Once Upon a Time, Again
by Kaycie Hall
After two pregnancy losses, I found out that I was pregnant with a strong healthy baby boy. I felt like I could breathe, like I could plan for him to be real. I nested in all of the usual ways that one prepares a nursery and then I began to acquire books of fairy tales, broadly defined as “stories for children involving fantastic forces and beings”. I wanted to prepare for motherhood by re-entering the realms of magic and darkness I’d known as a child.
After bringing my son home from the hospital, I found that most fairy tales were the perfect length for us both. A few pages to calmly read aloud, my mind hazy from lack of sleep, from anxiety about milk production, from the unanticipated joy and pain of holding my heart outside of my body. A few pages for my son to listen to, with his mind alight with the terror and joy of being new to this world, settling down to rest with a belly full of milk.
Below I have put together some loose guidelines to guide you through your own adventure back into the realm of magic. This syllabus is focused on tales from the Western European canon but I do encourage you to seek out tales from all over the world as there are many more to explore. You are encouraged to go at your own pace, baby in tow is optional. Those who know these tales from childhood will come to see them a bit differently upon re-reading — the journey back in is no longer simple.
Location: a comfortable spot in a dimly lit room, a forest deep in the heart of Germany, a kingdom below the sea, far from a locked room that can only be opened with a magic key.
Prerequisites: Students must agree to stay on the good side of any enchantresses they encounter, disguised or not. Best to proceed with caution.
Upon completion of course, students will acquire:
- At least one or two good party facts — useful for when a conversation starts to fade, such as “did you know that in the original Grimm’s version of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ that the aforementioned gets so angry at being found out that he rips himself in half?”
- A new appreciation for the bravery with which children face the world (try reading “Hansel and Gretel” to one and see if they flinch — we start out in this world with more bravery than we remember)
- A preferred version of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Little Red Riding Hood”
- A heightened awareness of trickery
These tales will serve as an initial re-entry for many readers, familiar enough that you can start to find your way down the path, but the twists and turns may not be quite as you remembered. If you’re new to these tales, be warned that you may be shocked at how little they seem like “stories for children.” Feel free to take detours to lesser known tales as you come upon them.
- “Little Red Riding Hood” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — At the very end of the Grimm tale, there’s a second story tacked on about another time that Little Red Riding Hood met the wolf in the woods, but this time she outsmarts him. Verdict is out on whether this happened before or after another wolf ate grandma…
- “La Belle et la Bête” versions by both Madame de Villeneuve and Madame d’Aulnoy — Madame de Villeneuve’s version of Beauty and the Beast, published in 1740, is much darker than the popular version of the tale, and includes scheming fairies. In 1756 Madame de Beaumont took Villeneuve’s tale and adapted it into the morality tale for children that many of us know.
**Extra credit will be awarded for doing some research into les précieuses, a literary salon that may have greatly influenced Villeneuve as well as Charles Perrault.
- “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson — While I correctly remembered poor Ariel embarrassing herself by brushing her hair with a fork, I didn’t recall her feeling that every step she took on land was like “treading on a sharp knife.”
- “Bluebeard” by Charles Perrault — This was the only tale that was exactly as I remembered it (who could forget that room full of dead wives and that snitch of a magic key).
- “Jack and the Beanstalk” by Joseph Jacobs — Even though Jack’s mother calls him “a fool, a dolt, such an idiot” after he sells their cow for beans, in the end when he yells for an axe, she comes running, no questions asked. I’d like to think I’d do the same, and even take a whack or two at the ogre myself if it were my son he was after.
- “Rumpelstiltskin” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — I shudder to think what Rumpelstiltskin wanted with a child. Seems that people in fairy tales are real fast and loose with giving up their firstborns.
- “Thumbelina” by Hans Christian Anderson — When I was young, I loved the idea of sleeping in a walnut shell with flower petal blankets. To be as small as Thumbelina seemed cozy and safe,which is why re-reading it as an adult, I was surprised to find that Thumbelina endures one scary scenario after another. Nowadays, I walk around my neighborhood with my son in his stroller, all bundled up and cozy, either dozing or happily babbling. He’s small enough to be carried from place to place but too young to understand that being scooped up and carried places against your will is a terrifying prospect. When do we lose that implicit trust in the world to carry us cozily to wherever we most need to be?
- “Sun, Moon, and Talia” by Giambattista Basile AND “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” by Charles Perrault — Both of these tales are versions of Sleeping Beauty that are far more sinister than Disney’s story of Aurora and her magical color-changing dress. In the Italian version, Talia, the sleeping beauty, is raped and gives birth to twins without ever waking up. Turns out their father is already married and his wife tries to trick him into eating his own children baked into a pie. Perrault’s version is no better. Instead of an angry wife, the princess finds that her new mother-in-law is an ogress and wants to eat her and her children. The moral of both tales seems to be to have a kind and trustworthy cook who is willing to help fool your enemies.
- “Rapunzel” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — Yet again, fast and loose with promising firstborn children. I assured my son that even in the hardest parts of my pregnancy, I would not have traded him for Rapunzel or all of the mint chocolate chip ice cream in the world.
- My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer
- Happily, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Paris Review column
- The Penguin Book of Mermaids, edited by Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown
- Transformations by Anne Sexton
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
- Peau d’âne, Jacques Demy (1970)
- Barbe bleue, Catherine Breillat (2009)
- La belle endormie, Catherine Breillat (2010)
- Freeway, Matthew Bright (1996)
- Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro (2006)
- The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan (1984)
- Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone (2015)
|Mother Dearest||Where are the mothers in these tales? Examine the role of mother — be she willing to trade you for a taste of Rapunzel, an evil stepmother, or totally absent.|
|True Love||Is true love’s kiss really enough? Is that prince worth dissolving into seafoam? What if you weren’t ready to end your enchanted slumber just yet? Question happily ever after.|
|The Enchantress||Who among us hasn’t been in the enchantress’s position? Would you not be annoyed at the beastly prince who rebuffed you? The couple that won’t stop stealing from your well-tended garden? Consider whether she has been unfairly maligned.|