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Fairy tales are told in every culture, and are likely as old as human language itself. Hollywood has long been under their spell, and this year alone eight movies that retell a fairy-tale are coming out, including two featuring Snow White. Television is also reinterpreting familiar tales, with “Grimm,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Neverland” on screens now. We look at why these stories endure, and take a look at how they’re being re-imagined.
- Chris Epting Pop culture writer and author of "Hello, It's Me - Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie"
- Jack Zipes Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota; author, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre" (April, 2012); editor, "Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales;" and "The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films"
- Nell Minow Movie critic for Beliefnet.com and author of "The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies," (2nd Edition)(iUniverse, Inc).
Fairy Tale Film Trailers
Snow White and the Hunstman
Once Upon A Time
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo. From finding Prince Charming to rags to riches transformations, fairy tales are deeply woven into our culture. Hollywood has long been under their spell.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSThere are the Disney movies most of us grew up on, child-friendly adaptations of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. And this year alone eight movies based on fairy tales are coming out, including two featuring Snow White.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSTelevision is also reinterpreting familiar tales with "Grimm," "Once Upon a Time" and "Neverland" on screens now. And what is new and what is not about these updated versions of fairy tales says a lot about us.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSJoining us to discuss fairy tales in the 21st century is Nell Minow. She is Beliefnet's movie mom critic. Welcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MS. NELL MINOWThank you.
ROBERTSAnd from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn. we have Jack Zipes. He's a professor emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. He's also the author most recently of "The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre." Welcome to you.
PROFESSOR JACK ZIPESThank you.
ROBERTSAnd from the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles, Chris Epting joins us. He's a pop culture writer and the author of "Hello, It's Me - Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie," Chris Epting, welcome to you.
MR. CHRIS EPTINGGood to be here.
ROBERTSAnd of course, you can join us by calling 800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. So I think people are familiar with sort of fairy tale themes, but let's just define our terms. Jack Zipes, how would you define a fairy tale?
ZIPESThat's an impossible task.
ROBERTSOkay then. We're done here.
ZIPESThe evolution of the fairy tale goes back thousands of years and basically if you want to come to sort of -- maybe we can come to an agreement that it is a story about a miraculous or marvelous transformation in which a protagonist or a group of protagonists generally have many different experiences, quite often three. The number three plays an important role. And in the course of this development, the protagonist, through some type of initiation, generally triumphs over evil and either gets very rich, is married and lives very happily after.
ZIPESBut essentially, I think it's important to note that these tales generally offer a counter world, a counter moral world to our reality, our real world in which social justice, some type of justice, prevails in contrast to the terrible perverse, conflicted world in which we live in, in which social justice very rarely occurs.
ROBERTSAnd would you say that they are, at least in the U.S., by and large drawn from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen?
ZIPESAh, yes, to a great extent. But I think that Disney has effaced Andersen and Grimm's and Charles Perrault who is also very important, a French writer, so that, I would say, most people not only in America, but in the world generally think of fairy tales according to some type of Disney version they've either seen or read.
ROBERTSChris, why do you think fairy tales keep kind of coming back as a theme?
EPTINGI think personally as tough as the world gets, we all kind of feel the grind. It gets a little tougher every day and fairy tales are that -- you know, it's about escapism. It's a place where you can go where goodwill typically triumphs over evil and there will be princesses and magic and princes and all these things that are, you know, very aspirational for a lot of us. And I think, you know, if somebody likes writing stories, if you want to capture someone's attention, those four words, once upon a time, will typically stop almost anybody in their tracks.
EPTINGThere's something so evocative about thinking about that sense of, you know, once upon a time, what happens next after that. Who doesn't want to hear what happens after those four words?
ROBERTSAnd Nell Minow, why do you think audiences keep going to fairy tale movies?
MINOWI think the idea of transformation is always very, very powerful. The idea of the hidden source of strength that is within all of us and that gets called upon, whether through the help of a fairy godmother or just discovering within yourself that you have that, that, you know, I think if you boil them down to their DNA, you would find that even movies like any romantic comedy or "Star Wars" have a fairy tale base.
ROBERTSWell, let's ask our audience. Did you have a favorite fairy tale growing up or are there stories in contemporary culture that actually you think of as adaptations of fairy tales and why do you think they're still so popular? Or are you one of those people who hates them? Give us a call 800-433-8850 or send us email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check us out through Facebook and send tweets to @kojoshow.
