How Disney Saved the Fairy Tale

This morning I read Jack Zipes’ piece in Humanities, “How the Grimm Brothers Saved the Fairy Tale.” Zipes has just released a book, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The First Complete Edition. It’s a book that is on my to-read list, so I won’t pass judgement yet, but I am looking forward to reading it.

I’m not sure if the title is Zipes’ – often an editor will select a title for a piece – but the title did make me frown. One of my passions is to introduce people to fairy tale beyond the Grimms. For a long time, the Grimms have popularly been considered the originators of fairy tale and, indeed, the source of ‘authentic’ fairy tale. Zipes writes: “According to [the Grimms], modern literature, even though it might be remarkably rich, was artificial and thus could not express the genuine essence of Volk culture that emanated naturally from experience and bound the people together. Therefore, all their efforts went toward uncovering stories from the past.” The Grimms’ position is remarkably similar to the position of seventeenth century French critics who regarded Charles Perrault’s tales as more ‘authentic’ in their rustic simplicity than the tales of his female contemporaries, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, who wrote lively, complex tales with not so subtle veins of protofeminism. There is a kind of literary paternalism involved that praises the tales of the illiterate and poor for their authenticity, assuming that they are closer to the original sources, while collections of such tales are published under well-educated, middle class, male names. Literary fame and income is strictly reserved for the latter and the operations of power and privilege are neatly elided in praise of authenticity and nostalgia. Indeed, the Grimms’ efforts – their own professed intentions uncritically informing how future generations would by and large judge them – more often than not simply took them across the road, so to speak, to middle class, single young ladies with a French heritage that may well account for their knowledge of tales. Zipes notes, “Though the tales can be considered part of a German nationalist movement in the nineteenth century, they were also related to tales from many other nations, and this relationship accounts for their international appeal today.” Indeed, the collection is absolutely, directly informed by tales from other nations. The Grimms are simply one stop in fairy tale’s global journey.

But back to the title. One of the reasons I don’t like it is that it again privileges the efforts of the Grimms, although those efforts are vexed and tainted. The tales are certainly important, but one could easily argue that they would have been forgotten but for, say… Disney?

Many of the Grimms tales that remain in popular consciousness are tales retold by Disney. Most people assume Disney drew upon the Grimms and ‘sanitized’ the tales, adding a sprinkle of saccharine. This assumption has even driven much fairy tale scholarship, largely in the effort to deride Disney’s work. Disney’s retelling of the Snow White tale (1937), however, still retains the wicked queen determined to eat the offal of a princess. She is not made to wear iron hot shoes and dance at the tale’s end, but she is fried by lightning, falls off a cliff and then has a boulder fall upon her for good measure. Disney also drew upon alternate versions of popular tales. Disney’s Cinderella (1950) incorporates Charles Perrault’s glass slipper and pumpkin carriage. Many perversely assume the Grimms’ version of Cinderella is older, darker and more authentic, but it is published more than a hundred years after Perrault’s glittering tale of a put-upon Princess. There is no evidence that the Grimms’ version is older but for the self-perpetuated narrative of ‘authenticity’ that suggests anything that sounds darker, more rustic, and more violent must be closer to the original source. Yet, the popularity of fairy tale today owes much to Disney, so it would be just as valid to argue that Disney, for all its sparkles and catchy melodies, has saved fairy tale from a fate of bad pantomime and old-fashioned children’s books.

Zipes writes of the Grimms, “The tales in the first edition were collected not from peasants, as is commonly believed, but mainly from literate people whom the Grimms came to know quite well. Evidence shows that these people often obtained their tales from illiterate or anonymous informants. Even if they did not know their informants, the Grimms came to trust almost everyone who contributed to their collection. It is this mutual trust that marks the tales as something special and endows them with a certain humanity, what Germans call Menschlichkeit, and it is this mutual trust among folklorists in the nineteenth century that marks it as the golden age of folk and fairy tales.” I do doubt that such mutual trust was devoid of all trapping of class privilege and patriarchy – I would question that the ‘humanity’ is not tarnished however earnest the intent. Indeed, fairy tale is an odd creature. I posit that today literary critics often deride fan fiction, except when it is written by established authors (see Geraldine Brooks or Kate Saunders or even Dante). Fan fiction authors are not held in esteem. Yet they occupy a position very like the anonymous informants of fairy tale. In fairy tale the efforts of such tellers are applauded as ‘authentic’ over the work of established authors. Would a work about Harry Potter by an anonymous fan fiction writer be regarded as more authentic than the work of J.K. Rowling? Yet, this is in many ways what has happened in fairy tale scholarship – albeit the work of the anonymous fan fiction writer would probably be rewritten and published by a male author who would proceed to take the literary credit for it.

For all that, I do appreciate the work of the Grimms and acknowledge its value. However, isn’t it time we started telling a new story about fairy tales?


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