Friday, September 24, 2021

Subversive Fairy Tales

We tend to think of fairy tales as children's stories, in large part due to the Disney-fication of such older tales as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. As most of us already know, however, these stories were adapted from the "traditional" folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm who Grimm-ified them for contemporary audiences during the early to mid-19th century. 

I'd long assumed that these fairy tales had been woven together from stories with origins in Europe's ancient past, but in reality the entire genre was only a little more than a century or so old, when the Grimms began their work. Indeed, the woman who coined the term "fairy tales" (conte de fée), and who penned the first ones was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a French woman who had been forced to marry an abusive older man at the age of 15.

Her stories kicked off a craze for fairy tales, inspiring the famous Mother Goose tales. But more importantly, they were an act of rebellion against the harsh patriarchy of the times, an act of subversion that just barely slipped past the censors of the day. Contrary to our ideas of fairy tales as sweet little morality plays, d’Aulnoy risked imprisonment, or worse, with her stories of empowered women who determined their own fate.

I've recently begun to read her collected works and they are certainly more entertaining, and frankly, less grim (pun intended) than the so-called traditional European fairy tales with which I was already familiar. Her heroines certainly face trials and tribulations, but there is never a moment when you truly fear for them: they are simply too strong and resourceful to be subjugated by the forces of evil aligned against them.

These are stories intended for adults, and in particular, young women who apparently understood what d'Aulnoy was doing, even if the censors did not.

Am I recommending these stories for today's children? I don't know yet, but they are certainly more appropriate than the often gruesome Grimm tales. They are at least as uplifting as the Disney versions, with the added bonus of not being tied to the company's relentless product marketing. Perhaps, in the end, it's best to leave fairy tales in the past except in the interest of historical research. After all, there are so many incredible and diverse contemporary works for children that one hardly needs to dip into stories from the 1600's. Still, it's instructive to me to read d'Aulnoy's fairy tales if only to reflect on the courage of this woman who was, in her quiet way, fighting for the freedom and equality of all women.


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