Snow Wite and Who? How Not to Read a Folktale

This term, I’m teaching a course in the folktale. We’re looking at stories by Grimm, as well as young adult novels that make use of folktales in interesting ways. Michael Buckley’s The Sister’s Grimm, Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabran, and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart are three of the novels we’re looking at later in the term.
Talking about folktales can be tricky—even in the classroom—because people have such different ways of looking at these old stories. It’s been more than two hundred years since the first publication of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Children and Household Tales, but these stories continue to get told, retold, and reimagined in print and film. Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella, directed—no less—by Kenneth Branagh, is due for release in March of this year.
More and more often, clever commentators want to read these stories realistically—with  a touch of irony. The underlying joke seems to be that a postmodern culture is too smart to be suckered by stories about princes and princesses who get themselves into all sorts of trouble, and who invariably live happily ever after. The sophisticated reader is expected to get the joke. Who, after all, could be taken in by such ridiculous stories? Funnily enough, Disney has made billions from reimagining these stories on screen, and endless numbers of parents and children alike have given up their time and money to watch them again and again.
Reading folktales is challenging, and I sometimes fall into the trap of reading them realistically—against my better judgement. It’s always best to remind myself these are stories—stories to be told and heard, stories that speak to some fundamental human desires and anxieties, and, most of all, stories to be enjoyed. Here’s what happens if you try to read a folktale such as “Snow White” realistically.
Excerpt from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by the Brothers Grimm:
But Snow-White kept growing, and kept growing more beautiful, and when she was seven years old, she was as beautiful as the bright day, and more beautiful than the Queen herself. Once when she asked her mirror:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is fairest of us all?”
It answered:
 “Queen, thou art the fairest in this hall,
But Snow-White’s fairer than us all.”
Then the Queen was horrified, and grew yellow and green with envy. From that hour on, whenever she saw Snow-White the heart in her body would turn over, she hated the girl so. And envy and pride, like weeds, kept growing higher and higher in her heart, so that day and night she had no peace. Then she called a huntsman and said: “Take the child out into the forest. I don’t want to lay eyes on her again. You kill her, and bring me her lung and liver as a token.”
How not to read this folktale:
This is a story about a little girl, and it mostly seems to be about abuse. It clearly identifies Snow White as seven years-old. Is it her fault she’s beautiful? The queen is nothing short of psychotic for wanting to kill Snow White and then eat her liver and lungs. Being jealous of a child is weird enough, but this queen is clearly a narcissistic psychopath.
Snow White isn’t killed by the huntsman (as instructed by our psychotic queen), but she is abandoned in the forest, where she eventually finds seven strange little men living together in a little house. Not only do these little men not contact the authorities about this lost child, they agree to let her stay as long as she will work as their house slave, doing all the cooking and cleaning. This is like trading one form of abuse for another.
I’m also getting confused—is Snow White still seven years-old? She has to be. The story doesn’t say anything about years passing, or Snow White getting older
And then the crazy queen hunts Snow White down. This kid is either completely stupid, or she just doesn’t learn from people wanting to kill and enslave her. The queen arrives at the house of the little men. First, she convinces Snow White to try on some strangling lace, then to wear a poisoned comb, and finally to eat a poisoned apple. This kid does not get it.
Snow White apparently dies twice, but the little men revive her. The third time she’s really dead—or at least mostly dead. The little men set her up in a glass coffin, where she lies on a hillside for a long, long time. This is where things get really disturbing. Presumably Snow White doesn’t age, as she’s mostly dead. This prince fellow comes along and falls in love with her—with a mostly dead child in a glass coffin. This prince is more psychotic than the queen. That’s it—I’m not reading anymore.

