Roots

Hey! I'm still here. Let's talk about fairytale re-tellings.


The stories we know as fairytales and folk tales have been a part of human history for longer than we will ever know. They existed first as stories passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation, and though we can find the first times these stories were written down, we can't say for sure what they were before that. It's like a big long game of Telephone; what we got written down in the 9th century is likely a garbled version of whatever our 4th century ancestors were telling each other. And ever since they were written down, they have continued to evolve and change with each generation that tells them. The basic stories - the rags-to-riches tale of Cinderella, the cruel queen persecuting the innocent princess in Snow White, the beautiful maiden falling in love with a gruesome suitor in Beauty and the Beast - are a template that each generation uses to tell stories that tell us a lot about who they are, what is important to them, and what their priorities are.


I saw the sentiment a lot around the time that the new Cinderella came out (yes this post has been rattling around in my head that long, look at me and how I am on top of current things) that the story of Cinderella was "always" about Cinderella being an abuse survivor, that it was "always" meant to inspire other abuse survivors to be strong and endure, to be kind and patient and not let the evils of the world break you. And while that is a valid reading of Branagh's interpretation and certainly a great way to read the Cinderella story in the modern day, it's simply not true that this was "always" the case.

One of the purposes of fairytales and folk tales is to illustrate and encourage the desired behaviour for whichever culture and time in which it was written or told. This is perhaps most evident in my mortal enemy Charles Perrault's versions, which almost always include a stated moral at the end. Perrault was writing for an upper-class audience, and his tales are meant to shape the behaviour of upper-class women. His version of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a vast departure from earlier versions (which were very crude and sexual and meant for adult entertainment rather than moral lessons), ending with the lesson that women must never be led astray by men who would ruin their virtue. His "Cendrillon" is meant to be a role model, to be sure, but for the ladies of the 17th century royal French court, not women of today. What Perrault wanted women to take from "Cendrillon" was that they should be meek and mild, suffer in silence, and eventually good things would just happen to them. They were not to seek better things, they were not to complain about being mistreated. The spirit in which his lessons were meant is not at all in line with today's views.



This is precisely why these stories live through every generation; we disagree with the views of a previous generation and we rewrite these stories to fit our own views. It's one of my very favourite things about fairytales: that they are living, evolving things that change with every person who tells them even as their core remains the same. And it is important that we keep re-telling these stories, that we keep them updated with us - it is a story in itself that Cinderella goes from Perrault's whipping post to Branagh's strong, radiant heroine, not forgetting that there were many, many stops along the way in other stories, other Cinderellas. But I think it is equally important that we don't forget where these stories were before. It is not helpful to claim that Cinderella was "always" the way she is now; it detracts from how far we've come and how much progress we've made. Forgetting what these stories were before we re-imagined them is how people end up talking about what a great feminist noted misogynist Charles Perrault was (I am not joking, I have literally read this argument).


I love fairytale re-tellings. I love that throughout history, even to this very day we are taking these same stories we've been telling forever and bringing them with us into every new century and every new day. But it is vital that we don't forget where we've been, or we're in danger of slipping back. Every new "Cinderella" re-telling could not have existed without Perrault, without the Grimms, without "Rhodopis," without "Ye Xian." I don't think it's fair to Cinderella to say she's always been who she is now. Her journey is part of her story - the journey of her story is part of her story. She and every other fairytale and folk tale hero and heroine have become who they are because of the journey they've taken with the rest of humanity, and hopefully will continue to grow and change until the end of time. Please, keep re-telling fairytales, keep finding strength in their stories and keep finding yourself in their lives, but don't forget that we have come so far and we still have so far to go.

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