NOTE: Throughout the month of May I’m raising money for the American Cancer Society, Please read to the very end of the post to see how you can help.
“Are there any of you who wish to live happily ever after?” – A tantalizing offer from the Genie of the Lamp
Aladdin: genies, magic lamps, flying carpets, vast deserts, beautiful princesses, wicked viziers, it’s just your basic Arabian fairytale from The One Thousand and One Nights, right?
Though the stories within The One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) were collected by Asian, Arabic, and African authors over several centuries, Aladdin was shoehorned in by Antoine Galland as part of his French translation of the anthology. It was based on a folktale that Galland claimed he heard from the Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab in 1709. This “original” iteration takes place in China though it retains the Arabian elements we’ve come to expect, including there being a sultan instead of an emperor. There’s also an unusual epilogue where the evil sorcerer’s brother disguises himself as a medicine woman as part of an elaborate ruse to get revenge on Aladdin. Considering the bizarre, forced turns many of the Disney direct-to-video sequels took in order to justify their existence, I’m surprised none of the Aladdin sequels decided to take a page from there and give us “JAFAR’S CRAZY BROTHER!!”
With the advent of cinema and rise of filmmaking technology, Aladdin and Aladdin-type stories became a recurring staple of adventure-fantasy flicks set in the Middle East (as viewed through the West’s warped exoticism-heavy lens, of course). The earliest surviving animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, boasts elements of Aladdin, as does Richard Williams’ unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler; the latter, in addition to The Thief of Baghdad and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, would go on to inspire the best-known (and overall best) version of the story in modern culture, the 1992 animated Disney classic. Today’s Faerie Tale Theatre episode is one of the last adaptations of Aladdin before Disney swallowed everything that came before and after it. So how does it hold up?
“Bootmaker, I’m looking for a boot as light as air and fast as the wind. A boot that makes no sound, leaves no tracks.” “You’re in luck, I’ve got one pair left!” – A feline acquires his defining bit of footwear
Fairytales are full of trickster mentors that aid the hero in their quest. The amount of stories where the mentor takes the form of a wily animal are beyond counting. Cats are a particularly popular choice for the role on account of folklorists making their natural stealthiness and hunting prowess shorthand for cunning and guile. And there’s no fairy tale feline more renowned for their craftiness than Puss in Boots.
Walking into this review I assumed Puss in Boots was going to be a Charles Perrault original, which is how I was introduced to it, but the story actually has Italian roots. The oldest known version is 1550’s Constantino Fortunato, or “Fortunate Constantine” by author and fairytale collector Giovanni Francesco Straparola. One of several tales included in the two-volume collection The Facetious Nights, the story is about a poor boy who marries a princess thanks to a clever cat. It’s interesting to note that this cat isn’t just a magical talking cat but a fairy in disguise; a detail that fell by the wayside in future retellings. Writer Girolamo Morlini wrote his version of Puss in Boots shortly afterwards (fair turnabout since Straparola often borrowed from Morlini), followed by Giambatta Basile in 1634. Then Charles Perrault popularized the tale in France as part of his fairy tale collection (the same that also launched the character of Mother Goose), and the feline’s fame hasn’t dwindled since. He’s even well-known in Japan, where a popular film by Toei Animation has made him the studio’s mascot.
Puss in Boots is one of those fairytales that falls into a gray area where the moral is concerned…in that there isn’t really one at all. If you go by a purely textual reading of the story, the takeaway is that lying, cheating and stealing will get you what you want without any consequences; not much of a lesson (but one that’s far too relevant if you look at the current state of the Republican Party). On the flip side, Puss uses his wits to make the most of his and his master’s lousy circumstances. He’s simply doing what he can with what little he has to improve their situation. The story takes place in a society that favors the first-born son, so it’s easy to root for the youngest son stuck with naught but a wisecracking mouse-catcher while his selfish brothers have the means to support themselves. The men and monsters Puss deceives are largely deserving of his trickery.
Tying into that is the unusual choice of clothing this cat in footwear. It’s not just for aesthetics, I assure you. Shoes were a luxury afforded only to young people of the upper-class in the Middle Ages because they were outgrown or worn through so quickly. As such, boots were a sign of wealth and status. In both the original fairytale and today’s episode, the king refuses to grant Puss an audience until he learns he wears boots. Appearances and presentation played as all-encompassing a role in society then as they do now, but the story of Puss in Boots shows that anyone with brains and the ability to pass off as refined can game the system. Make what you will of that.
