Monday, February 4, 2013

The Potential of Unanswered Questions

Mihalskaya Maria
Here's a treat: a blog dedicated to the specific purpose of reading and reviewing modern fairy tale retellings.

I've enjoyed reading Cassie's (and friends') thorough summaries and reflective opinions of 52 adaptations on 12 fairy tales in twelve months.  I also heartily disagree with their philosophy of fairy tales.

From what I've read so far, the reviewers from Tales Old as Time approach fairy tales from a very different angle.  Cassie writes, in her wrap-up of the Snow White stories, that

Snow White is one of those fairy tale[sic] with not a lot to recommend it, and if Walt Disney hadn't sunk his teeth into it, it probably wouldn't be remembered much at all these days.  The evidence of this is, I believe, in the way we saw the story retold this month.  More than any other fairy tale we've looked at, this month's novels seem to stray far from the original plot line.

Here's where we misunderstand each other about the nature of fairy tales.  Snow White is one of the most striking and influential fairy tales, one of the most universal (I'd say second only to Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast), and, if numerous adaptations of the tale and fascination with it--in art, photography, pop culture, food, fashion--wasn't enough proof of that, one only need look at the bones of the story.

Consider: a motherless child, either through maternal death or maternal neglect, approaches female maturity.  Her jealous mother/stepmother, obsessed with keeping her own youth and keeping her claim to the most beautiful in the kingdom, sends the child to her death.  But the child is spared, many times over: first by a huntsman, then dwarfs, then a prince's hunting caravan.  She marries the prince and becomes queen of her own kingdom.  The child is now a woman come into her own.

W.C. Drupsteen, Snowdrop

Now, the objects in the story infuse this simple narrative with a chord that is so in harmony with our human natures we have been telling it over and over again for centuries: snow, a magic mirror, a heart in a box, otherworldly caretakers, a poisonous apple.

Cassie writes, "there's just not that much to this story, and there's so much about it that is problematic."

But that's a fairy tale.  If it took place in 12th century France, for instance, or in modern Turkey, it wouldn't be "once upon a time."  If we knew how and why the mirror talked to the wicked queen about her rivals in beauty, it wouldn't be insidious   If Snow White was ready to be kissed by a prince the moment she set out from the castle, she wouldn't have had to endure all the trials of deception and the pains of growing up.

If all the questions were answered, there would be no mystery, and it wouldn't be magic.

Exploring what about these questions grasps us so, and the beautiful potential in the lack of answers, is to me a chief function of fairy tales.  They have been used in society to rebel against the status quo, reinforce social restrictions, or communicate profound religious and philosophical truths.

Except, they've done all this--and more--without having to say it.  That's what makes them so powerful.



  1. "not a lot to recommend it"!! You know to be honest, I think I initially saw the stepmother who was so jealous of her daughter she was willing to kill her to be too far-fetched. But since I've become more and more immersed in fairy tales I see the image of the jealous older woman EVERYWHERE-in current society. We are still, as a culture, obsessed with beauty-possibly more than ever before. Snow White is incredibly relevant.

  2. Nice post. Fairy tales leave gaps, where others tell maybe too much. One of the joys of having kids, for me, has been telling them these tales, in my own way (not too far off script), with my own intonations, facial expressions, hand motions. There's a lot to these stories. A lot "left out."

  3. How many details does a modern retelling have to borrow from a source for us to consider the source potent and vital for that retelling? Doesn't the fact a writer finds inspiration from even one element in a fairy story argue for the actual wealth of that story?

    If as a writer I felt constrained to reassemble all the salient objects, circumstances, characters, environments, etc. I think I would be restricting the influence of the source. I don't believe creative involvement with fairy stories can be measured in how many details get copied.

  4. excellent post, fairy tales are definitely 'other' and that's a whole part of their power and charm

  5. It's fascinating how sometimes the "messy" stories, the tales that contain obvious flaws, are the ones that last for centuries. I mean, look at Shakespeare-- plot summaries of his plays are hardly impressive! Yet he, Snow White, and other such stories touch on aspects of life that ring true, and we keep reading (and trying to reinvent) them.

    1. Maybe the gaps / flaws are actually part of what lets those stories be so great. Maybe they leave more for our imagination to do.

    2. Edward: Maybe! Maybe we humans just can't answer the biggest questions on our own, yet feel pulled toward material that grapples with them.


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