ROBERTSChris, it's easy to recognize a fairy tale when it's a remake of "Snow White," like "Mirror Mirror," which is out in theaters, I think, now, yes? But you say it's actually the kind of happily ever after story is a blueprint for things like reality TV. How is reality TV a fairy tale?
EPTINGWell, I mean, you know, whenever you set up these kinds of challenges that people have got to go through, I think like reality TV is, you know, for better or worse, has helped define people's kind of climbing the mountain and achieving something of some sort and battling all these things along the way, whether it's their own demons, whether it's battling excess and, you know, it's sort of like in sports where they say, you know, this is a Cinderella story. You know, we sort of put the model of fairy tale-ism, I think, on reality TV sometimes because we're rooting for underdogs, you know. We're watching people kind of battle the forces of evil around them.
EPTINGAnd a little magic sometimes enters the fray and helps propel that person toward their goal and so, I think, you know, as a blueprint, it's all around us. I mean, in particular, though, like I would say in the last few years, I thought the first "Shrek" was sort of a nice kind of, you know, looking at fairy tales from sort of another angle, where it was sort of almost like an anti-kind of view of it, which I thought was kind of a nice approach as well that was unexpected in the way that reality TV is as well.
EPTINGI mean, again, there's the cliché fairy tale, but I think the form allows -- I think it's a very flexible form that allows for things, whether it's the movie -- remember, you know, "Pretty Woman" was -- to me, people saw it and said, what a wonderful fairy tale, to Nell's point. You know, it doesn't have to be kind of the same basic structure every time. I think it's wherever you look for it and again, reality TV provides it in a lot of ways because you're rooting for somebody that normally wouldn't have an audience, pushing them much the way, say, Cinderella might have been.
ROBERTSWell, the "Pretty Woman" and "Cinderella" are both examples of one of the reasons that there has been feminist criticism of fairy tales, that the heroine can only be happy when she finds Prince Charming and, you know, everything is made better by a marriage plot. Nell Minow, are fairy tales anti-feminist?
MINOWI don't think fairy tales are anti-feminist. I think that one of the things that makes fairy tales so enduring and so compelling is the way that they get rewritten for the generation that needs them. So I'm perfectly happy to have kids read the original "Snow White" and see the "Snow White" Disney version and I'm perfectly happy to see them do the remake. You could -- you're never going to have a more empowered princess than Snow White.
MINOWAnd "Snow White," "Ella Enchanted" and other movies like that, "Ever After" with Drew Barrymore, answer the key question I always had when I was reading fairy tales growing up, which is, why do these girls stay there? With the step mothers treating them so badly, why don't they leave and make their fortune as boys in fairy tales always do? And I think that these versions give us good answers for that and give us a new heroine to dream about.
ROBERTSJack Zipes, is there such a thing as an original when we're talking about fairy tales? Weren't these oral traditions?
ZIPESThe fairy tales go back so many thousands of years that we can't talk about an original. We can only talk about the tales that we have come to know, you know, through print. Once print came into being in the 15th and 16th centuries, tales were then written down and they were generally a combination of tales that were taken from the peasants, from the oral folk tradition and also from literary authors.
ZIPESSo we can, however, talk about original tales on which film and adaptations are based and that's why we generally have to go back to the Brothers Grimm, well before the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and French women writers. There were many women writers during Perrault's time, like Madame Delenoir (sp?) who was very important and then later, the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.
ZIPESI think what is interesting in terms of the early fairy tales is that they tend to be very historically bound. To a great extent, they're talking about conditions in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when there was a patriarchal society so most fairy tales tend to be, not all, tend to be somewhat sexist because of the focus on male power. And the woman or female protagonist tend to be victimized, persecuted and they need the help of a man, for instance in "Little Red Riding Hood."
ZIPESThe Grimms' version of hunter must save Little Red Riding Hood from her own stupid mistakes and she should learn better there is that sexist tendency...
MINOWOr if there is a woman with power, she's evil, you know.
ZIPESRight. And nobody realizes that in the original "Snow White" that the Grimms wrote down the witch was actually the mother. They changed the mother from the stepmother. They heard the tale from somebody...
ROBERTSThe Grimms changed it?
