Saturday, October 10, 2015

Old Tales Through a New Lens.

One thing I often forget about when it comes to fairy tales is how open they are to interpretation.  When I say “interpretation” I don’t really mean reimaginings or alternate takes.  What I mean are takes that could be extrapolated from the text.  Things that aren’t explicitly stated but could be seen as implied.

My most recent encounter with different interpretations of fairy tales came when I was listening to Wallflowers.  What’s Wallflowers?  It’s a podcast by a good friend of Fairy Tale Fandom, Amy Elize Brown, blogger of The Willow Web.  In Wallflowers, Amy Elize and her boyfriend Josh read a fairy tale aloud and then discuss it.  The podcast is rather entertaining as Josh brings a terrific layman’s point of view and sense of humor to the proceedings that complement’s Amy’s more knowledgeable approach well.

Anyway, it came about when I was listening to the Wallflowers presentation of “All Fur” (also called “All Kinds of Fur” or “Allerlieraugh”).  The story of “All Fur” starts more or less with a widowed king coming to the conclusion that he is meant to marry his own daughter.  The daughter then takes three miraculous dresses and a cloak made of many types of fur and runs away.  A different king then finds her in the forest and takes her back to his castle where she hides in plain sight except when she goes to different balls dressed in her fantastic dresses and dazzles this new king.  Her identity is eventually revealed and the princess and the new king get together at the end.  But what if that isn’t how it went?  What if there wasn’t a second king?  What if it was the same king as the first?  In other words, her father!  In the Wallflowers retelling of “All Fur”, this was the conclusion that Amy and Josh came to.  I was actually a bit surprised and flabbergasted!  My first impression was that they had it wrong.  After all, it wasn’t how Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics had it, or how Jim Henson’s The Storyteller had it or how Erstwhile had it!  But then I went back and read the story and I realized that the text never explicitly states that it’s a new king!  It’s certainly implied but never stated.  So, nothing in that interpretation contradicts the text.

It makes me think of some varying interpretations of fairy tales I’ve had.  For example, I’ve had a slightly different interpretation of “Snow White” compared to others for a while now.  Mainly because in that story I’ve always been fascinated by the Dwarfs.  Upon a few rereadings of the story I noticed a few things.  For one, despite the vast amount of German folklore surrounding the mythological types of Dwarfs, the seven Dwarfs in the story never show any sign of being magical.  For another, we never know how much time Snow White spends with the Dwarfs.  We just know that she was seven when the queen ordered her to be killed.  The third thing I noticed is that the Dwarfs are the ones who do the most to try and save Snow White’s life.  They let her stay in their house and save her from both a poisoned comb and poisoned stay laces.  So, the notion came to me that maybe they weren’t Dwarfs in the magical sense but Dwarfs in the sense of human beings afflicted by dwarfism.  Seven men who had likely been ostracized for looking different and settled on the fringes of society.  The perfect contrast to a villainess obsessed with her own physical beauty.  And what if Snow White didn’t stay with them for days or weeks, but years?  Then we have a different situation.  Rather than a little girl finding a house full of “magical helpers”, we have a little girl who’s cast out for her own looks finding an unconventional new family among a group of other outcasts.  And of course, the Dwarfs are the true heroes of the stories, having saved Snow White’s life about three times.  The story takes on a whole different vibe when viewed through this lens.  The themes of appearance and family are now enhanced in a way and the role of hero is shifted from the Prince or Snow White herself to the Dwarfs.
I’ve encountered a few different interpretations of fairy tales over the years.  I once encountered someone who thought Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother was the same person as the witch, evidenced by the fact that both conveniently seemed to die at the same time.  I’ve also seen some interpretations that have seemingly gotten a bit overused.  For example, it’s surprisingly common to cast Jack as the real villain in “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

I’m interested in hearing other people’s unconventional interpretations of fairy tales.  So, post yours in the comments section below.  I look forward to reading them.


  1. Seems like thhis podcast is similar to the German podcast "Märchenstunde" (even though Märchenstunde is closer to the "Two Guys and A Mic" genre of podcast with the fairytales serving as framing devices). I distictly remember their reading of "Allerleihrauh" and how shocked they were about it. The listener who suggested the fairy tale apparently was just as shocked as them, since she was familiar with the version from the final edition of Grimm's fairytales where the king she marries is clearly established to be a different character than her father, rather than the first edition where things are a lot more ambigious.

    As for the dwarves, they have often been theorized to be children. In the past miners often were children, because the mine shafts were too small for adult workers. In parts of the world where child labor sadly still exists, this is still the case. This means that Snow White might have bee roughly their age, which could explain their close relationship (at least closer than any other relationship in Snow White.

    However be careful if you hear someone claiming that Snow White was a historical person, simply because the "dwarves" might have a realistic historical background. This is a PR trick, most prominently pulled by the German town Lohr am Main (their only proof despite a long tradition of mining in the nearby mountains being a mirror with the inscripton "Sie ist so schön wie das Licht" - "She is as fair as light"). It shows that not all theories on fairytales are worthwhile. Some just exist to push an agenda or to make money - like with any topic really.

    1. Sorry,I couldn't find an edit button:

      Just wanted to add that it is almost certain that Snow White stayed with the dwarves for a few years, since one of the things the evil queen trues to sel her is a bodice, i.e, something you only need after you've grown breasts

    2. People seem to like the idea that folk tales may have really been legends, but it's always a concept best taken with a grain of salt. As for "Allerleihrauh", one of the issues is that both kings are simply referred to as "the king" because folk tale characters don't often have names. And for those that do it's often a very common name like Hans or Greta or a description like Snow White. I remember that even in Erstwhile's take, some of the commenters were confused. Of course, they also kept thinking the second king was a prince because that's what many are used to for male leads in fairy tales.

  2. You should read Kate Forsyth's Wild Girl-it shows Dortchen Wild telling Wilhelm the first, more ambiguous version, and then goes into why he changes it for the second. We don't know exactly why it was told the way it was/altered, but Forsyth gives a very interesting theory!

    1. We know pretty errtainlyy why it was altered. The Grimms', being in financial trouble at the time and their book getting horrible reviews, because it was unsuited for children), decided against their original plan of collecting "authentic" stories exactly the way they heard them and instead trned their collectio into a book suited for childen, by heavily edited their tales to be easier to read, having a uniform style and either omitting or harshly judging elements that were against societal norms.

      The erasing of ambiguity in Coat of All Furs isn't the only change present, compare how incest is discussed in the first version and in the later ones. While in the first one, while it is portrayed as wrong, only the protagonist is opposed to it. The later versions contain a drawn out scene that clearly labels inces and morally and religiously wrong ad it is frequently mention how anyone but the King is horrified by the idea.

      I won't read the book as I don't care much for extremely fictionalized adaptions of historic events a la *Amadeus* (just my personal preference), but it's interestting that an anglo-phone author would decide to write on that topic.

    2. You're right, I guess the altering part isn't that ambiguous. But Forsyth draws from other clues in the text as well as from Dorothea and Wilhelm's relationship to shed a different light on the story. As far as historical fiction goes, I think she does a good job of not changing any of the known facts, and only using creative liberties when necessary to fill out the story