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Freaky Fairy Tales

12 Jan

The old, familiar stories handed down through the generations that have come to be known as ‘fairy tales’ are, more accurately, tales of enchantment and the supernatural; they are märchen, to use the German term, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent. These tales, which we now tend to think of as children’s stories, were not meant in centuries past for children’s ears only – or, indeed, in some cases, for children’s ears at all. Only in the last century or so have the complex, dark, sensual or bawdy tales of the oral folk tradition been collected, edited and set down in print in the watered-down forms we are most familiar with today: filled with square-jawed princes, passive princesses and endings that are inevitably ‘happy ever after’. For instance, most of us grew up with the story of Sleeping Beauty; but how many modern readers know that in the older versions of the tale the sleeping princess is awakened not by a chaste kiss but by the suckling of twin children she has given birth to, impregnated by a less-than-charming prince who has come and gone while she lay in ‘sleep as heavy as death’? How many know that it was Red Riding Hood’s near-sighted granny who cried ‘Oh my, oh my, what big teeth you have!’ to the wolf, who quickly gobbled her up – and then finished off Red Riding Hood for dessert, with no convenient woodsman nearby to save her? The old tales were about anguish and darkness: they plunged heroes and heroines in the dark wood, into danger, despair and deception, and only then offered them the tools to save themselves. The power in old fairy tales lay in such self-determined acts of transformation. Happy endings, where they existed, were hard won, and at a price.

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