Nov 21 2008 2:16pm

I Was a Fairy Tale Virgin


Like most children, growing up I inhaled all the usual suspects when it came to fairy tales. Of course, we’re talking about stories that had been Disney-fied to one saccharine extreme or another.

The upside is that I had fun discovering adventures in books and films that left me with a syrupy sweet outlook on life—like following every meal with a dish of rocky road ice cream. I sailed through childhood and even young adulthood blissfully unaware of the deeper themes or symbolism lurking in these stories.

The down side is that I was missing out on the really heady stuff—The Dark Side of fairy tales, as it were. All that changed, however, when I read a fairy tale collection that presented uncensored versions of the classics.

That’s when I truly lost my fairy tale virginity.

As it turns out, crossing over to the Dark Enlightened Side was actually quite painless.

Originally, fairy tales served as cautionary stories for children and adults. These ranged from warnings about unprotected sex to cannibalism to rape. But somehow, much of it became lost in translation. At times, the change was deliberate in order to render the stories more suitable for children. (My hope is that this was done in recognition of their developmental needs rather than for profiteering.)

Perhaps the more innocent versions actually strengthened my love of fairy tales—certainly, I never experienced any kind of visceral fear while reading them. Those nostalgic feelings contributed to my seeking them out years later, to relive the ecstasy contained therein.

Little did I know as I settled down in a comfortable chair to read the collection, but my proverbial cherry was about to explode [Spoiler Alert if you prefer keeping your own intact]:

• Rapunzel had sex with the prince who shimmied up her legendary tower, and in some versions even became pregnant—with twins, no less! Talk about a double whammy.

• Desperate to fit into the glass slipper, Cinderella’s stepsisters resorted to slicing and dicing their feet in a fashion that would make the Jigsaw Killer proud.

• When they told you the Big Bad Wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, it had nothing to do with the culinary arts and everything to do with his carnal tastes.

• In The Juniper Tree, the main ingredient in black-puddings puts fare such as Cannibal Ferox to shame.

Fast Forward to the Future

One would think fairy tales are pretty far removed from science fiction, but they’re not. Fairy tale themes and concepts are woven throughout many books and films. One of the most famous examples is Luke Skywalker, a thinly veiled Cinderella.

Spielberg apparently can’t get enough either, since he presented us with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Artificial Intelligence: AI (the latter being based on, as many of you probably know, the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss).

“I’ve got no strings to hold me down,” indeed!

Other books featuring “fairy tale motifs” are Samuel R. Delany’s Babel‐17 (1966), Vonda N. McIntyre’s Superluminal (1984), and Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It (1991),” while Stanislaw Lem “…used fairy‐tale structures to parody the foibles of his robot inventors in the short stories collected as The Cyberiad (1967).”

In science fiction romance author Linnea Sinclair’s An Accidental Goddess, “Raheiran Special Forces Captain Gillaine Davré has just woken up in some unknown space station, wondering where the last three hundred years have gone.” I’d wager Sleeping Beauty might be wondering the same thing!

Occasionally the similarity is more overt. Here’s a few that offer an SF twist on fairy tale classics:

Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen

The short story “The Good Mother” from the collection Truly Grim Tales by Priscilla Galloway.

Truly Grim Tales

…and now, Jordan Summers’ Red, a new science fiction romance novel that poses the intriguing question: What if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were the same person? Red is the first of a trilogy called The Dead World Series—“a near-future, post apocalyptic twist on the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale.”

To help complement the above, here are some additional resources about fairy tales for your reading pleasure:

Science Fiction and Fairy Tales by Amelia A. Rutledge
Reclaiming Faerie
Sur La Lune
In The Dark Wood: Abuse Themes in Common Fairy Tales by Anna Roberts

While not SF, I’d be remiss to not mention Fables, DC Comics’ excellent Vertigo series that plops the magical kith and kin into the prosaic world of contemporary NYC.

And speaking of Jordan Summers’ Red, I’m giving away a copy to one lucky passenger at The Galaxy Express as part of a week long celebration of her work!

To enter, leave a comment at this post anytime between Friday, November 21 and 9 p.m. on Sunday, November 23, 2008 (contest limited to U.S. residents).

Then avail yourself of the black-puddings buffet while yodeling your love of Fables-like fare (or, um, on second thought, let’s just stick with the yodeling).

[Fables cover image by the inestimable James Jean.]

Bridget McGovern
1. BMcGovern
Fun! For some reason, I always liked the really dark and creepy French and German versions of fairy tales when I was a kid (even though the Disney versions are plenty screwy, too, once you start taking them apart). In addition to the books listed for further reading, I'd add Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment--it's old-school, I know, but I found his Freudian interpretations of classic fairy tales pretty mind-blowing when I first came across them in college. Also, though she's not SciFi, Angela Carter's reworkings of various tales, particularly in The Bloody Chamber seem to fit here as, Carter is just really, really great :)
2. TrippingBridge
If you are interested in the origination and evolution of fairy tales and similar fare, you are missing out on something great if you aren't reading the "Folkroots" column in every issue of _Realms of Fantasy_.
Torie Atkinson
3. Torie
That Rapuzel story sounds eerily similar to the original Sleeping Beauty story, called "Sun, Moon, Talia." In the original story "sleeping" beauty is actually dead, and a Friendly Neighborhood Married King finds her sexy dead body, rapes it, and then rides away. While dead she gets pregnant with and gives birth to twins, who, in an attempt to find her breast, suck out the splinter that poisoned her and revive her. She's of course mystified as to how these babies got there, but the King comes back for seconds and she finds out the story. The Charles Perrault version isn't nearly as creepy, but still miles more disturbing than the saccharine Brothers Grimm version.

