At the center of every fairy tale lurks something dark and primal, a fact of life that’s easier to face in fiction: an issue like abandonment, starvation, abuse, neglect. Like parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. Like betrayal. Like heartbreak. Like death.
We don’t typically think of these stories that way, couched as they are in pleasant tropes like “once upon a time” and decked out in sparkling princess gear. We’re accustomed to thinking of these narratives as children’s tales. But these stories weren’t originally intended for children, and the adult anxieties at their cores are the reason they’ve survived.
“You take a story like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and it really turns on the whole notion of innocence and seduction,” said Maria Tatar, who chairs the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard University. “It takes up cultural contradictions that we constantly wrestle with.”
To review: Little Red Riding Hood is a young girl walking by herself through the woods to her grandmother’s house. She meets a wolf. The wolf tricks her, kidnaps her, and kills her. In some versions, she is rescued by a woodcutter. In others, she rescues herself. In the Charles Perrault tale, the earliest known edition, she dies and that’s the end of it. But always there is the girl alone, the dark woods, the wolf grinning, the “My, what big teeth you have!”
“As I’ve interpreted it, it’s a tale about rape,” said Zipes. “And also how women are quite often made responsible for their own rape or violation.” After all, the implicit moral in Perrault’s tale is that a girl who walks alone at night (while dressed provocatively, say, in an alluring red cape) gets what’s coming to her.
It’s terrifying to contemplate, even for a second, yet we think about these topics all the time. We always have. That’s why we crave these tales: We can’t not think about the questions they raise. These concepts, exaggerated for effect and mythologized in the retelling, go down easy in fairy-tale form.
It’s safer to address the peril as if it can’t happen to us, here and now. It happened to somebody else. Far away. Once.
Tatar described what these stories give us as “the worst-case scenario.” Fairy tales take place in an alternate reality where the most horrible thing that can happen to a character is the thing that will inevitably occur.
Surely it’s not a stretch to say plenty of people feel like we’re currently living in the worst-case scenario — the foreclosed upon, unemployed, wartime scenario — and see something reassuring in the fact that some of these suffering fairy-tale characters survive to acquire what they seek, be it love, freedom, happiness, or any combination of all of the above.