ZIPESThe Grimms changed it. The Grimms changed most of their tales that they heard and they improved them from an aesthetic point of view. But they also made, like, "Hansel and Gretel" the original figure of the stepmother was a mother because they revered their own mother so much they couldn't abide that fact that, you know, a mother might actually kill her own daughter or a mother might want to kill or abandon their own children.
ZIPESBut fairy tales are also about real life issues, struggles such as sibling rivalry, abandonment of children, the rape of -- for instance, Little Red Riding Hood is actually raped by a wolf and so on. And that's why I think these fairy tales stick with us because beneath the symbols, beneath the sort of fantasy, there are some real issues that storytellers in the Renaissance period and in the 19th century were dealing with and we tend to forget that.
ZIPESI think, however, that the better writers of fairy tales today and the film makers who really treat fairy tales seriously try to get at those problems that underlie most of the fairy tales that we tell.
ROBERTSLet's take a call from Les in Wheaton, Md. Les, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
ROBERTSHi. Go ahead, Les, you're on the air.
LESSay again, please?
ROBERTSYou're on the air, go ahead.
LESOh, fantastic. I was just thinking back to what that gentleman said about the reality versus the fantasy aspect of it. I'm one of those individuals who actually experienced the reality part of it and had both arms severed. And no matter how bad the reality of it gets (unintelligible) putting us back in place and makes it easier for us to get by with the reality of it.
ROBERTSDo you have a favorite, Les?
LESNo, unfortunately, I don't because I don't recall too many of them. As I said, I'm basically living one of those right now. Everything that's happened on a negative side, it's not so bad. I'm going for that happily ever after bit.
ROBERTSLes, thank you for your call.
EPTINGYou know, there is a tale the Grimms collected called "The Maiden Without Hands," and it's a remarkable tale about a young woman who has her hands cut off because her father had made a deal with the devil and she ultimately goes through different adventures and has her hands restored to her. But it's through her virtues, through her strength and courage, that her hands are restored to her. And that's a tale that has a long tradition that goes back to medieval period.
ROBERTSWe are talking about fairy tales and their retellings and new versions as the ages go by and the media change. You can join us at 800-433-8850. We're going to take a quick break, but we will continue our conversation in just a minute. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
ROBERTSI'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We are talking about fairy tales with Nell Minow. She's Beliefnet's movie mom critic. Jack Zipes, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author, recently, of "The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre." And Chris Epting, pop culture writer and author of "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." And you can join us at 800-433-8850 or send us email at email@example.com. You can also check us out through Facebook or send tweets to @kojoshow.
ROBERTSChris Epting, a cynic might say that these stories keep coming up in movies because they're in the public domain and no one has to pay any rights for them or pay any author fees and they have a brand recognition with audiences. Is that...
EPTINGI would totally agree.
EPTINGYeah, I mean, that's the business sometimes, too. I mean, if it's not broken, you know, and if it's there and it doesn't cost a lot to own the rights to it, why not? You know, it's money in the bank. I read an article this week that Disneyland in Southern California is now taking over yet another part of the park to introduce another princess area. You know, these things are timeless. And it's evergreen subject, you know, matter so why not.
EPTINGSo, you know, cynic's can judge it like that, but at the end of the day, people do want to see, I think, in a lot of ways, traditional stories even if they get tweaked a little bit. You know, I think they still kind of want that escapism. And they want the fantasy of what fairy tales provide, you know, for better or worse. Again, it's a fun place to kind of go, I think, mentally for a lot of people as other kind of forces encroach in our everyday lives.
ROBERTSNow, I haven't seen "Mirror, Mirror," but I understand all of you have and have sort of mixed reviews. Jack Zipes, you didn't like it.
ZIPESIt was horrible.
EPTINGOne word review.
ZIPESRight, right. Well, let me put it this way. I mean, I think Chris is right that fairy tales -- and not only fairy tales, but a lot of fantasy literature provide an escape of some sort from a world that is inhospitable or discouraging or whatever. There are good reasons why we want to escape this world, particularly the world in which we're living in today. So that's a positive turn. I mean, generally, when we talk about escapism, it's sort of like there's a pejorative sense to some time when we talk about escapism that we don't want to do deal with reality. Actually, we all have to deal with reality all the time, no matter what.
ZIPESSo Snow White, I think that you can get a sense from the directing, acting and so on and so forth, the whole entire production, whether the director and screenplay writers are really taking the fairy tale seriously and trying to develop it as, I think, Nell mentioned before, to tweak it in a way that it really is applicable in a socially meaningful way even though it's escapism, so that we can think a little about ourselves and the world. And for me, you know, we've heard enough about this poor rich girl and these insipid jokes that go on throughout the film, a poor rich girl who eventually conquers, again, a stepmother stereotyped. I mean, stepmothers are not all evil.