I love seeing how these stories evolve.
4. meeper
Not to mention Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's series of fairy tale anthologies (Snow White, Blood Red; Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears; etc.), the Fairy Tale series of books (Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, White as Snow by Tanith Lee, etc.), writing from Angela Carter, the many books by Jack Zipes... I could go on and on.
treebee72 _
5. treebee72
Tanith Lee also has two short story collections, Red as Blood & The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales, one of which contains a SciFi retelling of Beauty and the Beast (I can't remember off the top of my head which volume it was in).
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
treebee72 mentioned Tanith Lee. Her "Tales from the Flat Earth" have a great dark fairy tale feel to them. And since you mentioned the Cyberiad (which is great!) I'd like to bring up Italo Calvino's well...everything! But in particular, his Cosmicomics and T Zero as scifi/fables. And his collection of Italian folktales is pretty stellar as well.

Have you read Jack Zipes? I think you'd like him. Impossible not to like a guy who writes a book called "Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion."
Lisa Paitz Spindler
7. dangrgal
Torie beat me to mentioning Talia, Sun and Moon. That was a huge eye opener for me after my childhood infatuation with Sleeping Beauty. The Disney version where her name is "Aurora" led to my interest in ancient mythology.

I love Joan Vinge's SNOW QUEEN (and the other three books in the series).
Paul Weimer
8. PrinceJvstin
I was given a copy of the first volume of the FABLES series, but haven't gotten around to it. The person who gave it to me did so I think more because I am an expat New Yorker than anything else.

On the other hand, I heartily add to the person above who mentioned the Cyberiad. As I have said in other posts, Lem is mainly remembered for Solaris, but the stories in the Cyberiad are my favorites of his body of work.
9. TehaniW
Am totally enamoured with Fables, but need to also mention a new novel that takes fairy tales back to their dark roots - Aussie Margo Lanagan's "Tender Morsels" is very cleverly done.
Sol Foster
10. colomon
Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't see any connection at all between Luke Skywalker and Cinderella? I mean, I guess I can kind of see Obi-Wan as Fairy Godmother, but he's more obviously Merlin. And there's a dead parent involved, but that's true of every other fairy tale, isn't it? (And King Arthur again, for that matter.) The only other thing I can think of is equating a wicked step-mother you live with with an evil dad you don't, but that's grasping at straws.
- -
11. heresiarch
As I understand it, the original Grimm tales weren't intended for children at all--they were simply anthropological documents of disappearing oral stories. Thus, they weren't cleaned up right away: only later, when they found out that people were reading these bloody, sex-filled tales of horror to their kids that they went back and tried to render them child-friendly.
12. Teka Lynn
Tanith Lee's far-future retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story is in Red as Blood.
13. mel b
Strange that an article on doesn't mention all Terri Windling's work in this field, including the Tor Books fairy tale series she edited of adult novels based on fairy tales by Tanith Lee, Patricia Wrede, Gregory Frost, Charles de Lint, others. And the Endicott Studio website, which just won the World Fantasy Award for its many years of exploring the dark side of fairy tales and mythic fiction.
eric orchard
14. orchard
My introduction to the darker realms of fairy tales came through the work of people like Charles DeLint and Charles Vess and Neil Gaiman. Reading Sandman I got the sense that Gaiman was delighting in exposing the dark, violent meanings that had been bowdlerized over the past century. and I can't help quoting Chesterton in this instance: "Fairytales are true not because they teach us that dragons are real but rather because they teach us that dragons can be defeated,"

and I agree with mel B, Terri windling's work has been very important.
15. AngusM
Angela Carter's short story collection "The Bloody Chamber" reworks a number of fairy tales to get closer to the original spirit - among others, she covers Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, and Little Red Riding Hood. Two stories from the collection formed the basis of the film "The Company of Wolves", which brings out the idea of Little Red Riding Hood as a metaphor for the physical and mental transition from childhood to (sexual) maturity.

Another good read is a chapter in Robert Darnton's "The Great Cat Massacre (and other episodes from French cultural history)", which deals with the process by which fairy tales became sanitized.
16. vcmw
I found Andersen's tales much more creepy and horrifying. The girl in the "Red Shoes" loses her feet for the sin of vanity - she wears red shoes to church and as soon as she crosses the threshold the shoes start dancing and don't stop - for a long long time until a quote kindly unquote woodcutter helpfully chops her feet off. In "The Little Mermaid" the mermaid feels that every step is on knives and the prince marries someone else, so the Little Mermaid turns into a disembodied spirit - she could have gone back to being a mermaid if she'd agreed to plunge a magic knife into the hearts of the prince and his bride and bathe her feet in their blood.

