The following is an essay I wrote as part of the online Coursera course “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.”
The fifty-two fairy tales collected in “Household Stories” by the Brothers Grimm are an original retelling of classic stories, untainted by Western influences on palatability or sensibility. They alternate between heartwarming, horrifying, and ridiculous and reflect three aspects of our culture: fears, desires, and principles.
The fear of persecution is reflected in stories where family members, thieves, or those in power abuse an unwitting or undeserving individual without cause and with seemingly no way out. Another fear, that of inescapable “bad luck,” is seen in characters that create capricious obstacles that require inconvenient solutions required for the hero’s rescue.
Desires for food and companionship are met through items like a magic tablecloth or a golden goose that provide unlimited wealth and provision and through the promise of a maiden’s hand or birth of a child.
Warnings, typically passed from parents to children, are documented in stories where obedience, selflessness, ambition, and tenacity lead to the success of the story’s hero.
A surprising theme that permeates the tales is a demeaning depiction of women, reflecting the male-dominated culture that distrusted and demeaned women. Women are often demonized as mothers, stepmothers, stepsisters, and others take pleasure in persecuting others. Women are also made out to be simpletons, who require a man – e.g., husband or prince – to rescue them. Men, on the other hand, are almost universally the rescuers and protectors.
Similarly, those of low social class that surreptitiously come into wealth foolishly squander it or worse, use it to manufacture their own demise. In contrast, those of noble birth (and therefore wealthy) use their wealth for some great purpose – typically benevolent but sometimes evil.
Contemporary adaptations of ancient tales attempt to undo these stereotypes. To wit, the strong(er) Rapunzel character in the movie “Tangled” and the title character in “Aladdin” both demonstrate strong character and intelligence.