The Moral of the Story

Between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after” lies a timeless, ever-changing world, where everything is possible and dreams do come true.

Countless fairy tales with infinite variations, usually conveying moral, social or political lessons through skillful narrative and interesting characters, have existed throughout history and throughout the world. Consider Aesop’s fables, the basis for so many of our contemporary moral stories. The still-popular tales have lived on for more than two millennia, exemplifying extraordinary power and longevity. Other early influences on our literary tradition abound: Cinderella stories, for example—distressed damsels losing diminutive footwear—are found in ancient Egypt and ninth-century China.

The nature of this genre seems to invite evolution. Originally these deceptively simple stories were passed orally from generation to generation. As the printed word became more accessible, the tales became somewhat less mutable for a time. Today the images we see on the movie screen have firmly implanted themselves in our minds and have all but supplanted the originals.

More significant than the changes themselves, however, is what the evolution of the fairy tale tells us about ourselves and our changing society.

Fairy Trails

The origins of the fairy tales we know today are found in sources as varied as mythology and the Bible. Common themes can be found in most cultures, whether through commonality of experience or because the tales themselves traveled with both conquerors and the conquered. Globetrotting folktales were used sometimes to educate and sometimes to frighten children (and adults) into compliance, graphically warning of the consequences for wrong actions.

As the centuries passed, virtue and a sense of morality ebbed and flowed, both in real life and in the tales that accompanied mankind on the journey. Among medieval peasants, folktales passed from those older and more experienced to younger adults and children as moral lessons for life. Many take place during the hero’s or heroine’s passage from childhood to adulthood, often ending in marriage. Along this fantastic path are not only challenges to be overcome but warnings: the perils of being alone in the woods; the potential pitfalls of physical attractiveness; the dangers of being naïve.

The stories often addressed subjects in veiled terms. According to folklore researcher and retired professor D.L. Ashliman, “many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner” (“Incest in Indo-European Folktales,” 1997). It is not surprising, therefore, to learn how many of these seemingly benign tales have descended from darker stories involving themes of adultery, incest, cannibalism, rape, murder and mutilation.

Many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner.”

D.L. Ashliman, “Incest in Indo-European Folktales”

As Italy emerged from the medieval period and embraced the Renaissance, one of Europe’s first known written story collections was being conceived by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, often considered the father of the literary fairy tale. In 1550, Straparola first published a collection of stories told within the framework of a greater story. These bawdy literary romps, which reflected the relaxed morality of the time, were clearly not meant for children. By writing as though the stories were told by a group of ladies and gentlemen, Straparola was able to justify his use of shocking vernacular language. This pretext allowed the stories to be accepted by the educated classes in Italy and later throughout Europe, anesthetizing them to vulgarity in literature.

Satire and Symbolism

Straparola’s influence is seen in later European writings, including those of his fellow countryman Giambattista Basile (ca. 1576–1632). Basile’s posthumously published collection of 50 stories followed in the same tradition. His timeless social commentaries highlighted the shortcomings of those who descended to the depths for wealth, power and fame. Included are early versions of classic fables we would recognize today.

Half a century later, Charles Perrault and his contemporaries took some of the earlier European peasant tales and massaged them until they were more suited to the aristocratic salon set of 17th-century France, where storytelling was considered an important social art. He customized the stories and added new ones, often making a point of showcasing the difficulties and the challenges of his time. A collection of Perrault’s stories was published in 1697, subtitled Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye (literally Tales of My Mother the Goose). Gone was much of the violence, but added was the subtle sexual innuendo expected in the popular culture of the period. Our modern “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots” and others are easily recognized in Perrault’s writings.

His work was characterized by typically French actions and lighthearted humor; for example, Cinderella, with undeniable savoir faire, drops her slipper on purpose. And when Perrault’s prince finds the sleeping beauty, who has been slumbering for a century in the woods, one of the first things he notices is her out-of-style clothing. The wicked queen, mother of the prince, upon discovering the clandestine marriage of the pair and their subsequent offspring, orders one of her grandchildren to be cooked for dinner. But not just any recipe will do: the gourmand requests that the child be served with a classic sauce Robert.

A rhyme telling a moral at the end of Perrault’s stories came later. His warning to young girls about the nature of wolves, for instance, leaves no doubt that he was not referring to canines in “Little Red Riding Hood.” One English translation reads: “Little girls, this seems to say, / Never stop upon your way, / Never trust a stranger-friend; / No one knows how it will end. / As you’re pretty so be wise; / Wolves may lurk in every guise. / Handsome they may be, and kind, / Gay, and charming—nevermind! / Now, as then, ’tis simple truth— / Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!”