Then there's Struwwelpeter. My impression is that both Struwwelpeter and the Andersen stories were written explicitly for children. Stories where children and adults died detailed, horrific deaths were perfectly common child fare until I think around the turn of the last century. Even in the book version of Peter Pan the Darlings kill all the pirates and take their outfits and go off pirating themselves.
Alexander Gieg
17. alexgieg
I'm curious. Not being an US resident, I've become used to discarding promotions and such since they always come with the same disclaimer: either "US only" or, more rarely, "US and Canada only". But I never figured out why is that. Would some of you be so kind to be the first person to explain to me the reasoning behind this restriction? Is it just due to the high cost of international shipping, or is there a more serious reason, maybe a legal one?
Heather Massey
18. sfrgalaxy
Thanks so much for reading, folks! I am so thrilled to encounter such a wealth of knowledge about fairy tales. I was hoping this would happen because now the comment section has turned into a great resource for future readers.

I've been battling a cold so I'm only going to jump in with a few quick responses.

Torie, thanks for the info about that other fairy tale mama! Wouldn't be surprised if the tales of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty had become mixed up at some point. Someone, somewhere apparently couldn't get enough of that twins twist.

Colomon, I don't think you're dense at all. STAR WARS is different things to different people, and that's part of the allure. I think the films reflect Lucas' many influences. I'd forgotten about the King Arthur element, but you're spot on about that.

I was just having fun with the Cinderella comparison; my main point was to facilitate a discussion about how fairy tales connect so many stories past, present, and future.

Alexgieg, good question. I can only speak for myself regarding limiting the contest to U.S. residents: I'm sponsoring contests at my blog on a regular basis and being on a budget I have to save some pennies somewhere. That's all. I'm hoping to open it up in the future.

Amy Paul
20. redtailedhawk
Not only were the fairy tales cleaned up, so were the Greek myths.

My poor innocent little mind got very stretched and abused once I got my hands on accurate, unedited translations of the myths. Talk about WOW.
21. rogerothornhill
What a great roundup of information. Thanks again for pulling all this together!
Colleen Parker
22. GibbousMoon
The Great Cat Massacre is a really good book that gives the time in which the oral stories were being collect some historical view points and how the tales effect the culture of the time. Good stuff.

My favorite gross out moment is in the original pre-grimm Red Riding Hood, the wolf rapes her and then makes her eat her own grandmother whom he sliced up like deli meat and Red doesn't do a whole lot of fighting back until the wood cutter chops her out, sadly obviously grandma doesn't make it, but who needs her away needy old hag.
23. linda hall
Nice to see an article on fairy tales here, but I agree with the others above that you absolutely cannot credibly discuss adult fairy tales without even mentioning Angela Carter, or Terri Windling and the Endicott Studio.

The Endicott Studio's Journal of Mythic Arts closed this year (sob), but it ran online for something like ten years and all the archives are still online. For good articles on the dark history of fairy tales:

For the Endicott Studio's recommended reading list of fairy tale fiction:

For fairy tale poetry:

Also if you can find a copy, "The Poets Grimm" anthology is a good compendium of modern adult fairy tale poetry.

The Anna Roberts article cited above (In The Dark Wood: Abuse Themes in Common Fairy Tales) seems to to be a re-hash of material taken from fairy tale articles by Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, and Helen Pilinovsky posted on the Journal of Mythic Arts website. The author seems to have taken material directly from Windling, Snyder, and Pilinovsky and only changed the wording slightly. I'll assume the best, that Roberts meant her piece as a tribute to these authors and doesn't mean to plagiarize -but she's come awfully close to doing so. (I wrote a paper recently using the same source material so I'm pretty familiar with it.)
Heather Massey
24. sfrgalaxy
Redtailedhawk, *I know*.

Roger, thanks for reading!

GibbousMoon, lol, & thanks for the recommendation!

Linda, wow! Thanks for all of that info, I really appreciate it. And yeah, I sure hope Roberts was doing the tribute thing, too.
Mary Thiedeman
25. LensCapp
The Victorian Era and the adjoined sense of "purity" definitely, I believe, played a role in the changes found in literature, particularly children's stories (or what we consider "children's" literature today). Life previous to this era was difficult to say the least, and most children were born to large families in which there was often disease and death, and women died in childbirth or shortly thereafter due to complications. Mortality (especially the gruesome, messy kind of unpleasant death) was very evident to children in earlier times, as were many of the other concepts most modern children are sheltered from today. When researching other political and social changes of this era, it seems probable that it was influential in the shift of fairy tales to happier, more uplifting tales, than the warnings they once were.
27. TaliaG
Someone mentioned King Arthur....

A similiar shock, when I went from Disney's "The Sword in the Stone" and other "kid-friendly" fare to read The Once and Future King ( the movie is based on the first part of that book.) Incest, Adultery, Infanticide, oh my! (and that's just from a few of the main characters!)

Bowlderized, indeed.

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