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The many incarnations of our favorite tales

February 26, 2013

By Jennifer Joyner

I vividly remember watching Disney's "Cinderella" when I was 5 years old and then attempting to recreate scenes from the movie in my bedroom. There was one particular part that stood out to me, and that was when Cinderella cleaned her room. To me, even while she was completing the mundane task of making her bed, she was the epitome of grace and beauty. She sang and danced, and as she shook out the sheets, they sort of floated up and landed perfectly in place. 
I remember trying to imitate this. I would twirl around the room and then grab the sheet off my bed and whip it into the air. It was always disappointing, however, when the fabric didn't billow up beautifully and then land delicately on the bed like it had for Cinderella.
... Somehow, I didn't take into account that there were no birds and talking mice there to help me, and I was not existing within a cartoon ... 
But anyway, Cinderella was my favorite movie, and I watched it over and over again. As a child of the 1980s, fairy tales to me were Disney films on VHS tapes.  
For generations before and after mine, however, fairy tales have taken on many different forms. In fact, the fairy tale is probably the most frequently reinvented genre of story.
My mom told me she remembers the day she was outside playing, and her mother called her in to the house because "Cinderella" was on TV. She said she remembers watching Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and thinking it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
She was in awe of Leslie Ann Warren, who played Cinderella. (She didn't say whether she replayed the scenes after watching it, like I did, but it was clear the film made a lasting impression.)
There were little girls and boys who grew up reading the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.    
Of course, many forms of fairy tales through the last few centuries stem from the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. Those tales, however, were often much more dark and violent.
For example, Cinderella included a story line where the stepmother forced her daughters to chop off parts of their feet to fit into the shoe so they could marry the prince. And, at the end of the story, the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out. That's not exactly cartoon material.
The Grimm's fairy tales available today are much more pleasant, but even Grimm's original versions were sometimes watered down, compared to the European folktales from which they came.
In college, I majored in French in addition to journalism, and in my literature classes, we spent a lot of time talking about les contes de fees (fairy tales).
In the original version of "Little Red Riding Hood," which was written in France, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf. This ending clearly was meant to drive home the moral of the story, which is never talk to strangers. I imagine it worked on any child that heard the tale.
The Brothers Grimm created an equally gory, albeit happier, ending, which involved a hunter saving Red and then rescuing her grandmother by disemboweling the wolf. The grandmother came out in one piece and perfectly healthy. It was like Jonah and the whale in the Bible.
There was also another French version of the tale that involved the wolf forcing Red to eat part of her grandmother. That's a far cry from anything we might see on Disney, right?
Each incarnation of fairy tales reflects the values and needs of society.
The main purpose of the early French tales and those collected by the Brothers Grimm was to teach a lesson.
The Disney fairytale, which has dominated for almost a century, speaks to a culture that expects a dazzling tale with a happy ending.
It is these stories that have paved the way for the newest wave of fairy tale interpretations. During the past couple of years, fairy tales have shown up on the silver screen in "Snow White: A Tale of Terror," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Red Riding Hood," "Mirror Mirror," "Beastly," and "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters." Televisions shows like "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time," featuring fairy tale characters who are cursed to live in our world, also are very popular.
So, why are adults watching fairy tales these days? Maybe with all the "reality" being constantly slammed down our throats, there is something appealing about being carried off to a time long ago in a land far, far away.
Or perhaps the world we live in has gotten a little scary and depressing, and we just want to escape it for a while.
There is definitely an element of nostalgia fueling the fairy tale trend. After all, we all experienced these stories as children. 
Another part of "Cinderella" that I used to like to reenact is the scene where she is scrubbing the floor and singing "Sing Sweet Nightingale."
I would pretend to plunge a scrubbing brush into a bucket and push it around on the floor.
Now that I think about it, if I had shared all this with my parents, they could have capitalized on it and gotten a lot of housework out of me. But that might have taken some of the magic out of it for me. And that's what it's all about; a little magic in our lives.

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