Art and Entertainment


Fairy Tales Continue Enchanting Writers and Readers, But Why?

January 27, 2011 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The revitalization of “Alice in Wonderland” shows the enduring appeal of certain fairy tales, and spotlights modern reincarnations and uses in the classroom.

That Special Something

The magical world occupied by Alice and her unorthodox crew of friends never ceases to intrigue us, but why?

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Adam Tschorn explores the various reasons for the story’s 145-year run, finding that “the trippy text” and “‘inherent weirdness’ of the tale” are part of the draw, along with simple nostalgia for childhood. Furthermore, whether reading for scholarly purposes or pleasure, fans of Lewis Carroll’s story all seem to appreciate its interpretive nature. Joel Birenbaum, former president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, tells Tschorn, “The ‘Alice’ books are just malleable enough to read any way you want—and to be used to your benefit.”

Mark Redhead of Hat Trick Productions seems to agree. Redhead adapted four fairy tales, including Rapunzel and Cinderella, for BBC One in 2007. The process was “great” he said, because, the “basic structure” of fairy tales allows writers “enormous scope to introduce new material to surprise and amuse the audience.”

The New Fairy Tales

In recent years, parents have increasingly turned to contemporary stories in place of traditional fairy tales. A study conducted by a U.K. parenting Web site found more parents favoring modern and often brighter tales of modern morality. The content and tone of certain fairy tales, such as the violence and scary characters in “Hansel and Gretel,” and the use of the word “Dwarf” in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” has turned parents off.

But others have made the case for traditional tales. A 2007 Time magazine article discussed “Shrek” and the “long-simmering cultural trend” it capitalized on: parodying classics. “The Princess Bride” and “Ever After” are other examples of writers using “the raw material of fairy stories to subvert traditions of storytelling,” Time reports. What’s odd about “the new world of fairy tales” is that young readers “get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals.” It’s a trend that Time’s writer finds “a little sad,” despite the resulting films and books that are more appealing for adults.

Background: Authors of traditional and modern fairy tales

Fairy tales may seem to have existed since the beginning of storytelling, but Hans Christian Andersen is the acknowledged father of the modern form. His achievements are still celebrated by the literary world today, and by children clamoring to read his stories.

Starting in 1835, Andersen produced the work that would cement his fame. His breakthrough novel, “The Improvisatore” was published that year, as were his first fairy tales. Andersen employed idioms and spoken language in his stories, departing from tradition, Encyclopedia Britannica explains.

Prolific British author Neil Gaiman has also explored the fairy tale form, most notably in “Stardust,” a graphic novel-turned-book, which was also made into a 2007 film.

Related Topics: Fairy tales in the classroom

Read Write Think has a writing lesson plan based on fairy tales, or any story or poem with “a familiar structure.” The familiarity of certain stories gives students (in late-first or second grade) the confidence to begin building their own original tales, while teachers emphasize “the concepts of beginning, middle, and ending by reading a variety of stories and charting the events on storyboards.”

The National Education Association has a language arts/social studies lesson for students in pre-K-2, and grades 3-5 and 6-7, using fairy tales to explore and debate ethics. Students will either listen to or read three popular fairy tales, respond to questions raised about ethical issues, and learn how to express their own ethical viewpoints.

Fairy tales can also facilitate ethical discussions in more advanced classrooms. In 2003, Western Illinois University (WIU) Assistant Professor Lori Baker-Sperry teamed with Purdue University Associate Professor Liz Grauerholz for a study called “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales,” according to the WIU Web site.

The study can serve as a jumping-off point for discussions of female attractiveness, and whether children are ingrained with false ideas of what constitutes goodness or evil. In addition, Baker-Sperry suggests, “the feminine beauty ideal in children’s fairy tales can provide insight into the dynamic relationship between gender, power, and culture,” reports WIU.

In an editorial for The New York Times, Melanie Bayley links “Alice in Wonderland” and math, another potentially interesting classroom topic of discussion. Bayley, a doctoral candidate for English Literature at Oxford, asserts that Lewis Carroll’s most amusing work was for adults, not children. She suggests that “Alice” was actually a satire poking fun at “the new math,” as Carroll, a budding mathematician, found certain advances in the field “illogical and lacking in intellectual rigor.” The resulting fairy tale would have been “dull and sentimental” if not for math, Bayley surmises. 

Reference: Researching Fairy Tales and Folklore

To conduct further research on fairy tales and folklore, consider contacting a professional folklorist through The American Folklore Society. This association consists of more than 2,200 members and subscribers to the quarterly Journal of American Folklore, first published in 1888. The American Folklore Society is comprised of an international cadre of teachers, scholars and university libraries, professionals from arts and cultural organizations, and citizens who work with folklore.

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