ZIPESAnd so that the film says nothing -- and I was very disappointed because I've seen another film by Tarsem Singh, "The Fall," which is absolutely brilliant and is very socially meaningful. And so "Mirror, Mirror," with all its jokes, it's frivolity and so on, it's touch of feminism, I thought was very (word?) and really nonsensical and had no meaning for me. And it wasn't even pleasurable. I watched it sitting next to girls who were about eight to 12 and I think they laughed maybe one time throughout the entire film.
ROBERTSNell Minow, you want to defend "Mirror, Mirror?"
MINOWSure. I'm sorry. I’m a big fan, Professor Zipes, but I have to disagree with you on this. I also like...
MINOW...I also like "The Fall," although I don't think it's suitable for children. And Tarsem Singh is well known for making movies that are more visually striking than narratively coherent. But I think in this case, because he took on a story that was already, you know, had a normal story arch and all of that and characters that we're familiar with, I thought it was probably a more solid footing for him. I liked it a lot. I thought that it kept a lot of what was good and meaningful and enduring about the original fairy tale and it brightened it up with wonderful character of Snow White.
MINOWI liked her very much and I like the way that she became her own person once she left the castle walls. And you're talking about narrative traditions that go back forever, the idea of going out into the woods and claiming yourself in the woods and having a transformative experience in the woods, that goes back for a really long time. So I thought it was visually, absolutely wonderful and a very nice story.
ROBERTSYou know, we're talking, to some degree, about what these periodic adaptations say about the culture in which they are presented. And I couldn't help but think, you know, I have sons. They wouldn’t go to a princess movie on a bet. But they saw the preview for "Mirror, Mirror," at another movie and they thought it looked funny and they've been bugging me to go see it. So it makes me wonder if that sort of a remake that's a little bit snarkier or just a little bit less about singing birds, that it's trying to broaden it out into an audience that actually includes boys. Chris, what do you think?
EPTINGI think that's a great point. And, you know, again, at the end of the day, they want as many people to go see these movies. I will add, I did not see the film, but based on the two reviews I just heard, I'm going to see it because here you've got two really great experts providing...
MINOWStay through the credits. There's a great dance number.
EPTING...just a great counterpoint. But I think that, you know, they've got to do what they've got to do. And I actually think it's a good idea to kind of broaden it and to redefine it a little bit. I mean, look, that's the voice of today. We do live in snarkier times. We do live in less traditional times. So to steer something that way, I think, makes total sense. It's why a lot of shows have gone that way, not just fairy tales. I mean, a lot of things have got sharper angles on them today. They're more confrontational. They're more in your face. That's just the nature of society today so I don't know why fairy tales wouldn't go that route as well.
MINOWIt was interesting to me that there were two different versions of Red Riding Hood that came out last year. I thought that the one called "Red Riding Hood" was absolutely terrible with Amanda Seyfried. But there was an animated version which I think your sons would enjoy, that was very feminist and very, you don't need a man to, you know, complete your life, that I thought was very, very well done. And I think it's not -- we shouldn’t speak of fairy tales as being an escape from reality.
MINOWWhat they are really is a clarifier of reality. You know, we live in the trees and stories of all kinds, but especially fairy tales are the forest version that allows us to get a clearer picture of what's really going on. They illuminate a lot of the ambiguities, a lot of the complexities and they allow us to work through problems that bother us and to have kind of an emotional dress rehearsal that I think is very cathartic.
ROBERTSLet's take a call. This is Laurie in Fairfax. Laurie, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
LAURIEHi, well, when you talk about emotional catharsis, it was my birthday yesterday and I was 66 and we didn't have TV until I was six. So we're talking like 60 years ago. And we watched -- my parents read us -- we got to see "Bambi" and we also read "Hansel and Gretel." And both of those stories scarred me emotionally. I can't even talk about "Bambi" today without remembering that movie when I was, you know, I guess I must've been six or seven and seeing that poor, you know, the mother die.
