This was going to form a part of my next review (Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter) but it seemed such an interesting (and lengthy) topic that I felt that it deserved a post in its own right.
Everyone is brought up on fairy tales, for many people, they are the first stories that were read to them as children or they were the first stories that they themselves were able to read. It goes without saying that children always seem to love them. They influence the imaginary games they play, their earliest Halloween costumes and probably the way they view the world. The thing that interests me is this, as adults, we still seem to like them. Most people continue to have a favourite fairy tale that they want to pass on to their own children or will sit down to watch a movie version of regardless of their age (and sometimes regardless of whether they themselves actually have children!). It’s safe, comforting and familiar.
And yet, there is a darker side to these stories, and for many of them, the ‘Happily Ever After’ is bittersweet at best. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid dies after refusing to kill the Prince, thus allowing him to marry someone else. In the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, the stepsisters actually cut of parts of their feet so that they can fit into the glass slipper. They are then blinded by pigeons and so are left blind and crippled after the Prince and Cinderella are reunited. In an older version of Sleeping Beauty, the Princess gives birth to twins after being raped all while still being asleep! There are other fairy tales that aren’t as well known or retold today that are even darker that you can find on the internet if you’re interested. Does learning about these original versions put us off? No! If anything, it seems to increase our appetite for them.
A friend of mine recently bought their niece a copy of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. They had a look through it before wrapping it up and liked it so much that they were tempted to get their own copy. This got us reminiscing about childhood stories and I can’t help but think that the reason we like fairy tales is because of this darkness. Even the Disneyfied versions have a dark element to them. Cinderella was basically used as child labour. Hansel and Gretel features a cannibalistic witch and everyone knows that Beauty and Beast is essentially about Stockholm syndrome. It doesn’t stop there, how many of us loved the darkness in the Roald Dahl books, with the fate of the Twits and horrible children in Charlie and the Chocolate factory to only mention a couple? It seems to me that it is actually the dark element itself that makes us love them so much regardless of age.
So, if we love fairy tales because they are dark, that still leaves me wondering why? Why on earth do we prefer a story that could have elements of child abuse, murder, kidnapping or dismemberment to just name a few? And why do we actually seem to like them more when we find out that there are even darker versions out there? A lot of people admit to enjoying scary themselves or disturbing themselves so this is clearly a thing.
Looking back at when I read these stories as a child, I know that I wasn’t aware that these themes were considered ‘dark’ until I was older. It seemed a bit obvious when I did realise and maybe that was just my case but it honestly did never occurred to me. Or maybe it just wasn’t that big of a deal as according to my child logic, it all made perfect sense. These stories have Bad people in them and because they are Bad, Bad things are going to (sometimes in a humorous manner) happen to them while Good things happen to the Good people. Yes it is sad that the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood got cut open with a big axe but he was a Bad Wolf. Snow White was Good Person so she got to live happily ever after with Prince Charming.
I wonder then, if it due to this sense of Good and Bad that we still cling to these stories as adults. As we grow and experience new things, we learn that life is very rarely as clear cut as we would like it to be. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and there isn’t anything that can be done about it. Bad guys don’t always wear black hats and sadly may not get the karmic justice that we may think that they deserve, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t convince the local wildlife to do our housework for us.
Once we have grown up then, do these darker versions of our favourite childhood tales not actually seem more ‘realistic’ (at least on a subconscious level) while still retaining some of their original optimism? Yes they show that bad things do happen to good people through no fault of their own (realism) and yet worse things generally happen to the bad characters at the end (optimism). We are also given the opportunity to explore our own nature, whether it be that of ourselves personally or the human race as a whole, in a distant, safe, slightly exaggerated way. We can distance ourselves from the things that we don’t like by making it some kind of talking animal or creature that doesn’t exist or we can see ourselves as the overworked underappreciated person who dreams of greater things. We can have fun living through the characters who have magical abilities who seem to be able to get away with using them for potentially morally ambiguous reasons and not have to worry about the consequences. Then, when we get bored, or if things start to get too dark or bloody or uncomfortable for us, we can just close the book and walk away.
Logically speaking, events generally seem to unfold in this order: You are told a story that you love, then when you get older, you realise that there are different versions of that story. Many of these older versions will be a lot darker and more twisted than the one you grew up with. However, it seems to me that what it feels like is that your favourite story is growing up alongside you and starts to reflect what you learn about the world. Yes it may have fantasy creatures and bean stalks and whatever else the imagination can create but there is also something that the very heart of it that you can relate to, that you like to explore and that you feel like you need to return to every so often throughout your life.