“So you’re telling me you had a good time?” “And I owe it all to you.” “Rubbish! You did it all yourself. The cake was already made, all I did was add the frosting.” – The Fairy Godmother lays down the truth about our long-lasting fascination with the original rags-to-riches story
Did I say Snow White held the record for the fairytale with the most variations? Silly me, how could I forget Cinderella, the story that’s so known worldwide that when I tried to research every single version for this review my computer exploded? In fact, I questioned the point of recapping this episode since you don’t need me to remind you of the plot. This is a fairy tale so widely spread across thousands of years, continents and cultures, from Ancient Greece to the Tang Dynasty, that everyone knows it in some form or another.
It’s only when I stopped to compare Faerie Tale Theatre’s Cinderella to other iterations of the story that I came to this conclusion: the devil is in the details. Cinderella’s timelessness has left it open to a multitude of interpretations, analyzations, deconstructions, reconstructions, subversions and spoofs. There is no one definitive version, which is great. You can do whatever you want with the tale if you play with the beats creatively enough. Want to change the setting to high school and make the prom the ball? Sure, why not? Remove the magical elements and place it in Renaissance-era Europe for that historical fiction approach? Whatever floats your boat. Flip the perspective to the stepsisters’ side of the story? Go nuts. Have Cinderella’s servitude be a literal curse she has to break by tearing the fairy who enchanted her a new one? Boom, done.
Cinderella has also been subjected to plenty of criticism, as a good many traditional fairy tales have lately. Forgive me for beating a dead mouse-turned-horse, but those espousing the negatives of Cinderella, from All-4-One to The Cheetah Girls to Andrew Lloyd Webber, to a whole slew of bad-faith “feminist” critiques and even YA retellings I love like Kaylnn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Just Ella, have gotten it completely wrong. Cinderella is not, and never has been, about marrying a prince. It was, and always will be, about maintaining hope in dark times and escaping poverty and abuse through kindness and determination. That’s the eternal appeal of Cinderella, that anyone can rise to the top when it seems like the whole world’s against you. It’s also what makes a straightforward rendition in a sea of postmodern adaptations so refreshing (when done right, of course).
“Cold be hot and friends be kind when love unites the heart and mind.” – The Snow Queen’s moral wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a slide puzzle
I might as well get this out of the way, my feelings toward Frozen are…mixed. Granted, I understand why the story was altered to the point of barely resembling its literary counterpart. Hans Christian Andersen painted the original fairy tale with a ton of heavy Christian overtones that can be preachy at times. Said original is also very episodic like most of Andersen’s works, which means changes for the screen aren’t just inevitable but encouraged.
I stand by what I’ve said before about alterations in adapting fairy tales, they need to be done for modern audiences. The problem lies in the story completely shifting so the filmmakers can soapbox in as ham-fisted a manner as possible about past Disney romances being unrealistic, and then said story balloons in popularity to such a degree that Disney can’t go five minutes without pushing it in your face at the cost of other excellent films, and…well, that’s when one tends to grow more critical over it over time.
But what of the narrative that inspired Frozen in the first place? The Snow Queen is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular tales, as well as his longest. The story is divided into seven chapters and is almost novel length. As this is a fairytale from Andersen, The Snow Queen is wholly authentic; it’s been speculated, however, that he based the cold-hearted character on one of his unrequited loves.
You know how some people write to cope and provide happy endings where real life couldn’t? Andersen wrote like a teenager using fanfiction to vent.
Andersen included a different origin story for The Snow Queen in his biography: his sick father on his deathbed drew a figure not unlike a woman with outstretched arms on the icy window, and joked to his young son “She comes to fetch me.” He died soon after, and Andersen’s mother told him “The Ice Maiden has fetched him.” This “Ice Maiden” has her own story separate from the Snow Queen, but the idea of coldness connected with death, specifically in form of an elegant but dangerous woman, is a reoccurring motif in many of Andersen’s fables.
Another symbol that can be found here as well as other Andersen stories is that of the wise beloved grandmother, a nod to Andersen’s own grandmother from whom he learned many Danish fairy tales. Bible imagery is also included in The Snow Queen as previously stated, from various Christian verses worked into the text, to the main conflict being kicked off by a school of demons trying to reach God with their evil mirror and getting struck down like the Tower of Babel. The Snow Queen is rife with the themes of growing up, devotion, bravery and love conquering all – but unlike Frozen, the love between our main characters is supposed to be read as platonic, not romantic.
