Storytelling Secrets: Behind the Fairy Mirror

A mixed-race little mermaid, wearing red dreadlocks? This is the latest version of Andersen's The Little Mermaid by Walt Disney

Storytelling Secrets: Behind the Fairy Mirror

A mixed-race little mermaid, wearing red dreadlocks? This is the latest version of Andersen's The Little Mermaid by Walt Disney. Would the Danish writer have appreciated seeing his tale remixed according to the virtuous canons of the 21st century? This is one of the questions posed by Le Point Références in its new opus, Les secrets des contes.

In the 19th century, debates on inclusion or gender did not exist, but the question was already raised as to whether the tales, in theory intended for children, should adapt to the values ​​of the moment. The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhem, had over the years to amend or censor several of their tales, so that they would be accepted by the German society of their time. That didn't stop them from being banned in 1945, when the Allies took control of Germany. What were they accused of? Their violence and in some cases their anti-Semitism. They would thus have infused the venom of Nazism into the heads of young Germans. Fortunately, for the said children, the parents were able to quickly bring the censored texts out of the cellars...

In Russia, a few decades earlier, it was the Orthodox Church that pursued with its ire Vladimir Afanasyev. She considered his tales subversive – they often made fun of priests – and she forced him to revise them a lot. After the Second World War, the tales became a privileged subject of study for psychoanalysts and anthropologists who often saw in them stories of sexual initiation, but also a target for the defenders of minorities. Not without reason.

Take Snow White. What could be more revolting than the portrayal this story paints of women? The look-obsessed mother-in-law? The beautiful child turned into a servant by a family of dwarves? And Cinderella? In Grimm's tale, how not to rebel at the behavior of these girls ready to mutilate themselves to put on a shoe that is too small, just to marry a prince? Are the tales the mouthpieces of the patriarchy? And wouldn't they be racist? Why are princes always white, and black the color of evil?

It is therefore not surprising that the Disney studios play the diversity card opportunistically. Already in Frozen II, love is no longer straight and the heroine loves women. In the new version of Snow White in preparation, the beauty loses her dwarfs, replaced by "spirits", less stigmatizing.

It remains to revise Sleeping Beauty that, in the cartoon, the prince kisses without his consent. Even if it's for a good cause, this unauthorized kiss could be considered a sexual assault... You have to adapt to the values ​​of the times. Besides, like myths, aren't tales the property of the storyteller? Hence these multiple versions of Donkey Skin, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Puss in Boots, which, all from the same matrix, have evolved over the evenings and imaginations.

But the problem with Walt Disney isn't that he reinvents the tales or even waters them down to make it "politically correct", it's that he's too successful. Which version of Sleeping Beauty do you read to your children today? Generally, the paper version of the Disney cartoon which made those of Perrault and Grimm forgotten. But if they are often more disturbing, the tales of the past are also much richer and their characters more complex.

This is also what this Point References wants to show: the original text of which it presents an extract and which it comments often has nothing to envy to a good thriller or an adventure novel. At Perrault, the Sleeping Beauty becomes the mistress of the prince who hides her for two years, the time to give her two children and to wait for the death of her father to ascend the throne. The "they were happy and had many children", does not apply in her case: her stepmother wants to devour her children and burn her... Fortunately, the new king arrives in time to save his family. Phew.

Often, moreover, contrary to what some feminist critics claim today, it is women who lead the way. In L'Oiseau bleu, the tale of Madame d'Aulnoy, the heroine shows remarkable courage and intelligence to win back her prince, who cures his despair with opium…. Hence the interest in going to the original text, whether signed by Basile, Madame d'Aulnoy or Beaumont (in France, it was women who launched the literary genre of the tale, originally an oral account), of Perrault, of Grimm or of the anonymous authors of the Thousand and One Nights. Even though they are all the fruit of tradition, aren't they also works of literature?

We must not give up the pleasure of reading these marvels of the imagination. Especially since a tale is often like a Russian doll, it hides other, secret stories. For each, Le Point Références lifts the veil. Surprise. The Tinkerbell or the Blue Fairy may not be the ones you think...

Consult our file: Tales