Fairy tales are important. They’re a massive part of our cultural history and they’re part of curicula in schools world-wide. Children are introduced to fairy- and folk tales in the cradle, and they’re seen as an important part of childhood. Fairy tales are also, on the whole, deeply misogynistic. The traditional versions we know today were written down in cultures that actively sought to suppress women: Perrault wrote down stories told in the salons of France in 1697 in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oie; the Grimm brothers collected tales from German oral traditions in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen of 1812 and Hans Christian Andersen produced his first volume of fairy takes, Eventyr, in 1835. The first of these works is almost a century before A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the last around 60 years before the first wave of feminism really got going.
One of the joys of fairy tales is that they are part of a strong tradition of oral storytelling. They mutate, fudge and grow, transcending arbitrary boundaries to fit the societies and cultures in which they are told. Take Cinderella. There are dozens of tales across cultures:
- An Ancient Egyptian version of Cinderella recorded by Roman historian Strabo in the first century BCE, for example, has its protagonist Rhodopis kidnapped from Greece and sold into slavery, and it is a rose-red golden slipper with which she bags her man.
- In India, 300 BCE, Shakuntala is abandoned by her mother, cursed, and is finally recognised by her husband by virtue of a ring.
- T’ang Dynasty China saw Tuan Cheng-Shih write down a cinderella story in which put-upon Yeh-Shen is delivered to true love by way of a golden slipper and feathered cape.
- Little Burnt-Face, of the Native American Mi’kmaq, marries the invisible Great Chief after winning approval from his sister.
For many of us twenty-first century dwellers, this oral tradition means traditional tales can easily take on the foibles and sensitivities of modern living, which in turn mean that published fractured fairy tales, political in nature or otherwise, are common.
I’ll be moving on to folk tales from antiquity with a strong feminist message at a later date, but for now, here are my favourite feminist reworkings of some traditional tales.
Cinder Edna contrasts the stories of two girls, each living with archetypal wicked stepmother. While Cinderella depends on a Fairy Godmother to make sure she’s got a pretty party frock, Cinder Edna puts hers on lay away and works to pay for it herself. Instead of wearing uncomfortable glass slippers to the ball, she slips on her old loafers and, while Cinderella worries about her appearance and complains that her shoes are uncomfortable, Cinder Edna heads to the dance floor and (and I’m quoting here) busts a move. At midnight, she travels home on the bus.
The joy of Cinder Edna is undoubtedly its feminist message, which teaches independence and the values of work, but the book also has a strong environmental message – Cinder Edna may marry at the end, but her happiness is not dependant on having done so. Her prince is the owner of a recycling plant, and after her marriage she spends her time studying waste disposal engineering and rescuing kittens.
While Cinder Edna is a little heavy-handed in its didacticism it is also perfectly pitched for the sense of humour of a five-year-old, and is probably my favourite fractured fairy tale.
Frances Minters’ updating of Sleeping Beauty is told in rhyme, complimenting the use of music in a fun narrative that sees the cursed Beauty plan ahead for her foretold finger-pricking. She is to be woken not by the kiss of true love, but by a rock star, baby. So, with her finger pricked by the needle of a record player, Beauty gets into bed and is woken the next day by her radio alarm clock.
The moody illustrations add interest to the page and nicely represent the urban setting of the story.
Minters also urbanises another favourite in Cinder-Elly.
Micheal Emberley both writes and illustrates this picture book that’s rich in comic detail. Described as ‘a folk hero for the nineties’ by Booklist, Ruby is a mouse sent to visit her ailing grandma. Ignoring the advice of her mother, Ruby is stops to chat with a lizard on the mean streets of the big city. Then she encounters a cat, and things start looking distinctly Red Riding Hood. Ruby is almost feminist by accident, it’s about a savvy girl with street-smarts and a sense of self-worth that makes her a wonderful role model for developing minds.
The Fourth Little Pig
The Fourth Little Pig written by Teresa Celsi and illustrated by Doug Cushma picks up the story of the three little pigs after they’ve escaped into the house of bricks. The little porkers’ sister arrives, and tells her brothers in no uncertain terms (and in rhyme) that being frightened will get them nowhere. Showing them that there is a wolf-free world beyond their front door, the fourth pig is the kind of sister most people would love to have. Colourful and simple enough for a pre-schooler to understand, The Fourth Pig presents girls as capable and independent and possessing of leadership qualities while still being caring and nurturing.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
The Bloody Chamber is not, technically, a children’s book. It is however perfectly acceptable reading for mature teens, and I would happily give it to a fourteen year old*.
In this collection which is rapidly becoming a classic, Angela Carter takes the themes and imagery from traditional fairy tales to create a selection of brand new tales. It’s likely lost some of its subversive edge in the 30+ years since its original publication, but it is nevertheless an opulent, syrupy collection which grabs the reader with its rich prose and tangible sexuality.
Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard and Snow White are just a few of the fairy and folk- tales that get the Carter treatment. Each is lush and fantastical, jerking the reader into a new understanding of the genre as a whole.
As it is becoming traditional for me to say, there are many other books that play with fairy tale topoi, and many that deserve a mention here have not had one. I have mentioned The Paperbag Princess and Princess Smartypants before on this blog, but there are countless others to be found.
*Your mileage may vary, as they say on the internet, and carers should use their own discretion when giving this anthology to a teen.
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