Fairy Tales Behind the Curtain: A Conversation with Kate Wolford and Megan Engelhardt

May 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Kate Wolford is a teacher, scholar, and author/editor of Beyond the Glass Slipper: Ten Neglected Fairy Tales to Fall in Love With, now out from World Weaver Press. She also edits the online magazine Enchanted Conversation. Megan Engelhardt is the co-author of Wolves and Witches, a collection of prose and poetry fairy tale adaptations by herself and her sister, Amanda C. Davis. Wolves and Witches is also available from World Weaver Press.

btgs-cover-ebook-300-dpiBoth Kate and Megan agreed to chat with me about fairy tales and their complicated relationship with gender, and what draws writers and scholars to them still. Enjoy!

crfricke: Both the act of collecting little known fairy tales and re-writing fairy tales are akin to drawing back a curtain on something—would you say that that was part of your mission in writing these books? If so, how would you define what is being revealed?

Kate Wolford: Yes, is my answer to the first question. Of the ten tales in Beyond the Glass Slipper, only “The Nixy” and “King Pig” are even moderately well known—especially when it comes to US readers. The massive domination of Disney fairy tale culture in the Americas means that even sophisticated fans of fairy tales might have a fairly narrow view of what a fairy tale is “supposed” to be. For example, people really believe that fairy tales always end in “happily ever after.” They very often don’t. What the book is meant to reveal is a wider idea of what a fairy tale can be, and that the world of fairy tales is richer and more diverse than most of us ever imagine. I also want readers to realize that fairy tale heroes and heroines often are people of questionable character. Look at the soldier in one of the stories, “The Blue Light.” That he will be as bad a king as the man he vanquishes is pretty clear. But, then again, in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the protagonist is a stalker, but people so seldom notice.

wolves-and-witches-coverMegan Engelhardt: For the first question, in our case, a lot of the tales we use are fairly well known. I think for Amanda and me, the fun comes in asking the reader to look at the familiar from a different angle. I’m not sure that it’s fair to call it a mission, really, but it is definitely an interest that directed a lot of the work in Wolves and Witches. We all know what happens from the main character’s point of view, but what’s the villain thinking? What’s going on over here to the side of the main action? What happens after the curtain closes? Those are the questions that fired our imaginations, and those are the stories we tried to reveal to the reader. « Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Obsession with Snow White, and Why the Queen Really is the Coolest of Them All

November 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

There are times when—in the film industry, the world of community and high school theater, mass market paperback production—I wish I could convince a bunch of people in the same gig to get together, just once, and discuss their season’s offerings so no one steps on someone else’s toes. There are only so many times one can see Zombie Prom in a fifty mile radius. So it is with this year’s apparent obsession with Snow White, one of our culture’s most recognizable and beloved fairy tales. New spins! That’s what the people want, and there’s clearly no problem with putting several new spins on the same tale out into the world at once.

It could be, though, as Obama would say, a teachable moment, one for the world of casual fairy tale lovers, in which they don’t have to accept that Disney’s is the only version for them. This is what will separate the men from the boys, the pretty pretty princesses from the Grimm enthusiasts, for now we are faced with—ta da—a choice. A smorgasbord of Snow Whites, all set out at once.

That’s not to say that any of our current three examples—ABC’s Once Upon a Time (which has about as much to do with the fairy tale of “Snow White” as my cat does with the Oxford English Dictionary), Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman, and Studio Canal’s Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh of The Fall and The Cell fame—are destined to satisfy anyone of either camp (least of all the snot-nosed academics like myself), but we do at least get to know who likes colorful costumes and dumb jokes and who likes mirrors  MELTING OFF OF FREAKING WALLS AND TURNING INTO CREEPTASTIC PROPHETS.

In case you were in any doubt, I am in camp two.

