The Power Of Fairytales

Reading & Writing, The Arts


I’ve recently been involved in a new project to ‘redesign’ fairytales by deconstructing them and returning them to something dark and adult.

The resulting book, ‘Feary Tales’, is out later this month, edited by Steven Jones, and contrasts the new stories with the originals. The result, from Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Reggie Oliver, me and others, is rather strange and fascinating. Some authors chose not to stick to the form but honour it in spirit, but I aimed at developing a cruel alternative draft to ‘Cinderella’, a story which always fascinated me because of its over-familiarity – for many, it’s the only Grimm tale they may ever have read.

‘The Ash-Boy’ supposes that Cinderella had a brother, and his presence complicates her tale, darkening it considerably. Angela Slatter interviewed me about the tale, and you can find that here. The story of ‘Cinderella’ has been tackled many times over in film and on stage because it is so cinematic and has a through-line that can be simplified to make a certain amount of sense. There’s the tragedy, the villain (in this case two, ‘fair of face and foul of temper’), the magic, the rule that must not be broken, the midnight flight, the search, and the resolve.

Surprisingly one of the best reboots is Jerry Lewis’s ‘Cinderfella’, which understands that one of the most powerful elements of the story is not the flight but the arrival at the ball, so it stages a bravura sequence of Lewis walking down the endless staircase to a jazzy piece from the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. There was a black stage version, ‘Cindy-Ella’, and the execrable Bryan Forbes-directed bore that was ‘The Slipper and the Rose’. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fresh take was remodelled by Disney with Whitney Houston in a multi-ethnic reboot, and is good enough to make up for their deeply conservative animated 1950s version.

But the best of these was the tale woven into Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods’, which restores many elements usually left out, including the tree belonging to Cinderella’s dead mother, the ravens that peck out the eyes of the ugly sisters, the prince spreading pitch on the steps to trap his fleeing love, and of course, the ghastly toe-and-heel hacking performed by the sisters in an effort to fit the (non-glass) slipper. In Cinderella’s lament she suggests a smart new reason for the lost slipper, in a song packed with Sondheim’s clever wordplay – you can see it here.

I remember avidly watching the now unbearably dull-looking ‘Tales From Europe’ as a child on TV, gaudy German versions of Grimm which were cheaply dubbed by having an English voice talk over the original voices. I doubt that today’s children ever get much beyond ‘Cinderella’ to the darker, stranger tales.

With three darker new screen versions of fairy tales soon on the screen, ‘Angelina Jolie’s ‘Malificent’, Rob Marshall’s ‘Into The Woods’ and Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’, it seems the power of fairytales remains fascinating.

20 comments on “The Power Of Fairytales”

  1. Ken Murray says:

    We used to love those early German tv versions in our house, though I think some were Polish and Czech? The Singing Ringing Tree was a big favourite, and I seem to remember a Cinderella one involving walnuts? It was probably the first time that British kids were ever exposed to European tv, and there was a lot of it around, especially French stuff during the school holidays.

    However, our continental cousins did go a bit over the top sometimes. I seem to recall a certain movie called The Beast, who’s take on the beauty and the beast story got the British film sensors hot under collar for a while…

  2. BangBang!! says:

    I remember those European programmes when I was young too, including the Singing, Ringing Tree and another one called The Tinderbox. I always found them slightly creepy and uncomfortable to watch. Mind you they were better than some of the other European shows like Belle and Sebastian and Wild Horses which were just so deadly dull! On the other hand, I used to love The Flashing Blade and my very favourite, The Desert Crusader. I’d love to watch that again.

  3. pheeny says:

    I have to say even my junior level of sophistication The Singing Ringing Tree was more chuckle than fear inducing – that poor bloke with his face covered in boot polish, toting a hearthrug onesie …

    For my money you would have to go quite a long way to beat “The Company of Wolves”

  4. John says:

    There were some very bizarre retellings and mash-ups of Grimm’s tales done by a Mexican film company. They showed them on TV on Saturday afternoons when I was growing up in Connecticut in the 1970s. Can’t get out of my head the image of a midget actor dressed in a skunk costume running around with Little Red Riding Hood. If you’re curious you can check out the weirdest one of them all (with a lot of Disney ripoffs that should’ve ended up with a huge lawsuit) by watching this trailer: Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters:

  5. J. Folgard says:

    This is a nice surprise: I had already pre-ordered the book based on two things -Jo Fletcher has a great imprint and well, Stephen Jones! To be honest, I hadn’t even bothered checking out the line-up… I knew I would be happy, but a new tale from you is a welcome bonus!

  6. snowy says:

    The Desert Crusader, was originally called ‘Thibaud’ and is usually now described as ‘Thibaud ou les croisades’.

    There is a clip of the theme tune/opening on YouTube.

    [Both series are available on DVD, but only in French, no English dub or subs. And it’s Region 2 so might not play in Region 4.]

    [Now that P has reminded me I must dig out my copy of CoW.]

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    No, the dog in The Tinder Box had eyes as big as dinner plates. Fairy tales share much with myth and folk song, one characteristic being, whatever version you heard first is The Right One; all others are flawed variants. Why are nearly all those known to English readers 18thc French and German in origin? I know about Perrault and the Grimms, but weren’t there any from elsewhere? I must be unusual amongst adult readers, in that I have no recollection of being read to as a child, and I don’t know how I learned to read- my earliest memories of fairy tales are of reading them myself from library books. (I started school at five and a half in 1963, and although I must have seen some books before that, I don’t remember them. Even BBC tv didn’t feature much in our house.)

