Flashback Friday: How Dark Should Fairy Tales Be?

As part of the ongoing Flashback Friday series, we’re featuring posts from the archives. This was original posted in May 2014.

moon by cooee

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 in fiction and movies, overall, seems to be towards darker versions, disappointing 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).

But fairy tales weren’t always light and joyous and happily-ever-after. Many of these dark new adaptations hark back to the overall mood, if not the contents, of of the original stories themselves.

For example, 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 finds Talia, the sleeping princess, and is so overwhelmed by her beauty that he gathers “the first fruits of love” from her while she’s still unconscious (hardly appropriate for a children’s version). He leaves her unconscious, and fairies come and help her in her plight, serving as midwives and assistants-in-general as she gives birth to twins while still unconscious. Then one day, one of the infants 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 doesn’t show up again, seemingly having forgotten her, until one day, he remembers and is reunited with her and the two children, all of whom seem quite happy to have him back. Eventually, though, the king’s wife finds out about Talia and the twins (yes, he was already married), 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.

Cape San Sebastian, Oregon by goingslo

Over the years, the version was “cleaned up.” 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. In the Grimm Brothers’ “Briar Rose,” written in the 1800s, they trimmed all objectionable content from the story, ending it just after the prince kisses Briar Rose awake.

And all 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 darker again, fluctuating from where things were in 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?

What do you think? How dark should fairy tales be?

© 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by cooee and goingslo, Creative Commons

One thought on “Flashback Friday: How Dark Should Fairy Tales Be?

  1. I personally love the darker, old version fairy tales now as an adult but for children not so much. I remember as a child watching an animated version of the Little Mermaid where there was no happy ever after but instead the little mermaid died at the end because she could not bring herself to kill the prince – now as an adult I understand that there are not always happy endings but as a kid… not so much.


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