January 31, 2023

Angela Carter and the Modern Fairy Tale

Don’t talk to strangers, especially the unassuming, handsome ones! Our parents drum this into our innocent little minds as kids, usually the first time we walk to school ourselves or the first time we are allowed to play beyond their line of sight. Little did we know then that this wise warning was handed down from 17th century Frenchman, Charles Perrault, and his tale of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, better known as Little Red Riding Hood. The fairy tale genre continues to thrive and nowadays, it’s a big deal on the big screen. But although evolving, what role does the fairy tale play in the modern world?

WPA poster by Kenneth Whitley, 1939.
Image via Wikipedia

ONCE UPON A TIME, fairy tales were used to scar virtues and morals into the minds of young children. However, with children now savvier and more informed than ever, it’s difficult to imagine that their behaviour could be influenced simply by reading The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Little Red Riding Hood.

In her article All the Better to Eat You With, novelist Angela Carter recognises that “the notion of the fairy-tale as a vehicle for moral instruction is not a fashionable one.” So with moral instruction becoming less fashionable, what purpose does the fairy tale now serve?

In 1979, Carter radicalised the fairy tale in her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. Taking great care not to parody or pastiche the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers or Perrault, she creates new stories based on old tales to articulate feminist ideas, explore male sexual desires and subvert the traditional roles of fairy-tale women. But The Bloody Chamber is not one for kids!

 Carter refuses to jam her new stories into the Disney-esque framing device of “Once Upon a Time” and “Happily Ever After”. At the beginning of The Tiger Bride, a Beauty and the Beast story, she warns us not to expect a happily-ever-after ending. This is Beauty’s story; she is a bawdy, strong-minded girl who is lost to the Tiger by her father in a game of cards. When informed of the Tiger’s wish to see her naked, she responds: “I could scarcely believe my ears. I let out a raucous guffaw: no young lady laughs like that!” You won’t find any dashing princes or damsels in distress in this story.

In The Company of Wolves, the young virgin is foolish enough to stray from the path and is seduced by a wolf in the guise of a ‘handsome young man’. But unlike Little Red Riding Hood the girl is not gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf, instead she ends up in bed with him, “between the paws of the tender wolf.” The story depicts the young girl’s sexual awakening, her journey into womanhood, and the cunning astuteness that comes with such maturity. She beats the Wolf at his own game, and mirroring Beauty’s “raucous guffaw”, she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat”. Carter disregards Perrault’s moral (don’t talk to strangers), and instead suggests that masculinity is not something to be feared.

The moral of The Bloody Chamber: be bawdy, loudly guffaw, don’t be afraid of wolves or tigers, and most of all, don’t hang around waiting on a prince to save you, it’s most likely that you’ll have to save yourself.

Nowadays, children’s stories and fairy tales are more about giggles and 3D visuals. The knife wielding nameless mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 tale, The Little  Mermaid, became Ariel in 1989, a rebellious teenager who went against her father’s wishes only for him to save her anyway. In Disney’s Tangled, Rapunzel has magical youth-giving hair. Eternal youthfulness and beauty; is this what kids should now aspire to?

Toy Story emphasises the value of true friendship and in 2009, Disney’s first black princess featured in The Princess and the Frog, but these tales don’t go far enough. Stories such as And Tango Makes Three and King & King are children’s tales that try to create a better understanding of homosexuality, but these books are continuously challenged.

The fairy tale must follow Carters radical lead: unless old morals are rewritten to better reflect our times (don’t talk to strangers – especially ones posing as 16-year old boys on Facebook), then perhaps the future’s bleak, the future’s amoral.

The End.

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