LAURIEI mean, my God, even today I felt, you know, abandonment issues from that damn story. And then when the witch feels little Gretel's finger and thinks it's a chicken bone, I mean, this has been 60 years in my brain. So I just think that they can be really scary and I think kids are impressionable and you've got to, you know, be careful. The old ones really were pretty violent and I guess my folks didn't have the good sense of mind to process through what it was. But boy, even today, I can't watch "Bambi."
ROBERTSLaurie, thanks for your call. I mean, Jack Zipes, she actually sort of brings up two contrasting things. One is that the original of these tales are often very dark and quite violent and involve, you know, eating people. And the Disney versions are more sanitized. But often in Disney movies, a parent gets offed, often in like the first 10 minutes. I mean, I think "Bambi" is more scary because you get to know mom before she gets killed by the hunter. But, you know, you can't have the coming of age story if parents are dictating what you do. So the parents get removed pretty early. So it's this kind of contrast between Disney sanitizing some of these movies, but also something like "Bambi," which is an iconic Disney movie, being scarring.
ZIPESRight. Well, the first thing that we have to remember or most people don't even know, it's not even a remembering, is fairy tales and folk tales in the oral tradition, up through the early 20th century, were never told or written for children. There was a slow process of sanitization of the Grimm's Tales, the Perrault Tales and even Anderson, they never really wrote for children or tales were never told for children. And that's why there is a great deal of violence and there were many thorny problems that we can see in fairy tales.
ZIPESAnd even today, I would argue that the majority of the films that are supposedly for children, generally parents are there guiding their children or going to the movies with their children either to protect them or to enjoy something from their childhood. The sanitization, I mean, basically, Disney really covers up a great deal. I mean, he still retains enough scary elements or elements that are disturbing, I think, that are significant. For instance, the fact that the stepmother or the mother in Snow White wants to murder her own daughter, that is something that Disney did keep and it is something that will stay with children and adults for the rest of their lives because it does deal with an issue that we still face today.
ZIPESAnd that is prejudice against children, a desire to control, manipulate them. There's a recent book by Elisabeth Bruehl called "Childism" in which she writes about the prejudice that we have in our society today and she argues for our use of the term childism or childist because of the fact that we, in the American society, lead the world in child abuse and we manipulate children in ways that are really unthinkable from a humanistic point of view. At any rate, I do agree also with Nell. I mean, I disagree about Snow White, of course, but I do think -- and it's sort of -- that's why I was trying about this notion of escapism. Fairy tales really are not the -- in one sense, they allow us to escape and gain distance from our real reality.
ZIPESOn the other hand, they compel us to deal with very real problems. And that's why I was trying to make that distinction in the use of the term escapist before. But I do want to mention one other thing and I don't mean to talk too long. But we don't talk about the European fairy tale traditions in films and the way Europeans look at fairy tales. Also in the last year or so, there have been films by the Russian Garri Bardin, "The Ugly Duckling" or Catherine Breillat who did an amazing "Bluebeard" and "Sleepy Beauty" or Michel Ocelot, a French film maker, who's done amazing film called "Kirikou and the Sorceress."
ZIPESThese films are not distributed in the United States or distributed very rarely because of the fact that Hollywood has this monopoly and movie theaters also don't want to show art, so-called art fairy tale films that are very serious. And I think that we should be aware of the fact that there are different currents in terms of the way fairy tales are produced and received in America and other places in the world.
ROBERTSLet's hear from Charlie in Vienna, Va. Charlie, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
CHARLIEHi, I must talk to you. My comment is, I'm wondering if, you know, the morality saying in "Harry Potter" is so much better and more sound then say what's in the Bible. And I’m wondering, you know, as hundreds of years pass or even sooner than that, will people start to see that as a more of a reality then, say, what's in scripture?
CHARLIEI mean, you know what, today's scripture is more nonsensical and less ethical than what's portrayed in some of the so-called fairy tales. And I'm wondering if they will be seen, at what point, how long will it take before people see them equally or even, you know, have more respect for things like "Harry Potter" as opposed to the horrible things in, you know, that are portrayed in the Bible of abuse of women and just condoning slavery and so forth.
ROBERTSCharlie, thank you for your call.
CHARLIEAnd, you know...
ROBERTSI mean, the question of "Harry Potter" comes up quite a lot, actually, about whether or not it's a fairy tale. And certainly all of the elements that you all mentioned at the beginning, of social justice and clear good and evil and a triumph through a journey, it certainly happens there. Chris Epting, would you characterize "Harry Potter" as a fairy tale?
