I have been thinking lately about the underground connections between fairy tales and modern fiction—between one of the oldest forms of literature and one of the most recent (or, between the first stories that were read or told to us and the novels we read now). What is striking is how often the stock situations and stock characters, especially the female characters, of the fairy tale keep reappearing. They do not appear only in novels, of course. They turn up in films, plays, poetry, comic strips, advertisements, and dreams—and also in real life, which as usual imitates art.
A friend whose parents were divorced when he was eight tells me that on his first paper route he would imagine himself the poor widow’s son going out into the world to seek his fortune; and I had a similar experience. I remember those old tales very well, especially the beginnings: “Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who had two daughters. The older was ill-tempered, spiteful, and plain; but the younger one was gentle, kind, and pretty. Her name was….” I didn’t have to read what her name was; I knew already: it was Jennifer Lurie. My baby sister, who everybody said was as good as she was beautiful, would grow up to marry the prince, while I would be lucky if I didn’t end up being rolled downhill in a barrel full of nails.
Some women’s liberationists have attacked fairy tales as a male chauvinist form of literature: they feel that giving children stories like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” is a sort of brain-washing, intended to convince them that all little girls must be gentle, obedient, passive, and domestic while they wait for their prince to come.
It is true that some of the tales we know best, those that have been popularized by Disney, have this sort of heroine. But from the point of view of European folklore they are a very unrepresentative selection. They reflect the taste of the refined literary men who edited the first popular collections of fairy tales for children during the Victorian era. Andrew Lang, for instance, chose the tales in his Blue Fairy Book (first published in 1889) from among literally thousands known to him as a folklorist; and he chose them—as he explained in the preface to one of his later volumes—partly for their moral lesson. Folk tales recorded in the field by scholars are full of everything Lang leaves out: sex, death, low humor, and female initiative.
In other more recent collections of tales—as well as in Lang’s later collections—there are more active heroines. They travel to the world’s end, cross oceans on a wild goose’s back, climb mountains of glass, enter giants’ castles and steal magic objects, outwit false suitors, and defeat all kinds of super-natural enemies. They work for years to release their lovers or relatives from enchantments, and help them to escape from …