But as neither of the two films have come out yet, and you’ve already heard my rant about Once Upon a Time, let’s pause, and take a moment to prepare ourselves, by recalling what “Snow White,” according to the folks who aren’t Disney, is really about. « Read the rest of this entry »

“‘Where Are We Going?’ ‘Somewhere Horrible,'” Indeed: ABC’s Once Upon A Time

October 24, 2011 § 17 Comments

I think my folks in Maine would resent that particular exchange between Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White (post-labor, pre-time warp) and the Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla. Maine is far from horrible.

In fact, compared to the hour I just spent watching ABC’s fairy tale-themed new show, Once Upon A Time, Bangor, Maine is paradise on earth.

The show’s concept is a little convoluted, which is why I had such a vague idea of what I was going to watch, despite reading several summaries beforehand.

I’ll give it my best shot: Some time ago in that vague story-land that should, if we’re reading the stories right, be Europe in the middle ages, but always turns out instead to be some fantasy video-game set, Snow White is rescued by her Prince, gets knocked up (like you do), and then is the victim of a terrible curse set upon her by the Evil Queen. Evil Queenie stops time, dooming everyone in video game land to live immortally in a state of amnesia, not remembering who they are or what they all meant to each other.

Flash forward to present day: Emma Swan, a sad (and sadly written) female protagonist is having a bummer of a birthday when knock, knock—a small boy named Henry arrives at her door with a strange leather-bound book. He introduces himself as her son given up for adoption 10 years before, and convinces her to drive him home to Maine from Boston. Emma does this, because any lonely woman who clearly doesn’t want to deal with a kid would rather do an overnight drive to Maine with said strange child rather than call the authorities, try to contact the child’s adoptive parents, or do any sort of responsible adult thing.

Thus, we arrive in Storybrooke, Maine, where lo and behold! All the characters from Henry’s crazy book, appropriately titled “Once Upon a Time”, are living with Story-Amnesia, unaware that they are so-and-so. The Evil Queen, who is Mayor of Wasilla Storybrooke, is Henry’s adoptive mom, and she and Emma have a little tete-a-tete in which Emma decides she really does like that kid and gets all in Evil Queen’s face, asking her questions like “But do you really love him?”, which is a completely appropriate question to ask someone who adopted and raised your unwanted child that you were calling a nutcase just a commercial break before.

Emma Swan decides to stay in Storybrooke rather than return to her home in Boston and we all get to wait and see how this completely underdeveloped character will somehow save the inhabitants of Storybrooke, so that they can all go on wearing their Sci-Fi garb and waving swords about.

I wanted this show to be good. Fairy tale retellings are my bag, in a big way. But the combination of bad writing and character development with what I soon found to be a blatant “nobody knows, so who cares?’ attitude towards the fairy tales themselves wore on me until it was a chore to turn the volume up after the commercial breaks. I just wanted it to be over.

I’m sure there are others out there commenting on how the relationship between adopted child, adoptive mother, and birth mother are so underdeveloped in this show, so I won’t go into the glaring generalizations and convenient character motivations there, except to say this: even if a show is generally a fantasy, if it applies a realistic narrative as a foil to that fantasy, then that reality has to be sharp in order for the contrast to work its magic. If Emma’s whole interior monologue when confronted by Henry is, “Ok, sure, I didn’t want you but I’ll drive all night in the rain for you,” and the show never gives us a compelling (or even just interesting and unique) reason why, then why have any part of this show set in the “real world” at all? Why not just go all David Lynch and create a world in which the bad logic makes sense?

But what I really want to address here is the fairy tale aspect, not the so-called reality bit.

A great deal of buzz on Twitter surrounded “figuring out” who all the characters were–ok, knock yourselves out. You had Snow White, her dwarves, her prince, Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, a fairy, Geppetto the woodcarver (I’ll get to that), Granny, etc.