EPTINGYeah, absolutely. I think there are plenty of fairy tale aspects. And again, the magic, to me, is what really kind of solidifies it in that genre and I think it's an interesting point. I don't know that we'll, you know, necessarily have the gospel according to "Harry Potter" in a hundred years, but, you know, people do tend to take some of their fairy tales pretty seriously. When a book like that touches, you know, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people, it's undeniable that it has some cross-cultural affect in how people view, you know, good versus evil, right and wrong and things like that.
MINOWCan I recommend a movie, "Trekkies," which shows the extraordinary impact that "Star Trek" has had on the lives of people who do look at it almost as gospel. Every year, I go to Comic-Con in San Diego and, believe me, those are the most passionate fans of a popular culture and a kind of fairy tale culture in the world. And they are tremendously affected, but I don't think any of those are going to give a run for the money to the Bible.
MINOWI do think though, with regard to the 66 year old who's still scared by "Bambi," in my work as a movie mom, I advise parents on what is scary and what isn't scary. But I have to say that no matter what you do and how protective you are, children will get scared around ages 6 or 7 when they first reach that realization of what is out there and what the limits of what their -- how protected they can be. And everybody has some traumatic event at that time that they will come back to and it's attached to whatever movie they saw when they were at that important stage.
ROBERTSThat is Beliefnet's movie mom, Nell Minow. We are also joined by Chris Epting, pop culture writer and author of "Hello It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." And Jack Zipes, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of the "Irresistible Fairy Tale." We need to take a quick break. But we will be back with more of your calls and emails, talking about modern fairy tales, just a minute.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about fairy tales. There are eight new fairy tale movies out there. There are revivals of some fairy tale stage shows, and of course retellings in various media throughout the ages. What do these retellings say about the times we're living in? We are joined here in studio by Nell Minow, BeliefNet's movie mom critic, and from Minnesota Public Radio, Jack Zipes is with us, and from the Market Place Studios in Los Angeles, we have Chris Epting, and we are taking your calls at 800-433-8850, and your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's hear from Don in Hillsboro, Va. Don, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
DONThank you. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to talk about a change in the fairy tale way back when, when a change to what I think is kind of nonsense, from the word fur, which was used in old French. It meant ermine or a higher-class fur that only nobility and royalty could wear, and it was very much like the world glass, and somewhere along the way, the fur slipper that only a princess could wear, became a glass slipper that doesn't make a lot of sense.
ROBERTSHuh. I had no idea that was true, Don. Now I have a mental image of Prince Charming trying to fit a big furry like bunny slipper on Cinderella, and it's not quite the same story.
DONI imagine it was a fairly delicate one, but there was so much more meaning to that, and it's -- no prince would be allowed to marry a girl just because she had a tiny foot that would fit into an uncomfortable glass breakable slipper.
ROBERTSThanks for your call, Don.
ZIPESCould I comment on that?
ROBERTSYes. Please do, Jack Zipes.
ZIPESYeah. It was Charles Perrault in 1697 who made that change. He's the first one who introduced a glass slipper. It was either fur or a sandal or some type of boot, and the reason that Perrault made that change in 1697 was he had somewhat of an ironic attitude toward these folk tales and so to introduce a breakable slipper, which was not even worn in those times, was his way of sort of making a joke out of the entire tale.
ROBERTSLet's hear from Glenn in Alexandria. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Glenn.
GLENNYes, hi. I heard recently that Albert Einstein said if you want your children to become brighter, tell them fairy tales, and if you want them brighter still, tell them more fairy tales. And given the context of what you're talking about and the European tradition of fairy tales and how they've evolved and through society through the years, I wondered what your take on that was from one of the great imaginers of the world and great minds of the world.
ROBERTSWell, Nell Minow, what do you think about fairy tales as a parenting tool?
MINOWFairy tales are great, you know. We always talk about how imaginative children are, but what they also are is very concrete, and it is a way of helping them make sense of the world around them. I think it's tremendously important, and I always get very sad when parents say that they want to send them flash cards instead of fairy tales.
ROBERTSWe have and email from Marsha in Alexandria who says, "Is it true that older people are usually depicted at nasty, evil, wicked, or mean, in fairy tales except for good fairies?" Jack Zipes?
