At first glance, most famous fairy tales seem so implausible and irrelevant to contemporary life that their survival is hard to understand. The story of “Rapunzel” involves a heroine with hair at least twenty feet long, and “Hansel and Gretel” asks us to believe that two children abandoned by their parents in the forest will find a house made of gingerbread. But these and other tales live on because they are dramatic metaphors of real life. “Hansel and Gretel,” for instance, represents the two greatest fears of children—that they will be abandoned and that they will be imprisoned. Many adults, if they think back, will remember one or both of these fears, though usually in a less extreme version. We occasionally felt neglected, disregarded, unsupported—unloved. Or we felt overprotected, overindulged, intruded upon—loved, but in a very possessive, almost scary way.
The wicked stepmother who has no food for her children and the wicked witch whose house is made of cake and candy are dramatic, exaggerated images of two kinds of bad parent. They reappear symbolically in real life every Halloween, when the traditional warning “Never take candy from a stranger” is revoked: when we send our own children out into a dark world to forage for sweets, and stay home to give handfuls of candy to kids we don’t know.
Different features of a fairy tale may be centrally important to different readers. When I taught children’s literature I discovered that for two of my students “Hansel and Gretel” was essentially about a brave and clever girl who saves her brother from danger. For another, it was about a brave and clever boy who figures out how to find his and his sister’s way home by marking their path through the woods. Later a friend told me that she had always thought of the tale as a warning against a greed for sweets.
Individual fairy tales change in popularity over time. “Rapunzel,” for instance, was once much less widely known than “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” or “Snow White.” Currently, however, it is becoming more popular, with nearly three thousand entries on Amazon alone. Some of the Rapunzel entries, of course, are duplicates, but even the first hundred include fifty-one separate retellings, revisions, and spin-offs, including a pop-up book, a picture book starring Barbie as the heroine, mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, young adult fiction, and a pornographic S&M novel. It is a complex story, which includes many classic themes, including a witch who is serially both kinds of bad parent: first imprisoning and then rejecting her daughter.
The earliest known appearance of the tale in print occurs in the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, published in Italy in 1637. His “Petrosinella,” like the later and better-known version in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Household Tales, begins with two intense cravings: that of a pregnant woman for a plant that grows in a garden next door, and that of a witch for a girl child.
In Italy, Spain, and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.