Monday, March 19, 2012

Once - No Twice - No Thrice Upon a Time

by Michael Elsey

Every Sunday night I watch the ABC series Once Upon a Time with great anticipation. The series revisits the Snow White fairy tale with the notion that Prince Charming and Snow White's daughter and grandson are the keys to saving the inhabitants of Storybrooke from the evil Queen's curse. The twist is that the inhabitants of Storybrooke are trapped in our world with no knowledge of their past as fairy-tale characters such as the Huntsman or Jimminy Cricket.

Modern day twists on fairy tales aren’t limited to television. Hollywood will soon release several film versions of the Snow White story—Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Order of the Seven, a Far East infused action riff from Disney. What draws us to fairy tales to revisit, revise and reinvent them? Besides the enjoyment of a good tale what good are fairy tales?

In the words of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Don't worry about the apparent terror and bloodshed in children's books, the real children's books. There is none there. It only represents the way in which little children, from generation to generation, learn in ways as painless as can be followed, the environment of life and death."

Life and death. Not magical singing birds and whistling dwarves, but big issues like life and death. As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains in his study of the meaning and importance of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales help children to see that "a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence, but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."

It interests me that Hollywood's reinvented, and revised versions of the tales are often pitched as “darker versions.” Hansel and Gretel will soon be in a theatre near you as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Hollywood, however, shouldn’t take too much credit for adding a dark spin to well-known tales. The earliest versions of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and other tales are quite dark. Over the years many fairy tales became santizied as retellers removed elements perceived as too frightening or intense for children. Today screenwriters are returning to the original tales, mining the darker elements to create dramatic big-screen moments.

Given the darkness of our times perhaps fairy tales give us the assurance that steadfastness and perseverance will triumph over evil, that we may prevail against the forces arrayed against us and occupy a small plot of land in the field of hope.

Michael Elsey is the Vice President of New Media at the Great Books Foundation. He has a long history as a Senior Trainer for the Foundation and in his new role is eager to explore the wonders of technology to enhance and expand the experience of Shared Inquiry discussion. 


  1. Bettleheim also stresses that allowing children to develop their own interpretations of these tales - as opposed to adults, or indeed Hollywood - doing it for them, is critical to their growth and development:

    "Adult interpretations, as correct as they may be, rob the child of the opportunity to feel that he, on his own, through repeated hearings and ruminating about the story, has coped successfully with a difficult situation. We grow, we find meaning in life, and security in ourselves by having understood and solved problems on our own, not by having them explained to us by others."

  2. Which may be one reason we as adults still continue to struggle to interpret and understand fairy tales. Revisiting our past associations with a story and finding new layers of meaning seems to be a life long process. And as you point out it is essential that children discover their own interpretations.