Listen: Fairy tale expert, Kate Forsyth, chats to Katrina Roe.
As Disney continues to roll out new feature-film versions of traditional tales by the Brothers Grimm, it’s clear that the public appetite for a good fairy story hasn’t faded.
Hit films like Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Mulan and Frozen were all based on traditional tales, and Disney’s already got a new one waiting in the wings for 2018: Gigantic, based on the story Jack and the Beanstalk.
While most of us are content to watch fairy tale flicks at the cinema and read a few picture books to our kids, fantasy author Kate Forsyth couldn’t stop there. She’s made it her life’s mission to understand fairy tales and their origins, even earning a Doctorate of Creative Arts in fairy tale studies.
Fascinated with Fairy Stories from a Young Age
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe, Kate explained what sparked this lifelong fascination.
“I was just a little girl who was quite sick as a child,” she said. “I spent a long time in hospital, and my mother gave me a copy of Grimms Fairy Tales when I was about seven years old. I was confined to a hospital bed and could only have adventures in my imagination.
“So these wonderful stories of magic and adventure and escape, and battles between good and evil, they just fed my imagination at a time when I really needed them. As I grew older and begun to study the history and meaning of fairy tales, that deepened my fascination.”
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Stories of Female Empowerment
In her doctoral studies, Kate discovered that most fairy tales were actually feminist in nature.
“Most of them were told by women, to women, as they spun and wove and sewed and did work,” Kate explained. “They would tell each other stories to help the work go faster. So most fairy tales are actually stories of female empowerment—not for children.”
It was in the 1800s that fairy tales were adapted for children.
“A group of people in England began to translate the Grimm Brothers from German into English,” Kate said. “They rewrote them, took out all the sexual innuendo, a lot of the darkness, sweetened them, and made them much more palatable. And that’s what we’re left with now. And Disney has continued this.
“Each major wave of fairy tale retelling has seen the stories reduced down for younger audience, and made much more whimsical and charming.”
A Kind of Rapunzel Herself
Kate’s most loved story by far has always been Rapunzel, and it wasn’t until adulthood that she realised why.
“It’s my favourite because of that linkage of a girl in a tower locked up against her will, lonely and afraid,” she said, “and I was a little girl locked up in a hospital ward against my will, lonely and afraid.
“My tears made me ill. Rapunzel’s tears healed. I think that is why it haunted my imagination.”
“The other thing that’s interesting about Rapunzel is that she not only escapes her tower, but has this magical healing power. So she finds the prince, who had been blinded when he fell from the tower, and she weeps, and her tears fall upon his eyes and heal him.
“Well I was in hospital because I was attacked by a dog when I was just a toddler. And I actually had my tear duct destroyed. So I had no ability to control my tears. And my lack of a tear duct was actually a life-threatening condition for me. So my tears made me ill. Rapunzel’s tears healed. There is this kind of great subconscious potency about that. And I think that is why it haunted my imagination.”
“The Prince isn’t the Hero; Rapunzel is!”
The story of Rapunzel dates way back to Greek mythology – to the story of Danae, locked up in a brass tower by her father. A later Islamic version, the story of Rubida and Zell, introduces the image of the long hair.
As it turns out, Rapunzel is one of the most misunderstood fairy tales, and Kate’s on a mission to reinstate the long-haired damsel as the rightful hero of the story, not the prince.
“Rapunzel’s incarceration in that tower is like a symbolic death, and the cutting of the hair is like the cutting of the umbilical cord that allows her to be born again as a woman, free and her own personal agent,” Kate explained. “She was locked up in a tower against her will, but then she sings and it’s with the power of her voice that she draws the prince to her. She’s an active agent.”
Later, when both characters have been flung out into the wilderness by the witch, it is Rapunzel who again draws the now-blinded prince to herself, with her singing.
“She finds him, weeps and heals him,” Kate said. “So it is Rapunzel that rescues the prince. The prince does not much at all.
“The girl locked in a tower is a symbol for anyone locked where they don’t want to be.”
“It’s one of the world’s most pervasive fairy tales. The tower stands as a symbol of all things that tie us back from growth. In modern-day we could say that our tower could be an unhappy marriage, a job we hate, we feel trapped in the situation.
“The girl locked in a tower is a symbol for anyone who’s locked anywhere they don’t want to be… and then they find within themselves the strength the break out of that and grow.”
Beauty & the Beast Was Originally Not For Children
As far as fairy tales go, Beauty and the Beast is one of the oldest in existence. It dates way back to a story written by Apuleius in the 2nd century, called Cupid and Psyche—the tale of a woman who “has to learn to look below the surface and find the truth, not to trust the surface of things”.
In the 1740s, a French noblewoman, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, turned the tale into a very risqué, adults-only novel, not intended for children. Then 16 years later another French noblewoman, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, rewrote it into a much cleaner, shorter story for school girls.
“She took out all the sexy bits and made the hero much more [human],” Kate says. “And it was as much a journey of the girls to learn to appreciate him. So it was much more like the story we have nowadays.
“The story of Beauty and the Beast is one of both hero and heroine, having to learn to look beneath the surface, having to learn how to love, and how to trust. And that, I think, is part of the beauty.”
The Problematic Tale of Sleeping Beauty
Kate Forsyth has spent the last two years looking at the Sleeping Beauty story, for a book she is currently writing. She calls it “the most problematic of all fairytales”, because of the fact that the heroine is asleep. In fact the oldest version, a tale called Troilus and Zellandine from the 1300s, sees the young woman raped during her sleep by a passing prince.
“Troilus and Zellandine is definitely not for children,” Kate said. “Zellandine is impregnated with twins, and the poor girl is woken up after she gives birth to her children, the unmarried mother of twins—with no father to be found.”
It was in the 1600s that French author Charles Perrault took out the abusive storyline, and made it a much more romantic tale.
“Sleeping Beauty has its roots in those ancient stories of life, death, rebirth,” Kate explains. “The kiss of love wakens her, and when she awakens, the whole world awakens too and is returned to sunshine and life and fertility. Many fairy tales tell stories about young women who are growing up, and so it’s a story of sensual awakening, growing from a girl into a woman.”
Kate Forsyth is the author of the children’s fantasy adventure series The Impossible Quest, as well as adult fiction novels based on traditional fairy tales.