Perrault’s social circle included Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, who published her own stories in an anthology titled Contes de Fées (Fairy Tales), and the term lives on.

According to historian Marina Warner in Wonder Tales, many of d’Aulnoy’s stories and similar “Beauty and the Beast” tales were based on the classic fable of Cupid and Psyche. The common thread, fear of an unknown or brutish groom, struck a chord with the women of France, who were beginning to challenge the traditional balance of power and the common practice of arranged marriages. Warner states, “Though the message is largely lost on today’s audience, thoroughly accustomed to choosing not just one partner but several, the French wonder tale was fighting for social emancipation and change on grounds of urgent personal experience.”

The objects of these stories went beyond weddings and women’s issues. The indiscretions and warmongering of the king and his courtesans were also subtly spoofed in the veiled satires, sometimes resulting in exile for the authors.

Grim Tales

Using stories for political ends was not limited to the French. Neither, obviously, did biblical values tend to be an overriding theme. But often as not, the changing tales did reflect each society’s prevailing interpretations of religious themes. Anti-Semitic blood libel stories—the later-debunked tales of ritual murders and drinking of Christian children’s blood by Jews—were started by early Christian zealots and propagated during the Crusader era. These tales were found throughout Europe and encouraged in Martin Luther’s Germany, and later they even appeared in a well-known collection of folktales.

The Romantic period of the early 19th century saw a growing fascination with a glorified primitive or peasant culture. Germany was mostly recovered from the effects of the Thirty Years War, which had left a third of the population dead and the rest struggling with famine and disease. Stepparents and early death had been facts of life for much of the population, and the folktales reflected that reality. The stage was set for the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, known for their work in promoting a common German culture and language. Today the world at large recognizes the brothers Grimm as the authors of what may well be the best-known anthology of fairy tales, translated into more than 160 languages.

Stepparents and early death had been facts of life for much of the population, and the folktales reflected that reality.

The brothers collected tales from friends and acquaintances, some of whom were fluent in French and intimately familiar with the popular fées. The Grimms declared the tales pure, original and German, yet they were conflated from the writings of Perrault and his contemporaries, from the anthologies of Basile, and from storytellers of the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. Even with the multicultural influences, however, their stories demonstrated a distinct Germanic flair.

Despite claims of wanting to retain literary purity, the brothers changed the stories over the years. Their earliest manuscript dates from 1810, with various revisions being published from 1812 to 1857 (the last edition being the basis for most of the translated Grimm tales we have today). Each revision took away some of the sexual overtones and gruesome violence against the innocent (though not against wrongdoers), and added lessons in their brand of Christian morality. This sometimes altered the stories in a dramatic way: for example, Snow White’s jealous biological mother from the first edition became a vain stepmother in later editions, changing the theme from a complex mother-daughter rivalry to a much simpler moral lesson against vanity.

Much Ado About Bowdler

Meanwhile, in Puritan England, where the child mortality rate was high, the fear of eternal damnation for unprepared children had been a driving force in the popularity of instructive literature like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. And those in the privileged, literate classes had tried to restrict the nature of children’s literature to stories that reinforced class distinctions, such as the upper class feeling charitable toward the poor, who always reacted humbly and knew their place in society. They saw danger in fairy tales encouraging upward social mobility, where a peasant could marry into the aristocracy and live happily ever after.

But the 18th century saw changes in English society, with a growing and increasingly literate middle carrying newfound discretionary income, a budding children’s culture, and money to be made in commercial endeavors. Before long, dozens of volumes of fairy tales were translated from European languages and turned into inexpensive books, which the children of the working devoured. In response, the fairy tales underwent dramatic changes, nearly eliminating the fantasy and including even stronger moral lessons, with strained, sometimes unintentionally humorous results.

Onto this post-Puritan stage stepped Thomas Bowdler, whose surname became immortalized as a verb after 1818 when he published his sanitized and paraphrased version of Shakespeare, titled The Family Shakespeare. Bowdlerization was the answer for those who believed suitable literature was to be purely didactic and devoid of fantasy. Piety and virtue were esteemed and enforced, so in books that otherwise ran the risk of being banned outright, material deemed objectionable was deleted or purified.

