Fairy tales still dominate pop culture

01/07/2014 7:44 AM

01/07/2014 7:44 AM

Disney continues to mine fairy tales like, well, a jewel-hungry dwarf, and why not?

The vein is rich and since 1937 has been paying off handsomely, the latest princely cash flow coming from “Frozen,” a computer-animated musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The film climbed to the top of the U.S. box office again over the weekend and so far has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide.

But the Magic Kingdom is hardly the only one recutting these old gems.

Fairy tales — most notably the Brothers Grimm’s often scary old bedtime morals of witches and children in peril — continue to fascinate and dominate popular culture. NBC’s “Grimm,” which returned with new episodes last week, has been wildly successful in its reworked and twisted-in-new-ways versions, like “Dance with the Dämmerzustand.” (It’s not a grotesque monster; it’s German for semi-consciousness.)

The blog Fairy Tale News noted: “It should come as no surprise that people see fairy tale themes and story lines cropping up in their favorite shows — even where none were intended.”

The writer quickly found examples in George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novel series. “A Song of Ice and Fire,” better known through HBO’s highly popular “Game of Thrones.” Noble ladies in distress? You’ve got them. Along with dragons, monster wolves, a cunning and deadly dwarf and on and on.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an early American legend, also has found its way to the family room as “Sleepy Hollow,” which returns with new episodes on Monday. As one TV Fanatic review noted, “the series pilot thrust us right into the heart of a story we


we knew but our expectations quickly needed adjusting because there was little about this program that harkened back to the fairy tale we thought so familiar.”

English professor Kate Bernheimer says, “Fairy tales are possibility spaces: They create, rather than limit, potential.” The University of Arizona instructor is a World Fantasy award-winning editor and author.

“One in four American children live in poverty, and fairy tales — with their themes of survival — are as relevant now as they ever have been. In this extreme time of climate change and unbridled wealth for a minuscule percentage of humans, transformation stories have primal appeal.”

In her exploration of fairy tales, Bernheimer edited the anthology “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” a collection of newly imagined fairy tales published in 2010, with contributors like Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard and Joyce Carol Oates.

Published in September 2013, Bernheimer’s most recent anthology “XO Orpheus” reimagines myths from mostly Greek and Roman mythology. She also founded and edits The Fairy Tale Review, a magazine dedicated to publishing literary and artistic works inspired by fairy tales.

It’s not hard to discern the roots of “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” two live-action films from 2013. ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” is in its third season: The premise is that citizens of a Maine town are actually fairy tale characters sent there by a powerful curse that wiped away their memories.

Fairy tales remain ubiquitous, many of them shaped for Americans by the Disney animators and telling much happier stories than their dark European ancestors. You definitely would not be telling that little girl with the Barbie in her lap the earlier versions of “Sleeping Beauty.” One involves being awakened from her long sleep by her twins, conceived by a passing prince; another has the prince locking himself away with her body, which eventually does come back to life, but not before his mother complains of the stench.

First came the Victorians, who had an obsession with childhood, to scrub the rough old stories into their own bowdlerized versions with good little girls and strong Christian fellows.

“Fairy stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed, insofar as they have been so banished, they have been ruined,” J.R.R. Tolkien lectured in 1947, at that time still writing his own masterpiece, “The Lord of the Rings,” filled with wizards, elves and orcs.

Just as Peter Jackson, having now just released the second “Hobbit” installment, has defined Tolkien’s Middle-earth for generations, so did Disney with his groundbreaking “Snow White” animated film, at which audiences wept with the Dwarfs in 1937.

Fifteen years before that, Disney had been producing “Laugh-O-grams,” such as “Jack the Giant Slayer,” in his Kansas City studio. By now it might seem the Disney studios have carried off the complete portfolio: “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tangled,” a spunky take on Rapunzel.

“Frozen,” unlike Andersen’s darker story of a young girl searching for her brother, who has been kidnapped by the Snow Queen, has sisters and a funny snowman. It becomes another classic Disney happily-ever-after romp in the snow.

Andersen published “The Snow Queen,” the longest of his tales, in 1845. Born in Odense, Denmark, in 1805, he published dozens of fairy tales, such as “The Little Mermaid,” made into the 1989 Disney hit, and “The Ugly Ducking,” which Disney made into a short in 1939.

The Brothers Grimm published their collection of tales in Germany in 1812. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected fairy tales from all over Europe, including such classic stories as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Despite the prominence of fairy tales in popular culture, those stories as literature remain an uphill battle. Often seen as “fluff,” fairy tales are finding spaces of merit within literary fiction.

“Fairy tales are a form, after all, beloved by Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Einstein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Donna Tartt, among hundreds of intelligent others,” Bernheimer explains in her defense of the importance of fairy tales as literature.

Even Shakespeare gave the groundlings his fairies with “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream


More and more authors in the last 20 years, like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and Aimee Bender, publish speculative fiction, often using fairy tales as inspiration. Fairy tales are found in genre literature such as fantasy and young adult, and within literary fiction.

The literary world seems to be embracing the fantastical and speculative aspects of literature with each passing year, as evidenced by Karen Russell becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel “Swamplandia!” in 2012 and winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2013.

Published in February, Russell’s most recent short story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” includes stories about vampires, creepy scarecrows and uncanny birds — stories that are, arguably, influenced by fairy tales, myths and legends.

“Fairy tales’ maligned status allows them to thrive as a resistance art form, and we need resistance,” Bernheimer says. “Without resistance, we’re a culture of zombies. Every art form has its vapid and its less-vapid practitioners. I’m not afraid of a bad fairy tale. I’m afraid of humans who seek to limit radical change.”

There is something, by the way, called “Zombie Fairy Tales,” in which the familiar tales are reworked with undead humor and violence, such as Cinderella beings worked to death before the ball.

It is this seeking of resistance — of subverting the known, of challenging preconceived notions — that makes fairy tales important, not only within popular culture, but as a form of literature. Jack Zipes, noted fairy tale scholar, described the importance of fairy tales as a tool to show how people are both different and similar in an October 2012 interview with the literary magazine Ragazine.

“My hope is that our tales and storytellers will continue to leave their imprint on the world, by bearing in mind the socio-historical evolution of tales and compelling us to see the uniqueness of all cultural articulations whether they be fairy tales, myths, or legends,” Zipes said.

Fairy tales, whether in their original form or transformed into movies or novels, tell important stories. They are stories that reflect not only the darker side of humanity, but allow the possibility of great transformation.

“The formal pleasures of the fairy tale form also hold up,” Bernheimer says, “because their aesthetic pathways are mysterious and alluring as ever.”

Elaina Smith is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a former intern at The Star. To reach her, send email to esmith@kcstar.com.


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