ZIPESNo, that's not true. There were all sorts of elderly people in folk and fairy tales and they're depicted in many different ways. Sometimes they're childless and they want a child, or sometimes they're very wise. Quite often protagonists have to take a long trip and they meet hermits in the forest who give them good advice. There are wise women also in the forests who also test -- sometimes they're witches but they're sort of related to goddesses, and they preside over a forest roam in which a hero must -- a hero or sometimes a heroine has to prove himself or herself according to the guidelines of a wise woman.
ZIPESSo I think it's very mixed with regard to the types of elderly people in the fairy tales. There's no such thing as an archetype and so it becomes very confusing because people quite often look at the fairy tales and want to trace the archetypes in them, but actually the variety of characters, the diversity is enormous.
ROBERTSAnd Chris, let me ask you that parenting with fairy tales question. What do you think about fairy tales as a parenting tool?
EPTINGI agree with Nell, and as one who read hundreds of them to kids, I know the effect that had, and I know that there was sort of great, you know, morality tales that were inherent in a lot of them, and I think it's extremely valuable. I never heard the Einstein quote, I think that's wonderful that even he in all of his cerebral glory, you know, appreciated the beauty and sort of sublime power of a fairy tale, and I think it's, you know, as parents, my wife and I both, you know, thought that that was wonderful things to share, and when you see the effect from your kids too that they sort of have a hunger for those things, just sort of I think a natural instinct toward those kinds of stories, it was fun for me, too.
EPTINGI remember thinking I missed fairy tales when I started reading them to my kids. I forgot sort of the wonderful structure and just good story telling and details and things that went into it. They're very operatic in a lot of ways, and I forgot really, I think having kids is kind of fun because it sort of forces you to revisit certain things like rereading fairy tales.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Charlie who says, "A few years ago I directed a theatrical production of 'Story Theater' which is a compilation of fairy tales. The one that stayed with me is the 'Fisherman and His Wife,' in which a character's greed becomes so enormous that all the good things achieved by ambition ultimately get taken away. The ending is a happy one or an unhappy one depending on your perspective." Do you know "The Fisherman and His Wife," Nell?
MINOWAbsolutely. That is one of the classic fairy tales where be careful what you wish for, and that is, you know, the ultimate morality tale because here are these lovely deserving people and they get an opportunity, it's kind of -- you want to talk about reality TV, it's kind of like these people and the lottery and they go nuts, and they make a very, very foolish choice. In fact, in the movie, "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," that's one of the stories they act out in the movie.
ROBERTSDo you know the origins of the story, Jack Zipes?
ZIPESNo. I actually don't. This is one of the tales that's been around for ages, so we really don't know the -- where the tale came from except it may have actually come from the Mediterranean or the Middle East, but it is a wonderful tale, and it ends up with the wife wanting to become Pope, and the fish who has been granting all the wishes says she's gone far enough and they actually -- I translated the tale, and I avoided using the hut in which they live, it's called a piss pot, and I actually sanitized my translation and didn't use that.
ZIPESBut it's very amusing, and again, it shows that notion of morality or morale sense that fairy tales, and I totally agree with Nell and Chris that these tales can be very, very helpful in all sorts of ways you can't predict because children receive the tales in different ways. For the past 15 years I directed a story telling creative drama program here in Minneapolis, and what we tend to do is quite often we'll tell an original tale, and if we think there are problems to it with regard to sexism or racism or whatever, we'll tell a counter tale, in other words, two different versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," or "Cinderella," and so on so that we get the children -- we animate the children to think for themselves and to sort of also discuss the tales afterwards so that they can determine themselves what type of morality is in the tales.
ROBERTSLet's hear from Gabby in Silver Spring. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Gabby.
GABBYHow you doing today? I was actually -- okay. I have a 2-year-old daughter, and she's starting to watch fairy tales. So then I started noticing with my siblings and my friends that we actually have adopted certain things from the fairy tales such as how, you know, Cinderella has a Prince Charming and he's actually already a Prince Charming and she's waiting around and that's the way one of my sisters is. She doesn't expect the guy to change, or if he's looking for the perfect one already made.
GABBYAnd then, like the Sleeping Beauty and how the guy ended up changing from the beast to the perfect man. And how embedded is it on the children's psyche, you know, like all this type of stuff, because my daughter's favorite so far is "Rapunzel," and she falls in love with a thief, and I'm a little worried about that.
ROBERTSGabby, thank you for your call. The enduring lessons of fairy tales, should Gabby be worried about her daughter's taste in princes?