Into the Woods: Disney in Name Only

Disney has made enough money from its filmic versions of fairy tales in the last seventy-five years to make Smoug’s treasure look like a piggy-bank. Since the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has been feeding us feature-length versions of fairy tales—and they’re still doing it.
I went to see Into the Woods, and I was a little surprised Disney decided to put its name to this project. Not that it isn’t a film worth seeing. Disney’s Into the Woods is a live-action musical, based on the musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. If you like musicals, and if you like folktales, you will probably like this film. My favourite characters were the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, and Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick. The film has some fabulous moments, including Cinderella stuck to the palace steps as she sings out her indecision, and Agony, the duets sung by the two insufferable princes, played by Chris Pine (Yes, indeed, the latest Captain Kirk.)And Billy Magnussen. However, you will have to see the film and judge for yourself.
What surprised me was some of the darker elements from the Grimms’ folktales that find their way into the film. One note. Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimms’ tale; it’s English. The film makes use of Grimms’ versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red riding Hood in order to tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Baker who attempt to break a curse on the male line of the family.
Anyone familiar with Disney is aware of how the corporation tends to sexualize its princesses—all you need do is rewatch The Little Mermaid. But this film takes things to a different level—namely, when Red Riding Hood makes her way to Granny’s house. Little Red, played here by Lilla Crawford, meets the wolf, played slaveringly by Johnny Depp. Red offers the wolf a self-possessed, “Hello Mr. Wolf,” and then endures his fawning and slavering before carrying on to Granny’s. The scene is disturbing in its overtones, and the sexual nature of the wolf’s interest smacks more of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood than it does Grimms’ Little Red Cap.
The Grimm Brothers show Red Cap as a child, and she’s clearly a child in the film, which makes the wolf’s appetite that much more disturbing. Red learns her lesson, as she is saved from the wolf’s belly by the woodcutter, but her song about being “excited and scared” puts a different spin on Red’s experience.
I was also struck by the use of the Grimms’ Cinderella in the film. This is not the version of Cinderella with which most people are familiar. In Grimm, the stepsisters cut off first a toe and then a heel in order to fit a foot in the slipper. In the film, the stepmother obliges each of her daughters by thwacking off first a toe and then a heel in the hopes one might marry the prince. Cinderella’s helper birds arrive not long after to blind the stepsisters for their cruelty. These details are one thing to read in Grimm, but they are something else to see on the screen. The stepsisters later show up wearing dark glasses and carrying canes, which suggests some black humour that’s a far cry from the folktale.
Remember, I liked this film. Parts of it were a little hard to take, but the music carries the two hours, despite the weird restart of the plot once the giant’s wife shows up to find and kill Jack, who is, of course, responsible for her husband’s death. Disney’s retellings of such fairy tales are often dark, sometimes sexual, and always follow a formula. Into the Woods is not a Disney production, but it does carry Disney’s name, which says something about the corporation and where it’s prepared to put its money.

