This is how our popular imagination views fairy tales:
- Once upon a time,
- Passive female
- Wicked antagonist (evil stepmother, wolf, etc)
- Heroic male
- ...and they lived happily ever after.
Someone asked me how the Romanian fairy tales I used as the mythic underpinning of my novel In the Red are different from "our own." American fairy tales are actually highly sanitized versions of western European fairy tales, scrubbed clean of their gruesomeness by Walt Disney. In Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," the title character dies and turns into a sea foam. In the Brothers Grimm's version of "Cinderella," her stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit inside the small slippers, and the prince returns them home appalled at their treachery when he notices that they are standing in a pool of blood. In Charles Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood," the wolf simply eats her, and no woodsmen come to cut the little girl and her grandmother out of the wolf's stomach intact. These versions deviate from their modern counterparts, which have been fitted to the mold above.
Romanian fairy tales, by contrast, have retained the primal essence that is evident in Andersen, Grimm and Perrault, however uncomfortable it may feel to us. I especially love the opening incantation: "Once upon a time something happened. Had it not happened, it would not be told." This is a flag signaling to the audience that what follows, though obviously symbolic, is truth.
Some snapshots of the Romanian fairy tales featured in In the Red:
A well-to-do shepherd has jealous enemies who plot to kill him. His favorite lamb, Mioriţa, tries to warn him. In this story, it is the male who is passive, the female who is active and goes on adventures.
"The Daughter of the Rose"
A beautiful nymph who lives in a rose tree loses everything when a passing prince takes her virginity. It has a similar moral as "Little Red Riding Hood": young women should not trust strangers -- but it also warns predatory males that their ways will catch up with them.
"The Twins with the Golden Star"
An evil stepmother murders the emperor's beautiful wife and her magical twin sons out of jealousy. The sons reincarnate as tall beautiful trees, as little golden fishes, then finally as themselves to reclaim their legacy. A beautiful story about death and renewal.
"Youth Without Age and Life Without Death"
A prince who was promised youth without age and life without death as an infant by a sleep-deprived father unhinged by his incessant crying goes in quest of what he believes to be his birthright when he becomes a young man. When he finds what he is looking for, it is not what he expects.
A queen steals a magic apple from the garden of the Mother of God. The apple grants her a beautiful daughter, but the incensed Mother of God decrees that the daughter will turn into a cat at the age of seventeen, and that the only action that will break the spell is a prince cutting off her head. A wild, dream-like ride about transformation and powerful women.
"The Voice of Death"
A nameless people live peacefully without ever dying, only disappearing when they follow the entrancing voice of a beautiful woman. A stranger comes to town and warns they who do not know what death means that the beautiful woman is Death. The villagers' attempt to solve the mystery of the beckoning voice changes everything forever.
These stories do not end with "...and they live happily ever after." Instead, they often end in death -- as life does -- or in an ambiguous place that does not grant a tidy moral. These stories have not been domesticated, which gives them the power to reach the storm at the center of us. They are untamed, and so, they are still true.
Elena Mauli Shapiro is the author of In the Red.