MINOWI don't think so, not for a 3-year-old. I think a 3-year-old is very taken with the heroine entangled in her wonderful hair. Little girls love long hair. And there again, there's a heroine who has been cooped up for a long time, and as soon as she goes out into the woods, she discovers who she is, and so I think she's a very good role model, despite the fact that she falls for a thief.
EPTINGI think she had another good point too. Jack probably knows better than I do, but the fact that these things were probably fairy tales that is based on sort of real human behavior, when she sees certain qualities that she relates to maybe a sister or a cousin or something like that, these probably were derived I would imagine by some sort of patterns of behavior when people first began handing these stories down.
ZIPESI -- yeah.
ROBERTSNo. Go ahead.
ZIPESNo, I agree. I think Chris hits the mark on that. As a human species, we have certain basic universal genetic traits and urges and so on, and one of the things I've been working on recently has been why there's so much cooperation in lot of the fairy tales like how six go out into the world where a hero meets a sharpshooter, a runner, a man who can eat 60,000 loaves of bread and so on, and they all join together to overcome a tyrannical king.
ZIPESAnd one of the reasons why I think there's so much cooperation among brother, dwarves, sisters and brothers and so on is that there tends to be a universal natural urge to cooperate. And Michael Tomasello, a very important developmental psychologist, has studied children between the ages of 1 and 3 who actually have a proclivity or a disposition to cooperate with one another that eventually may become changed dependent on the culture into which one is born. And so I fully agree that these tales really say something about our natural drives, the way we relate to one another.
ROBERTSWe have email from Magly in Burke who says, "So far, the discussion appears to have focused on Western European fairy tales. Any comments on differences in fairy tales from other traditions, Africa, Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe?" Jack Zipes, I think that's for you.
ZIPESDefinitely. I mean, throughout the world, there is no culture without fairy tales or what we would call fairy tales. For instance, we haven't been talking about "The Arabian Nights," like "Sinbad," "Aladdin." Some of the tales from the orient, tales that stem from what was once Persia or India, also from Japan, many of these tales have seeped into western culture, and have influenced storytelling and fairy tale traditions in the west. In fact, I would say "The Arabian Nights" played a pivotal role in the 17th century in transforming the European oral traditions into what we today call the fairy tale.
ROBERTSI think we have time for one more call. This is Diana in Bethesda. Diana, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
DIANAThank you. This is fascinating, and one of the things I have not heard is the word imagination, and the degree to which the written fairy tale versus the video and of course those of us who loved and grew upon radio, and I should add that ironically, here in Washington last Thursday night at the (word?) headquarters, the Arthur C. Clark foundation, and the University of California at San Diego announced the establishment of the Arthur C. Clark Center for Human Imagination. And, of course, Arthur Clark was one of the most beloved science fiction writers, so we're doing a lot of thinking about imagination both in not just creative world, but in engineering and health and others, and one of the things is how we learn and how we process.
DIANASo I wonder what your thoughts and research and knowledge is about the difference in the written versus the visual versus the audio and imagination in general as fueled by fairy tales.
ROBERTSThank you, Diana. Nell Minow?
MINOWEven though I'm a movie critic, I think the best way to absorb a fairy tale is sitting on the lap of someone who's reading it to you, and that's a really good way to start, but after that I would say that theatrical productions, there are some wonderful audiotapes of fairy tales and folk tales for kids, and movies are all wonderful ways, as long as you encourage kids as we were talking about a moment ago to use it as a starting off point as Jack Zipes does to create your own fairy tales and your own variations.
ROBERTSChris Epting, do you think the medium matters?
EPTINGTo a degree I do think that at least when you're reading it you're creating your own version of it which, to me, will always be the most valuable. You know, that said, people have different sensibilities, and they enjoy different things, but for me, I think if you start with reading it, give a kid a chance to at least create their own production in their head, then they'll have something, you know, relative to compare it to as they see the movies and see the stage plays and things like that.
ROBERTSAnd Jack Zipes, you get the last word.
ZIPESI agree with my esteemed companions on this issue, and I do think that reading is pivotal, reading and listening are really important. Learning how to listen is extremely important.
ROBERTSAnd we leave it there. Jack Zipes, professor emeritus at University of Minnesota. Nell Minow, BeliefNet's movie mom critic, and Chris Epting, pop culture writer. Thank you all so much for joining us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. Thanks for listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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