The Evolution of Fairy Tales: The Return of Dark Stories (II)

I have found that it is very complicated to know exactly who fairy tales were meant for back in the day when they were passed on from storyteller to storyteller. A large number of people would say that they were meant to scare children into behaving well, and to warn them of dangers. But then, there is also this idea that fairy tales were told to entertain adults; and that the fact they contained sexually explicit and horrific themes was an effective way to shock and distract an audience. Perhaps these two hypothesis are valid. For a child listening to a folk tale, the stories were dark and disturbing, in turn scaring them into not disobeying their parents; while an adult listening to these stories (although probably also shocked by them), would find them entertaining.

The Influence of Society

      There is the idea of our ever-changing society and the way it influences the tales we hear. In order to please an audience from a particular time period, the stories changed a little with the addition of certain elements, and the complete disappearance of others.

      A research paper (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the author’s full name; however the paper is available at: explained this occurrence stating that it does not only happen with fairy tales but also movies and music. It’s easy to understand what is meant just by seeing how music has evolved from Mozart to the sort of things we can hear on the radio nowadays. So while the tales as told by the Grimm brothers were acceptable by adults and told to children back then, it seems it would no longer be the case with today’s society. It leads me to wonder why these stories and the themes they deal with would be deemed as inappropriate to be told to a younger audience nowadays. I will investigate this question further in a future post.

It is debated that throughout time, and with major historic events, society changed and with it, so did the tales people wanted to hear. Even the brothers Grimm sanitized the versions they had originally written down in 1812. In a previous post, I had observed that the story of Snow White had had major changes made between the two first versions of the brothers Grimm: the evil queen was originally a mother, intent on killing her own daughter out of jealousy. Even back then, amongst the many gruesome features of these tales, infanticide seemed to be deemed unacceptable.

The author also explains that slowly, the tales changed and that “the sexual undertones and violence against the innocent left, while the violence against wrongdoers stayed and lessons of Christian morality were put into place”. The idea of religion influencing fairy tales is definitely not new and while I have talked about it in the past, I will try to investigate it further in the future.

      A lot of people ‘blame’ Disney for the versions of the fairy tales we know today. Actually, I find the use of the word ‘blame’ quite ungrateful. Disney’s just another storyteller who took these timeless tales and arranged them in a different way (they often keep the basic idea of the tale intact). These animations do stray quite far from the tales written by the brothers Grimm or even Charles Perrault, but because their own versions weren’t the original ones either, I think it is unfair to state that Disney is responsible for changing these tales. Perhaps the morals and lessons taught in the older versions are not respected anymore in Disney’s re-adaptations, but we have to keep in mind that because our society changed, so did our expectations, as well as our receptivity towards certain lessons. The research paper supports that Disney ‘responded to the people’. When Disney decided to reinvent fairy tales, America had been through a World War as well as an economic depression. Therefore people needed a bit of magic, a means of escapism. To conclude, it was stated that Disney is only a part of the reason for how fairy tales are known today. And this analysis shows that society has a greater role to play in the evolution of fairy tales than it seems to be aware of.

      Yet in films, there seems to be a return to the darker roots of fairy tales as they were told all those centuries ago. So what does this mean about today’s society? Did our expectations change or have we become too pessimistic to believe in a happily ever after?

      This allowed me to reflect on my work experimenting with possible re-adaptations of Donkey Skin. The notion of incest is still present in films and TV shows nowadays but to have it mentioned in a fairy tale seems to be shocking. So why, if fairy tales really are getting darker, would it still be unacceptable to have the idea of a father in love with his daughter present in a film?

2011. How has society influenced the tales of the Grimm brothers? [online]. Weebly. Available at: [Accessed 13/10/2014]

EVANS. E, 2013. Modern rendition of classic fairy tales return to dark roots [online]. Available at: [Accessed 11 November 2014]


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