Should be right up my alley, right? Fairy tale characters, a somewhat interesting concept involving stopped time. Ok. But what the creators of this show have done is something that gets so under my skin, I can’t bear to watch it unfold. All promotional material has made free use of the term “fairy tale.” It’s a show about fairy tales, featuring fairy tale characters, etc. And yet, the pilot episode proves that when it comes to ABC and Disney, “fairy tale” means just about anything, when in fact it has a very specific definition:

A fairy tale is a tale usually featuring folkloric characters which has its roots in oral tradition. Literary fairy tales exist, and are the ones that we’re most familiar with, since a “literary fairy tale” is a fairy tale or folk tale that has been written down. But at heart, fairy tales have their genesis in a region’s oral storytelling traditions, and are stories that have been passed down and around by word of mouth.

Once Upon A Time doesn’t exactly stick to these stories. Of course, that’s part of the show’s schtick–the fairy tales you never heard as a child! Fairy tales with a twist! But even the characters they’re “twisting” have nothing to do with what fairy tales really are. I suspect that the show’s ideal audience probably won’t even notice.

The show relies on the nostalgia kick of a fairly specific, and yet undoubtedly vast, group of watchers: those who grew up with Disney films, and who either never knew that those films were bastardized versions of primary literary material, or who knew and just didn’t ever care to acquaint themselves with the originals.

The show is absolutely not trying to expand anyone’s knowledge of the original fairy tales–or original children’s novels, which are something completely different, but whatever, OUAT, do what you want–because no exploration of the themes and tropes of actual fairy tales exist in the pilot hour of this strangely cobbled-together show after the first two minutes. We begin with Snow White, and then we’re nowhere. We’re in children’s lit soup.

No, what the show is primarily trying to do is make sure that you never forget that Disney owns the term fairy tale, and what “fairy tale” means in Disney language is whatever it own rights to.


We briefly see a couple of illustrations in Henry’s book of fairy tale lore as Emma flips through it. One is taken from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Another is taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland–neither of which are fairy tales. They are novels.

Another example:

Halfway through the show, we are given a brief introduction to young Henry’s psychologist, another victim of Story-Amnesia. When the kindly man leaves the scene, Emma asks Henry which fairy tale character he was supposed to be. Henry, without a moment’s hesitation, answers that the man is really Jiminy Cricket.

Here’s where you showed your thin deck of cards, ABC, and where you lost me for good.

Jiminy Cricket is not a fairy tale character, for two reasons.

One, because Pinocchio was a serial written between the years of 1881 and 1883 by a man named Carlo Collodi. The difference between a book-length collection of episodes written by a single author and a traditional fairy tale is vast, and one does not become the other just because Disney made a film a while back. That film, sorry, is not a fairy tale either.

Two, because Collodi did not create a character named Jiminy Cricket. Disney did.

What this means is that the show, which is supposed to be about “fairy tale characters” is really just about Disney characters. The Wikipedia page tells me that we’ll soon be joined by Maleficent, of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty fame. Hey, guess what fairy tale never actually had anyone with a name so dumb as Maleficent? We’ll also get to spend more time with Dopey, Grumpy, and the rest of the vertically challenged crew, none of which had names until Disney decided they should. This, my friends, is not surprising, given that ABC is, of course, part of the Disney empire. But it is disappointing.

Ironically, the real fairy tale characters truly are stuck in time, folks–because no one will remember them, the Brave Little Tailors or the Clever Marlenes or the Simple Ivans of this world. If Disney didn’t use them, they’re not worth knowing. And if Disney did use them, then they’re not worth knowing in their original, dark, mysterious and wonderful form.

I wanted to enjoy this show. Television that draws on childhood nostalgia has the potential to do a great thing, by creating a link between people who remember the same stories. But for me, growing up, stories existed in many forms, not just the Disney ones. Seeing Disney once again present something as “the fairy tale your parents never told you,” and then just give us another bright Disney spin entirely reliant on their own copyrighted characters is insulting to the many of us who know what fairy tales actually are–and for the most part, the real fairy tales aren’t the ones your parents told you about anyway. I’m talking here to people who loved this show, the “OMG! I love fairy tales!” types all over Twitter an hour after the pilot premiere. Because chances are, your parents didn’t tell you fairy tales at all. They just plopped you in front of the movies.

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