We have all grown up to the tune of “Once upon a time…” It brings comfort hearing those words as we brace ourselves for the impending adventure. Disney has coined this phrase and produced stories that bring back childhood memories of princes and princesses. Disney produced a cloak to shield us from the horrors of the outside world, where for the next hour and a half we are ushered into a world of pure imagination.
What is curious though, is that the origins of some of these fairy tales are far from the angelic Disney versions we are accustomed to. From the fairy tales of Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Charles Perrault to the Grimm brothers we encounter tales that are politically charged, packed with morals and encased in the darkness of humanity. These original fairy stories are full of murder, rape, cannibalism and evil that isn’t confined to the stepmother. Furthermore they have often been seen as a reflection of the society they were written in and what is interesting is that as society and culture changes, so do the stories.
What do these current stories reflect?
Alice Abler in her article on “The Moral of the Story” remarks:
“If fairy tales have been a social gauge through the ages, then today’s tales suggest that Western society has shifted even further from supporting biblical values and principles to embracing the concepts of relative morality and self-sufficiency. “
An interesting and perhaps accurate assessment of the times we live in. Quite a lot of the cinematic stories are filled with relative morality, where nothing is exactly wrong or right and we have to find our own hope and happiness. Compare this with the roots of Grimm fairly tales and you will find a story packed with lessons to be learned and a much viler darkness to overcome; making the victory all the more sweeter.
Yet it feels like we want to move away from these dark fairy tales and cover them with sugar and spice. We are shocked and appalled (rightly so in many cases) at the shadows and gloom of these stories and yet when we hide them, perhaps we miss what they are trying to tell us about humanity.
However some authors are pushing back, Neil Gaiman for one with his chilling stories of Hansel and Gretel and the Sleeper and the Spindle. Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth tells us of a backwards disobedient fairy tale that is set in Spain 1944 where a civil war is brewing.
What is compelling about these stories is that it shows an inner working of the human heart that isn’t pretty. It is close to the bone, it is gritty and we want to run away from it.
I mentioned before how Disney displays something of the Gospel; a prince saving the princess. And it is true, the prince does save her. Yet on closer inspection, we can see that we have skipped a large chunk of the story. We have come to the end and what a glorious ending it is. However we have missed how very dark the darkness is. We are told in these new fairy tales that the evil characters are not really *that* evil and in some cases they are just misguided & misunderstood (Maleficent, Wicked etc). It feels like we are told a half-hearted story.
I think we need those dark fairy tales to remind us of the true extent of the struggling heart and our greatest need of a saviour.
In the bible, before the wedding feast in Revelation there is a narrative steeped in tears, suffering, shadows and darkness. Those stories cannot be skipped over. The depravity of humanity is portrayed clearly in the bible. There are horrors of the human heart that are exposed, stories that make our toes curl and tales we wish we could hide under the carpet. But we do them a disservice if we do.
There are no Disney versions of the human story, the bible is our dark fairy tale. And yet weaved throughout it is a thread of hope, a light that shines bright in the darkest pit.
Those dark fairy tales, though horrific, reveal something of the human heart. We may not want to share them with our children, but as adults they can have value in the narrative of our society. Yet when we sugar coat them, perhaps we lose something.
- Featured Image: Kings’ Fairy Tale, 1909, by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis