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  • Beyond Disney:Reading and Writing Traditional and Alternative Fairy Tales
  • Suzanne Barchers (bio)

"Great literature of all ages has borrowed from fairy-tale motifs and often exhibited an imaginativeness not unlike that of the fairy tale" (Luthi 21). Though few educators or authors would disagree with this statement, public school programs which give more than passing attention to the teaching of fairy tales are rare. Until I bought my May Hill Arbuthnot anthology for an undergraduate course, my main source of exposure to fairy tales was Walt Disney's movies and books.

It wasn't until another children's literature course during graduate studies that I became aware of the extent of my lack of exposure to folk literature. I had a broad knowledge of children's literature and had read and collected trade books faithfully throughout my years of teaching and parenting. But I felt uncomfortably ignorant about folk and fairy tales, and the need to fill this apparent gap in my own education led me to intensive study of folk literature.

Research confirmed my suspicion that the folk and fairy tales still received scant scrutiny in our schools. It seems to me that with our many multicultural classrooms, educators were disregarding a natural method of developing appreciation for various cultures. "Fairy-tale language seems to be the international language of all mankind—of all ages and of all races and cultures" (von Franz 18). Collections of fairy tales from around the world are now readily available and should be an obvious source for providing "a way of looking at another culture from the inside out" (Yolen 16).

Further, though there were an abundance of prestigious writers such as Jane Yolen, Bruno Bettelheim, Max Lüthi, and Carl-Heinz Mallet touting the importance of the role of fairy tales with children, there was also a feminist, Marcia Lieberman, whose article, "'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale," left me wondering if perhaps I hadn't missed out on much after all. Perhaps children would be better off without the message that women are expected to be beautiful and passive.

The Disney versions certainly had a powerful effect on me. Who among us female baby boomers can't hum the tune to "Someday My Prince Will [End Page 135] Come," or would even want to resist the fantasy of living happily ever after? Isn't that what we were promised? Isn't some wonderfully responsible and successful man going to take over and provide our happy ending?

Lieberman suggests that perhaps the tales serve as a training manual for young girls, rather than showing archetypal female behavior (395). And perhaps in bygone days when the perpetuation of the human race depended upon women bearing the children, the tales served as an archetype or had some relevance as a system of indoctrination. Since those times are long past, it would have been easy to join with the feminists who condemned the tales. But I felt compelled to embark on my own quest. After all, if Gretel could kill the witch and Gerda could rescue Kai, perhaps there were other lesser known female heroes in the literature.

Indeed, though the popular tales are predictable with their brave male heroes and passive, beautiful females, there are those uncommon traditional tales which tell of females worthy of emulation. I reviewed over 2,100 tales from around the world from 24 collections. A total of 67 different tales, with six variants and six duplicates were found with female protagonists who performed rescues, demonstrated intelligence, made conscious choices, showed bravery or were diligent. Granted, this is not a startling representation, but it demonstrated what I instinctively believed—that even in our past, women were not merely life support systems. Enough women had performed heroic or clever deeds that their stories had been told and preserved. In this article, I refer to such non-traditional stories as alternative folk or fairy tales.

A parallel issue, though heretofore ignored, is the expectation that men are to go on quests, conquer, and rescue. Historically, folk literature could be considered a necessary training manual for men—society's survival depended on brave men who hunted...


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pp. 135-150
Launched on MUSE
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