If you’ve ever cracked open Grimm or another authentic collection of fairy tales, you know these tales aren’t all tailored for the same physique. They aren’t all rosy and happy, with helpful fairies during the hardships and wedding bells in the fade-out. Some are about married folks doing stupid things. Like the story of the Fisherman’s Wife–a woman who doesn’t know when to quit. Sure there’s a fairytale creature with magical powers in this tale, and there are wishes (that favorite of Arabian Nights), but the wedding is well in the past, and the wishes don’t lead to anything like a happy ending. Oh, no. They pay dearly for their ambition; or at least the wife does.
The King of the Golden Mountain is another good example. If fairy tales are meant to end when the hero marries the princess, this one is all wrong. This fine young lad was so trusting when his princess in distress asked him to do something insane: namely, let himself be beaten and stabbed by twelve men. But he has the misfortune of being in one of those stories that doesn’t end in the right place. There’s a strange journey back home, a betrayal. He ends up killing her and all her snobbish friends.
It’s obvious that this particular tale isn’t a love story. Maybe it subverts Cinderella. But more likely, it’s just another kind of story.
So what about Cinderella? Obviously, some fairy tales do end with a happily ever after. We know that. And some of those happy endings have weddings in them. Cinderella is one, yes–although the last scene is one of revenge, if memory serves. Too, Hans the Hedgehog and even the Gallant Tailor end happily, and marriages are in the mix. But here again the story takes some twists: the bride isn’t of the purest motives in either.
All this to say, I wish pop culture would lay off with the “happily ever after” mantra. And I wish they’d stop using “fairy tale” as a synonym for unrealistic bliss, or the hope for it. Above all, please, people, quit assuming these stories are for pre-adolescent girls, or are meant to appeal to infantile longings in grown women, longings for a heroic male to solve all her problems. Fairy tales don’t do this any more than any other genre, taken as a whole. (Read any novels lately? What about poems? Watched any television dramas? Movies?)
Why not, instead, embrace the wonderful diversity of these tales? In them we find the whole gamut of human emotion, crisis, ambition, lust, envy, and (yes) good will, too.
What do you think? Is there any hope for fairy tales to shed these labels in the broader culture and reemerge as a brood of more complex stories?