I promise that this will not be a review bashing Frozen, but the differences between it and the source material are like night and day. Revisiting The Snow Queen I was reminded of how many missed opportunities there were to tell a very different story about love, adventure and maturity in a compelling way. No one work of fiction should be held as the definitive version as nearly all stories deserve to be retold. So for the sake of this review and for all the angry Frozen fans that are going to come after me, can we just…
“Okay listen up because I’m only gonna say this once: open the door…or I’m gonna huff and I’m gonna puff and I’m gonna…blow your house in, whaddaya think of that?” – The Big Bad Wolf’s ultimatum, as delivered by the only actor who could do it justice
All right, we’ve finally come to an episode many of you have been waiting for. For some fans this is peak Faerie Tale Theatre, and I agree with them. This outing has everything: a funderful cast (my way of saying fun+wonderful), clever writing, and humor coming out the wazoo. You’re in for a treat.
But first, the obligatory story behind the story.
This is another English fairytale brought to us by folklorist Joseph Jacobs in 1890, four years before he published his findings on Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ origins. Jacobs credited fellow nursery rhyme collector James Halliwell-Phillips as the source of The Three Little Pigs story. The earliest known version has a very different cast from the one we know: instead of three pigs and a wolf, it’s three pixies and a fox, and their houses were made of wood, stone and iron rather than straw, sticks and bricks. The reason behind the changes in the definitive English version are unclear; one theory is that the divergence comes from someone mishearing the word “pixie” as “pigsie”.
The fable has a few international variations, though much less than what I’ve come to expect doing this research each month. Italian retellings dating from the same era Jacobs published his story replace the pigs with geese. The one Joel Chandler Harris recorded in his collection of Uncle Remus tales appropriation of African mythology has six pigs instead of three. The one consistent theme running through them all is the moral of hard work, resourcefulness and careful planning paying off.
That’s not to say this story has some underlying darkness to it. In some iterations, even the perspective-flipped The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, the wolf eats the first two pigs after blowing down their houses. The original fairytale also ends with the third little pig tricking the wolf, killing and eating him instead! This has been toned down in future retellings, understandably so. Regardless, the rule of three in effect as well as the fun nonsense phrases like “not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin” has helped this tale remain a memorable one. Now, let’s see how Faerie Tale Theatre puts their spin on it.
“I’ve got to learn about the shivers, and this seems like such a sure thing.” “Do you not want the treasure?” “Treasure? What would I do with treasure?” – Our protagonist’s reasons for seeking danger
I usually begin these reviews with a brief discussion of each fairy tale’s origin and history. This time, however, let’s talk a bit about a certain folkloric archetype: The Fool.
When I first started writing these reviews, I considered combining this episode with a later one, The Princess Who Never Laughed, because both have fools at the heart of their story. A fool’s true purpose is to provide more than just comic relief. They are uninhibited by social conventions and often maintain a childlike innocence towards the world. Through their ridiculous words and actions – or the appearance of such – they reveal truths that the characters and audience might not have discovered otherwise.
The most notable example is in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear’s Fool is the only one allowed to openly criticize him without repercussion thanks to phrasing his jibes to sound like harmless jokes. Perhaps if the mad monarch listened to him, his story wouldn’t have ended so tragically. Likewise, Lady Olivia’s fool Feste in the play Twelfth Night is quick to snap her out of her melancholy by pointing out the folly of grieving her late brother: “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.” (Act One, Scene Five)
In other cases, the Fool demonstrates how selflessness and kindness will always outweigh strength and wit, like in the Russian folktale The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. The story even contains the line “God loves a fool, and will turn things to their advantage in the end.” Though denigrated by his own family for his perceived simple-mindedness, this Fool is a caring soul to everyone he meets, and hits the karmic jackpot as a result: a cabal of super-powered friends, the hand of a princess, the adulation of his fellow countrymen, and of course, the only airborne schooner known to man.
The Fool archetype has gone even beyond the written word. In the tarot Major Arcana, The Fool is the first numbered card in the pack. He’s often depicted as a cheerful youth, sometimes accompanied by a dog, making his way down a sunny path without really looking where he’s going. Should The Fool wander into your tarot reading, it signifies the start of an exciting new journey in your future…or, perhaps, a fool’s errand.
