to their fairy godmothers or their elders (or whoever their source of wisdom may be), and things usually work out anyways. In Frozen, Queen Elsa starts by trying to follow the advice of her father but finds it too restrictive. She fails and then celebrates the freedom that follows her failure. In the end, we discover that her father’s advice was poor advice, and that by listening to it, she was robbed of years that she could have spent with her sister, strengthening their friendship and enjoying each other instead of being divided by closed doors and fear.

Admittedly, her sister, Anna, does go to the trolls for advice—advice which is elaborated and explained by the snowman, Olaf—but in the end, she follows her own heart as to what she should do, and everything works out just fine.

The same thing happens in Disney’s Tangled. Rapunzel starts out by setting aside her mother’s wisdom and following her own heart. Of course, we know that her mother is actually a selfish, evil woman, but she doesn’t know that. Her mother has always cared for her and protected her, yet she sets aside her advice and flourishes.

This isn’t just a recent trend, though. Disney films have had protagonists who regularly flouted the advice and wisdom of others since Snow White. In The Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel ignores her father and Sebastian and gets away with it. (Whereas in the original, she does the same thing, ignoring the wisdom of her grandmother, but it doesn’t end well for her. She loses her family and dies, and while there is a faint hope for her, in the end, as a daughter of the air, she has much still to suffer and she has lost the prince whom she loved.) In Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose ignores the advice of the fairies and talks to, dances, and falls in love with a stranger…but if she hadn’t, Prince Philip would never have loved her and wouldn’t have come to her rescue.

This isn’t just a Disney trend, however. How to Train Your Dragon by DreamWorks focused on how Hiccup discovered the truth about dragons by disregarding what everyone else told him, and even in fairy tale spin-offs, the trend is continued, like in the classic black-and-white film Sabrina, which shows the title character doing very well for herself, despite ignoring her father’s advice.

So what has changed? Are we so different from those before us that we need to rely on ourselves more? Have our sources of wisdom become tainted to where we can no longer trust them, or has rebellion just become so attractive that we now want to reward it?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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