LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Fairy Tales: Symbolizing What’s Relevant

on January 17, 2013 12:42pm

Fairy tale origins arguably display a clearer sense of a historical period and its ideological traits of highest importance better than any other texts.  The symbolism masked behind stories of regular, everyday individuals encountering unusual situations or magic can explain to a reader vividly the state of the specific society and its social structures.  It was stated throughout our text’s introduction at various points that fairy tales were often used as an oral tradition in which families and close-knit groups would gather round to alleviate the anxiety of a stressful work day while simultaneously entertaining each other and teaching valuable lessons to children about morals rooted in fantastic stories of similar characters encountering magical creatures and adventure.  Maria Tatar also warned readers to not become too preoccupied with uncovering symbolism seemingly blanketed across various generations as said symbolism could fluctuate in its relevance to a specific culture or time period due to differing interpretations and relevance.  This specific facet of the tales interested me in that many occurrences and resulting lessons may remain stable through various generations although readers will find that characters will symbolize the most important aspects of the specific time period from which the text was gathered.

Maria Tatar stated in her novel The Classic Fairy Tales, “Some versions of Little Red Riding Hood’s story or Snow White’s story may appear to reinforce stereotypes; others may have an emancipatory potential; still others may seem radically feminist.  All are of historical interest, revealing the ways in which a story has adapted to a culture and been shaped by its social practices.  The new story may be ideologically correct or ideologically suspect, but it can always serve as the point of departure for debate critique, and dialogue” (Tatar XIV).  The classic tale of “Snow White” by Brothers Grimm tells the story of a young, beautiful girl who falls victim to the jealousy of her father’s wife.  The evil queen plots to end the girl’s life so that she may remain as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but ends up falling victim to Snow White’s clever plan to punish her for her wrongdoings.  Despite this, Snow White seems to maintain her sense of beauty, dignity, and, most importantly, purity throughout the story, which was representative of the expectations of women, and more specifically, young girls, of the time.

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Walt Disney’s interpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm character

In our contemporary society where issues of equality—whether it be gender, racial, sexual, etc.—reign supreme in the realm of social significance, we find that fairy tales are being recreated in the vision of authors who support the changing ideologies.  A more modern Snow White developed by Rupert Sanders in his film Snow White and the Huntsman displays a courageous young female who doesn’t necessarily adhere to societal rules or roles.  She wears armor rather than dresses as she fights monsters and beasts until she eventually returns to the kingdom to murder the Queen and reclaim her thrown.  This is obviously a result of a society shaped by feminist views and gender equality as the main character serves more as a strong and independent heroine rather than a damsel in distress.  I feel that this is one of the most crucial interpretations of Tatar’s novel that we can gather—fairy tales are classic tales passed on through generations but cannot remain unchanged as they gather cultural relevance and are shaped accordingly based on the need for certain lessons of morality incorporated into the upbringing of that society’s youth.

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Rupert Sander’s vision of Snow White depicted by Kristen Stewart.

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One response to “Fairy Tales: Symbolizing What’s Relevant

  1. p2murphy says:

    I think you have hit the nail on the head. As your post suggests, the emphasis should be on the relevance of the work to the culture and social contexts of the time; both Sander’s and Disney’s versions of Snow White are just as true to the “original” tale as any of the other versions because they connect their audiences to the audiences of previous tellings and maintain the core ideas and struggles of the story’s many variations. The idea that audiences are connected throughout the history of the tale by the constant retelling and re-invigoration is one of the main sources of allure for fairy tales. Children – and adults – enjoy these stories because of their relatability and an excellent way to get an audience to relate is to tailor the details and specifics of the story to the cultural environment of the time. While fairy tale “purists” may complain about the literary atrocities being committed on classic works of art, (and I can almost feel the disdain from literature buffs through the television set every time a commercial comes on for Hansel and Gretel or similar adaptations) each telling of any fairy tale is destined to be in some way different from versions that came before. The details and “staying true to the original” are not important – nor can every tale’s original be identified or cited – but what is important is that these stories continue to pass from generation to generation, exactly as the original storytellers intended.

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