Happily Ever After
by Jarad Johnson
The Disney versions of the classic fairy tales are the ones that my generation, and a few before me, grew up with. They’re the ones that we are familiar with, and unless we actually take the time to read the original (a term used loosely here) then we are never aware that older fairy tales can be quite dark. Often there is no “happily ever after” as Disney would have us believe. If you read the Grimm’s versions of fairy tales (and these were collections of earlier and often even darker tales), they are usually quite…grim. It’s kind of in the name. These folk stories were not always about happy endings, or even about love.
In some cases, they were meant to teach lessons and prepare children for the world they’re going to enter when they reach adulthood, carrying cultural norms forward through generations. Of course, this can be problematic, as fairy tales also contain sticky aspects of culture as well, reflecting patriarchy and misogyny in many cases.
In a way, fairy tales tell us a lot about the culture that they come from, though there are some universalities across cultures. However, in some cases, an author may use the fairy tale form to express something more personal, as was the case with The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen. Although the tale was original to Andersen and possibly reflected an unrequited romance of his own, it still reflects Denmark in 1837, when it was published in a book of fairy tales for children. More than that, it reflects what was considered appropriate for children of that time and place.
Most people who grew up watching Disney animated films are probably more familiar with their version of The Little Mermaid than the Andersen version. They may not be aware that the Disney version is radically different from Danish story. In the original story, the mermaid’s love for the prince goes unrequited and she dies rather than interrupt his happiness with his new bride. In the Disney version the mermaid, Ariel, gets her prince.
This is true of most Disney fairy tales. They end on a happy note with a prince and princess wandering off into the sunset together. This reflects our own society’s obsession with romantic love and the belief that it cures all. The happy endings also reflect our society’s reluctance to consider that all endings are not happy, that personal perseverance doesn’t always have the results that we want. We raise our children with expectations of a happy ending, not thinking about the damage that may be done when they don’t know how to cope with difficult time or relationships. Another downside is the fact that children in dysfunctional families may all too often feel that their family and theirs alone doesn’t fit the pattern of happiness that society pushes on them.
Unlike some of the original versions of Little Red Riding Hood, where she is simply eaten by the wolf, the last thing Disney wants is to instill fear. Disney fairy tale films are still tools of teaching, though in a different way, a subtler way, sometimes. They still are imbued with those old patriarchal ways of thinking (and also, for a long time they were exclusively drawn as white, and their world existed as if white people were the only ones on the planet). However, they are branded as entertainment than anything else. Previously fairy and folk tales were more open about the fact that they were teaching morals. In Anderson’s time, people probably expected that any tale told to children would have a moral and they looked for one! Seeing stories as pure entertainment makes the stories we tell our children even more problematic, since we’re not particularly thoughtful about what they may be learning. We tend not to ask ourselves what the moral impact of a given story may be.
Many of the elements of the older versions of fairy tales would be considered, “adult,” by many, and at least appropriate for older children by most. Even the words, “fairy tale,” carry different connotations than they once did. When most people think of a fairy, they think of tinker bell, but actually the fey as they were known in older fictional tales could be quite dangerous. So, the words of these children’s stories automatically carried a vague sense of danger, just by the association with the fairies, where today they do not.
Of course, we want to protect children from danger, and our society certainly does a much better job of attempting to preserve innocence and remain age appropriate than say, medieval France. Children, as a general rule and as a common societal perception, theoretically don’t have to face harsh realities until a much later time in life (although many children unfortunately have to face much more than any person should ever have to). This raises some questions, such as is it a good idea to shield children from all of that, making the world seem like a magical, safe place? Is it smart to keep them in ignorance for as long as possible, having no knowledge (and, if one is to go off the format of Little Red Riding Hood), no preparation for the world? Or to continually give the idea that the fantasy of romance cures all ills?
I think there are good and bad aspects to shielding children from the harsher realities of life. Of course, they are ill-equipped to handle many of our society’s major problems, but we should be preparing them more and more to lead as they grow older. We want them to understand that happy endings depend on them, on their actions, on how they treat people. We want them to understand that bad things can happen for no good reason and that they have to work hard to achieve happiness in relationships, safety and stability in their family lives, and a just and merciful society.
It seems that over time, even Disney has become aware of these shortcomings. Animated movies like The Lion King deal with family trauma and difficulty (although even the darker movies have happy endings.) I suppose this isn’t a prescriptive criticism of modern fairy tales. There’s certainly value in holding out hope to children, raising up and coming adults who have a sense of optimism. But we can’t pretend that fairy stories are not teaching our children something and park them in front of the television to be entertained without grappling with how their minds are being shaped.
Humans have always told each other stories. From the time when people were telling hunting stories around the campfire and drawing their gods on the cave walls, stories have been an essential part of our lives, as much as breathing and eating. We as a species need stories, to act a parables, to entertain, to teach, and in our world, to hold a mirror up to society. Fairy tales are an extension of those stories we told each other around the fire, and while they come with their own problems and issues, even in a world where we like to think we are above the natural world, they still have value, more than the generic versions that Disney sells.
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He is a fervent gardener and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent several years writing about this passion. He has been gardening for 6 years and believes that Nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.