Sleeping Beauty, or How to Lose Your Fashion Blog

Once upon a time, there was a king and queen who wanted a child, ever so much. But they knew that raising a child meant work, so they began to prepare. They read books on child-rearing, they baby-proofed the castle, and they spent hours talking about names, immunizations, breastfeeding, and cloth diapers verses disposables.
And just as babies do, this baby came, and it was a girl. They called her Francesca, or Frankie, for short. The king and queen began to organize the child’s christening, and the king was put in charge of the guest list. Now, in the king’s defence, he put thought and care into that list. He had names on coloured stickies all over the royal study, and he gathered those names into a master list that he carried in his pocket. He remember to invite the seven dwarfs, the seven ravens, and every other king, queen, prince, or princess within a hundred miles. But when he added the names of the seven fairies to his list, he forgot one. And when the seventh fairy realized that she wasn’t going to get an invitation, she was pretty mad.
The day of the christening came, the guest were gathered, and all went off without a hitch—almost. The king was walking about the castle gardens where the christening was held, and little Frankie was snoodled up in a snuggly strapped to his chest. He beamed upon all of his guests, wandering about and shaking hands, while the queen wished it all would be over soon. She needed a nap. One by one, the guests presented their gifts to the new princess.
Just then, the seventh, and conspicuously uninvited fairy arrived at the garden. She was dressed in a black, Armani suit, and she looked forbidding. Not only was she a powerful fairy, she was one of the top fashion bloggers in that part of the world
As soon as he spotted her, the king realized his mistake. To his credit, he hurried over to offer an apology, but the seventh fairy wouldn’t have it.
“I’m not interested in your excuses, you old windbag,” she said, coldly. “Here is my gift to your little brat of a child.” And with that, she put a curse on the princess. “When this child reaches the age of sixteen years,” the fairy intoned, “she will prick her finger on a spindle, which will put her to sleep for a hundred years, unless a prince wakes her with a kiss.”
“Oh,” she added quickly, “if a prince does kiss her, and if she wakes up, she will forever lack a fashion sense.”
A shocked silence followed the words of the fairy, and then a cry of dismay. The king begged the fairy to take back her cruel words and have some punch, but she shook her head.
“You must face the consequences of your forgetfulness,” she said to the king.
“But you were on my list,” wailed the king. “Can’t you forgive me? For the sake of my poor little daughter?”
“Not a chance,” said the fairy, and with that, she turned on her glittering, spiked heel and left the party.
You can imagine the dismay of the king and queen. “What are we going to do?” cried the queen.
“And never to have a fashion sense!” added one of the ladies in waiting, one hand to her aching brow.
“Now, now my queen,” said the king, recovering his dignity. “We will take steps, we will prepare, and we will stop this vile curse from ever coming to pass.”
So little Frankie began to grow. She became a toddler, and then a sturdy child, and soon a long-legged girl, who ran and laughed and made noise and got herself into trouble. She had hair as black as the raven’s wing and eyes as blue as a summer’s day. She laughed often and freely, and she tried the patients of her parents. She hated wearing princess clothes, and would most often be seen, whether in the kitchen talking to the cooks or in the yard chasing the stable-boys, wearing an old black T-shirt and jeans.
“Part of the curse is already coming true,” whispered the ladies-in-waiting to one another. “The princess Francesca has no fashion sense.”
But Frankie didn’t care, and her parents had more to worry about as the princess approached her sixteenth birthday.
The king had done his part by rounding up all of the spindles in the kingdom and making a great bonfire that could be seen for a hundred miles. Next, he advertised for a prince—the kissing kind—just in case things went sideways on Frankie’s birthday. There must have been many princes wandering the lands that year, because at least fifty showed up at the palace to be on hand in case the princess fell into an enchanted sleep. But the king wasn’t going to take any chances, and he housed them all, letting them practice their princely skills on the royal training ground. Frankie would sometimes go and watch them. She liked sports as much as anyone else, but she wasn’t about to join this posturing collection of fools, just so they could try to show her up. She left them to their swordplay, their archery, and their flexing.
The princess’s sixteenth birthday drew nearer and nearer, and the kingdom seem to hold its breath. And then, the morning of Frankie’s birthday arrived.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the king and queen couldn’t find their daughter that morning. Frankie had risen early, and on her way down to the kitchens, she discovered a stairway into a tower that she had never noticed before.
“How odd,” she said to herself. And being the curious girl she was, she followed the stairs, up-and-up, until she came to a tower room. And there, as you probably guessed, sat an old woman with a spindle in her hands. She grinned crookedly as Frankie entered the tower room.
“Good morning, my sweet,” said the old woman, in honeyed tones.
“Hello,” said Frankie. “What is it you are doing?”
“I’m spinning, my dear. Would you like to try?”
Now, Frankie wasn’t as stupid as all that. For one thing, she had heard the story of what was supposed to happen on her sixteenth birthday a hundred times. Everyone had always made a fuss about it, and now, here was this old woman, clearly trying to set Frankie up for her big sleep.
“All right,” said Frankie, coming close. “But first show me what to do.”
“Very well,” said the seventh fairy, for it was she, in the disguise of an old woman. “Watch carefully.” And she showed Frankie how to spin the spindle and wrap the wool.
Frankie came closer, as though she was trying to see what the old woman was doing, and she just happened to bump the old woman’s arm.
The old woman gave a cry. “Clumsy child!” she shrieked. “What have you done?” She held up her finger. Right at the tip was a bright bead of blood.
“Oops,” said Frankie.
The old woman turned pale, and then she turned green, and then she lost her disguise completely, and the seventh fairy, in all her radiant beauty, fell over with a crash onto the floor—sound asleep.
Frankie regarded her for a moment. Another princess might have left the fairy to her long sleep, but Frankie wasn’t so cruel. She headed down the stairs and out onto the training ground. She walked up to the first likely-looking prince she saw.
“There’s a beautiful lady inside the castle who is under an enchanted sleep. Want to come and give her a kiss?”
“But, of course,” cried the prince, slapping a ham-like hand to his chest. “It is my destiny, my duty, my honour.”
And with that, he followed Frankie back into the castle and up the stairs. When he saw the fairy lying on the floor beside the fallen spindle, he went down onto his knees. “My dear, enchanted lady,” he murmured. And then he bent down and kissed her gently on the lips.
The eyes of the fairy flew open. She looked at the face of the prince above her, and then she looked at Frankie. “What – have – you – done?” she asked in measured tones.
“Just giving you a taste of your own medicine,” said Frankie, coolly. “You actually haven’t been asleep long, and look, you now have your very own prince. As for your fashion sense, I’m less sure about that.”
“My blog?” shrieked the fairy. “I’ll be ruined! What will I do?”
“You’ll be fine,” said Frankie, and she skipped off down the stairs.
When the king and queen heard what happened, they were much relieved. The king announced a feast to celebrate Frankie’s sixteenth birthday, and he promised never again to give her a hard time about running riot all over the castle. This time the king remember to invite the seventh fairy, but by that time, she was already half a kingdom away, with her faithful prince in tow, and fated never to blog again.
And as for Frankie, she enjoyed her party, and she went on with her life. She was, after all, only sixteen years-old. She started to think of a career. Maybe curse breaker, she thought. But, really, she had plenty of time to consider.