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Janet, the first dog had eyes the size of saucers, the second had eyes the size of dinner plates and the third (the fairy tale Rule of Three) had eyes the size of towers. To me that smacks of 18th/19th century. I was never sure whether it was a diameter like the height of a tower or the diameter of a tower. We bought a Hans Anderson collection & a Grimm to match but I usually read from Anderson as more appropriate to evening.

  9. snowy says:

    The popularity of Bros Grimm to the exclusion of almost all others might have something to do with that bloke called Albert, you know him with the er.. ‘intimate jewelery’, he married the Queen, yes him.

    [He brought over all sorts of funny ideas, like chopping down a living tree and torturing it in a pot of manky water once a year.]

    The first English translation of Grimms Fairy Tales was only published in 1823 which is comparatively recent, [America had been a ‘real’ country for over 50 years 😉 ]. Before then children would have been read ‘improving’ stories from Aesop or the Bible.

    But it opened the floodgates and from that flowed all the classic Childrens authors, Kipling, Carrol, and the rest.

    The tales were polished and watered down with time until they became rather bland. And the inevitable satirical backlash started, the best remembered is possibly ‘Cautionary Tales for Children’ by Belloc.

    [I didn’t discover Belloc until I was aquainted with the tale of ‘Lord Finchley’, a caution to all those who would fiddle about with things that they don’t understand.]

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    I like my fairy tales straight up, not fiddled about with or updated. The reason being they seem to lose something in revision, and since they are closely tied to tall tales, myth, and folk song I prefer them not taken out of context as if were.

  11. Janet Wilson says:

    Since Snowy mentions Prince Albert (and his inconvenient watch chain), and since it’d be an amazing fairytale London Sight if it happened, has anyone noticed that a Japanese corporation proposes rebuilding Crystal Palace? And why did the Victorians summon and bequeath us fay fairies dodgily resembling pretty little girls, when earlier fairies were more like preincarnations of aliens..?

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    Disney has a lot to answer for, I remember my lavishly (and quite creepily/psychedelically) illustrated Hans Cristian Anderson always felt a bit naughty ‘cos The Little Mermaid had her boobs out! I imagine Disney would even tack on a cheery ending to The Little Match Girl . . .

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Disney would have no problem with the match girl because she goes straight to her mother’s arms in heaven, but he wouldn’t make it now.
    There is another element in fairy tales and that is the role of females. I don’t know where those butterfly fairies came from either but they were firmly in place by the time of Water Babies and Peter Pan. As teachers began to feel responsible for “empowering” girls there was a drive to rewrite or write new fairy tales with stronger female roles. Robert Munch’s Paper Bag Princess is a prime example. The princess tells the prince to get lost at the end. Classes of 12 year olds have often been set the task of writing a new story that obeys the basic rules but is “better” and the stories are then read to the primary students. Given the choice, most girls at that age would prefer to be the agent of their own salvation and not have to wait around for a “prince”, although the feeling seems to change once they’re well into their teens. There’s also the “princess” thing that seems to be there for pre-school and primary girls. I have a tendency to give construction sets and such-like as presents to children and multi-tipped screw driver sets to brides. [That is serious so I will not look with favour on those jokes you’re swallowing.]

  14. pheeny says:

    I thought the third dog had eyes as big as cartwheels

  15. glasgow1975 says:

    According to my boobylicious collection – it’s ‘tea-cups’, ‘mill-wheels’ and ‘each one as big as a tower’, and the Little Match Girl goes to her Grandmother in Paradise, not her Mother.

    I hope they aren’t those patronising pink flowery screwdriver sets Helen . . .

  16. Helen Martin says:

    That will teach me not to look things up first. I think I’ve heard more than one version of the dogs’ eyes & my son took the books with him when he left home so I will accept the suggestions offered here.
    No, they are not the pink flowery kind, Glasgow, but if they were it might prevent the husbands from walking off with them & stashing them in the glove box.
    There’s another odd phrase – glove box. Was it a place to stash driving gloves? If you were wearing any other kind you wouldn’t take them off and leave them in the car. Trivia.

  17. snowy says:

    Having dangled that piece of trivia so delightfully, may I offer an explanation.

    The original driving gloves, were more like large leather gauntlets, [think mounties and you will have the exact image]. One would look a complete fool cutting about town in them, and horror of horrors one might even be mistaken for a platelayer, that would never do.

    Early open top cars, exposed to the wind and rain were to say the least bracing, and unreliable, requiring some fiddling with a scaldingly hot engine to coax them back into life.

    A sturdy set of gloves was essential, one could improvise with some oven mits perhaps, but the inability to grab two objects more than two feet apart might tax even the most patient person.


  18. Helen Martin says:

    I wasn’t thinking far enough back, so I hadn’t got to the earliest cars – and I don’t remember them as having glove boxes. Perhaps it was one of those, “Oh, now we have some place to stash those great hairy gloves – even though we don’t wear them any more.” Don’t correct me, I have this lovely little scenario running.

  19. Dan Terrell says:

    I don’t know about Britain, probably so, but I’ve been given several pairs of driving gloves from Germany, and they are thinish, with holes for the knuckles and the back of the hand and one-snap snap closed. Actually nice to use, they are somewhat warm and greatly increase the grip on the wheel. A pair is in the glove box now.

  20. snowy says:

    That style of glove sometimes known as a racing glove are the type from the 1950’s, that were popularised by Steve McQueen in the film ‘Grand Prix’, and possibly in ‘Bullit’.

    The much older gauntlet style, dissapeared when cars became enclosed, but continued to be worn by motorcyclists. They are only likely now to be seen in programmes like ‘Downton Abbey’ as part of the chauffeur’s uniform.

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