This all ties into today’s episode and the story it entails. It’s another tale brought to us by the Brothers Grimm. Though there were a few variants beforehand, this iteration was directly influenced by an Arthurian story of Sir Lancelot spending a night in a haunted castle. Alternate titles in various fairy tale collections replace the word “Boy” with “Youth” or “Fool”; no matter the difference in sobriquet, it’s the same main character with the same foolish attributes. In keeping with both themes, this fool teaches us that some common fears might not be as terrible as they seem, and other things that are actually worth fearing may never have crossed our minds before…
“For I’ll be your prince, and you’ll be my…dwarf.” – The Prince’s tune after receiving a surprise audience
I have a confession to make: I feel like I skimped out on Thumbelina’s origins last month. Had circumstances not prevented me from doing so, I would have done a deep dive into other thumb-sized characters in folklore around the world, how they fed into her creation, and the similarities and differences between them. Well this month’s review isn’t gonna leave the history buffs high and dry, baby. I’m going the full hog with Snow White, one of the most iconic fairy tales with a rich, detailed historical background to match, so strap in!
The Fairest One of All might just hold the record for most variants of her story worldwide. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of folklore, she has a category all to herself! Richilde, Gold-tree and Silver-tree, Myrsina, The Young Slave, Bella Venezia, Bright Star of Ireland, Hajir, La petite Toute-Belle, Der zauberspiegel, Rose-Neige, Lé Roi Pan, La hermosa hijastra, and Anghjulina are but a few folktales from around the globe that retell Snow White’s adventures. Each one shares the tropes common to the story we know (a jealous queen, a magical fairness-rating artifact, multiple assassination attempts, poisoned objects, glass coffins, a prince partly responsible for waking her, etc.) though the details vary. For example, the dwarfs who take Snow White in aren’t always dwarfs, or even miners. Sometimes they’re robbers, sometimes they’re the twelve months personified, sometimes they’re purely magical characters like djinns and dragons!
The biggest revelation one can take away from these retellings, however, is that Snow White usually isn’t menaced by a wicked stepmother but her own mother. Indeed, the German oral tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 had the evil Queen be Snow White’s birth mother, until they revised it seven years later to keep the fable more in line with their patriarchal beliefs. See, Jacob and Wilhelm envisioned motherhood as something pure and infallible. They didn’t want to rock the familial boat by suggesting mothers could be capable of spite and cruelty. So they pinned the queen’s jealousy and murderous tendencies on a figure that was already on the outs with the family unit, one seen as new, unfamiliar and untrustworthy: the stepmother. It also doesn’t help that the Queen is the most proactive character in the story, spinning the narrative that clever women with agency and authority are evil, self-serving and dangerous. Between this, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the Grimms are the source of the evil stepmother/queen stereotype that’s plagued so many narratives and even negatively colors real women to this day.
As for her origins, Snow White and her assorted fair counterparts have roots going all the way back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One story featured within, the legend of Chione (whose name translates to “Snow”, by the way) is about a woman described as the most beautiful in the land, which earns her the enmity of the goddess Diana and the lust of gods Apollo and Mercury. Apollo visits Chione disguised as an old woman and…has his way with her, as deities do (blegh). One could also draw parallels to Adam and Eve and the infamous apple, if you’re willing to dig that deep.
That’s not the half of it, though. Scholars may have found precedence that the tale of Snow White might be based on actual historical figures. According to German historian Eckhard Sander, young countess Margaretha von Waldeck fits the bill for a real life Snow White. She was renowned for her beauty, raised by her stepmother, her father owned several copper mines that employed child labor (which explains the dwarfs), she had to travel to the next kingdom “seven hills” over for a goodwill mission, and she died tragically young; the rumor circulating the court was that she was poisoned. Another theory that was initially tongue-in-cheek but turned out to have some credibility was that Snow White was inspired by Baroness Maria Sophia Margarethe Catharine of Lohr. Mirrors from Lohr were said to always speak the truth thanks to their high quality, hence the Magic Mirror. One such Lohr mirror that still exists was owned by Maria’s stepmother, Claudia Elizabeth von Reichenstein. Claudia is described as a domineering woman who favored the children from her first marriage. There’s a history of nightshade poison growing in abundance in Lohr, a mining town stood close to there, and the glass coffin may be another nod to the city’s famous glassworks. While there are sound arguments disproving these hypotheses, I find it fascinating that Snow White has taken such root into culture as a whole that historians and folklorists alike are willing to connect the dots between the story and factual occurrences.
When it comes to modern iterations, though, the Disney film is the one that obviously stands foremost in the public consciousness. It’s inspired nearly every adaptation going forward since 1937, and Faerie Tale Theatre’s is no exception…