George Cruikshank, a popular illustrator of the Grimms’ translations and Charles Dickens’s works, became an outspoken moral revisionist in the straitlaced Victorian era. When he tried to turn Cinderella into a promotional tome for teetotalism, however, it was more than Dickens, who was raised on fairy tales, could quietly bear. In Social Dreaming: Dickens and the Fairy Tale, Elaine Ostry remarks that Dickens “helped establish the fairy tale as artistic, respectable and critical of society. He adhered to one vital aspect of the fairy tale tradition: the use of fairy tale to influence the way people acted as social beings. For Dickens and many other writers before and after him, the fairy tale was an essential voice of the nation which carried with it cultural messages. For him, the fairy tale had the power, or the magic, to effect social transformations.” His 1853 “Frauds on the Fairies” counterattacked bowdlerization’s forced revisions with a satirical Cinderella story reworked to be politically correct in that era, 140 years before James Finn Garner did the same with his tongue-in-cheek bestseller, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.

For Dickens and many other writers before and after him, the fairy tale was an essential voice of the nation which carried with it cultural messages.”

Elaine Ostry, Social Dreaming: Dickens and the Fairy Tale

The furor died, and fairy tales continued their slow evolution. My Book House, a popular set from the early 20th century, included classic literature, fables, fairy tales and stories with historical themes. In keeping with the prevailing ideals of the time, the six-volume anthology was intended to be educational as well as entertaining. The fairy tales included were still somewhat sanitized versions, most notably eliminating all traces of wicked parents. Contributing factors included increased longevity and the exaltation of motherhood as women became more able to choose the size of their families. The romantic ideal was that each child was wanted and precious in the eyes of the parents.

The popularity of literature for children and ethereal art featuring children by a new generation of artists and illustrators, including Jessie Willcox Smith and Maxfield Parrish, helped pave the way for the next major change: the Disney fairy-tale-to-film phenomenon.

Fairy Tale Bending

Walt Disney’s film Snow White (1937) broke new ground as the first American full-length animated musical feature. Disney knew his audience—a country that had been through both a world war and an economic depression in one generation. The social and political messages were softened, and the stories were changed to enhance their entertainment value. The project consumed more time and resources than anyone could have expected at the time—nearly $1.5 million was an astronomical sum in the midst of the Great Depression. It was a huge risk and a huge commercial success, as people went without necessities to buy 83 minutes of escape.

Snow White was followed by Pinocchio, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. These fairy tale movies, produced before Disney’s death in 1966, were of the same formula, usually involving an adolescent hero/heroine desperately in need of outside help in the spirit of the Grimm versions, but without the violence and harshness. Romantic themes, cheery musical interludes and comic relief before the happy ending became the norm. Villains died or were otherwise disposed of as a result of their own actions, which prevented the blemishing of the pristine character of the hero or heroine. These sunny revisions avoided the unpleasant realities addressed in the earlier tales but also diminished the ability of the hero or heroine to triumph over greater adversity. Yet it was exactly what the paying public of that era wanted, especially for their children.

The late 1960s and ’70s saw a surge of interest in women’s rights in the Western world as the Equal Rights Amendment gained approval in the United States. Australian-born Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” hit the top of the US Billboard charts in 1972.

In this atmosphere, the Disney-formula heroines were increasingly criticized for their wide-eyed docility. By 1989 the passive princess of the past reemerged in the form of an empowered teenage mermaid taking charge and not listening to anyone—not even her father. Two years later, a beautiful bookworm named Belle tamed the beast and became the new standard for girls everywhere. This calculated reworking of the female protagonist both echoed then-current feelings about femininity and shaped the attitudes of young fans worldwide. More significant and far-reaching is the prevailing trend within these reworked fairy tales of people not looking to a higher authority for guidance but attempting to find solutions from within themselves.

Lessons Spurned

With globalization, full-length animated movies have become today’s standard for fairy tales worldwide. Often forgotten are the deeper meanings and lessons of some of the earlier versions, as well as the moralistic revisions of the brothers Grimm. If fairy tales have been a social gauge through the ages, then today’s tales suggest that Western society has shifted even further from supporting biblical values and principles to embracing the concepts of relative morality and self-sufficiency.

The dual forces of cause and effect have been consistently at work through the ages. The mutable fairy tale has always been both an unrelenting influence on society and a mirror of society. From oral tradition, through the literary fairy tale, and now to cinema—we can only imagine what new medium will carry fairy tales to the next generations and what influential messages they will instill.

One thing is certain, however. The current trend in popular fairy tales toward moral ambivalence suggests that the foreseeable future looks disturbingly amoral.