THE BLOG
09/15/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Why Are Fairy Tales Universally Appealing?

"Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it..."

With these words, Maleficent -- Disney's recent remake of Sleeping Beauty -- begins. And as we watch Angelina Jolie soar on her magnificent black wings above that fairy tale world, we come to realize that old stories made new can utterly change what we knew and understood about that story... and perhaps about ourselves as well.
'Sleeping Beauty' is an old story. Much older than people realize.

Maleficent, written by Linda Woolverton and directed by Robert Stromberg, drew upon Walt Disney's well-known 1959 animated musical fantasy Sleeping Beauty.

Disney had been inspired by the Grimm Brothers' famous fairy tale "Dornröschen" ("Little Briar-Rose"), published in their first collection of fairy tales in 1812. This tale had been told to the brothers in 1811 by a pretty young woman named Marie Hassenpflug, who had most probably heard the tale from her French Protestant grandmother who had fled to Hessen-Cassel in the 1700s.

Marie's grandmother had either read or been told Charles Perrault's 1697 story, "La Belle au Bois Dormant" ("The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood"), though she had forgotten the ending where the prince's ogre mother plotted to kill and eat the prince and princess' two little children.

Charles Perrault, meanwhile, had read an older story called "Sun, Moon and Talia", written by a Neapolitan courtier named Giambattista Basile and published in 1634. In that tale, the princess is impregnated by the prince and gives birth to their two children while still asleep.

Basile may well have heard an old Occitan story called Perceforest (1330s) about a young man who penetrates a dark wood and finds -- and makes love to -- a young woman deep in a coma. And that old Occitan story may well have its roots in oral tales of earth goddesses who must die in winter and be reborn in spring.

Stories are like that. Like cities, they are built on the stones and bones of the past.

Take "Romeo and Juliet". Most people think Shakespeare invented this tragic tale of two young star-crossed lovers kept apart by their feuding families. But his plot is based on a much older Italian story, and Shakespeare reworked it for his own contemporaries and so saved it from being forgotten. Perhaps Baz Luhrmann's revisioning of the story has done so for a whole new generation.

My own novel Bitter Greens is a retelling of the "Rapunzel" fairy tale. I wrote it as the creative component of my doctorate on fairy tale retellings, during which I constructed a "mythic biography" of the Maiden in the Tower which traced her ancestry all the way back to before written language. One of the things I was examining in my doctorate is why fairy tales such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "Rapunzel" continue to be told and retold, sometimes enduring for over a thousand years. Basically, what I discovered is a story only survives if it articulates some kind of desire or dilemma, some kind of predicament, which is of importance to both the reteller of the tale, and to his or her audience.

Storytelling is as old as speech. It existed before humans first began to carve shapes in stones and press their hands upon the rocky walls of caves. When our ancestors crouched about the camp fire at night, they told each other tales of gods and heroes, monsters and marvels, to hold back the terrors of the night. Such tales comforted and entertained, diverted and educated those who listened, and helped shape their sense of the world and their place in it.

Stories are the common ground that allow people to connect, despite all our defences and all our differences.

And old tales such as "Rapunzel" always operate on two levels. On the one hand, it is a story of two lovers who must struggle towards each other against seemingly impossible obstacles -- a jealous older woman, a tower with no door and no stair, thorns that can put out your eyes. It's a story of longing and desire, obsession and madness, rescue and redemption, and as such it is utterly compelling.

However, all these striking motifs -- the girl with the impossibly long golden hair, the prince who must climb it to seduce her, the witch who severs it from her head -- these are all laden with meaning. Ursula le Guin once said that fantasy speaks to the unconscious in the language of the unconscious -- symbol, metaphor, and archetype. This is true too of fairy tales. The motifs act as a kind of secret code, carrying messages of life and love and death and rebirth.

"Rapunzel" therefore speaks to anyone -- man or woman, young or old -- who has found themselves trapped against their will in some kind of prison, whether it be a poisonous job environment or a relationship that has turned sour, or a parent that wants to keep you as a child forever. The symbolic meaning of the tower can be different for every person that hears the tale. Rapunzel's escape from the tower holds out hope that others too can escape and make a new life for themselves.

The influential folklorist Alan Dundes once wrote: "folklore means something -- to the tale teller, to the song singer, to the riddler, and to the audiences... Folktales... have passed the test of time, and are transmitted again and again. Unlike individual dreams, folktales must appeal to the psyches of many, many individuals if they are to survive."

By drawing on these old tales -- stories which have been told and retold for thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of tellers -- we can tap into that shadowy archetypal world of story while still telling stories that illuminate our own lives. By retelling "Sleeping Beauty" from the point of view of Maleficent, the villainess, we see the story in a new way and understand new truths about what forces can shape and misshape a human psyche. I hope to do the same with my retelling of "Rapunzel"; to tell an old story anew and, in doing so, allow it to enchant and enlighten a whole new audience.

Kate Forsyth is the author of Bitter Greens.