Fairy Tales

July 7, 2011

It’s not as easy as singing duets with mice or talking crabs while having perfect hair, you know.

It’s not just the housework, the manual labor. It’s the death, the destruction of family.

First your mother or father has to die and your brothers and sisters either turn on you or find themselves cursed. Usually you’re cursed, too.

Sometimes your father is having a hard day when he meets the devil in the woods. Sometimes your remaining parent cuts of your hands, or your arms. Sometimes they take your tongue, too.

Sometimes, in order to gain back a part of what you’ve lost, you must weave stinging nettles into shirts.

It’s making mistakes that change everything, forever. It’s the guilt you carry, after.

I just shone my lamp on his sleeping face for a minute, and now he must marry a troll on the other side of the world while I am left alone in my nightgown, in the snow, where I can’t even cry without the tears freezing my eyes closed.

I was rude to the old woman at the well, and now every time I speak, a snake slithers from my lips; my mother can’t even look at my face any more, even though I was her favorite.

I never should have married that handsome stranger, listened to my sisters, lingered in the woods, opened that door.

It’s the isolation and loneliness that can make you feel mad.

Sometimes you are sent alone into a strange country where your identity is stolen and your only friend, never mind that he’s a horse, is beheaded, and you are left singing to the wind and talking to a desiccating horse head hung up over the town gate.

Sometimes you are sent back into the wilderness, armless, your infant strapped to your back wailing and crying and you with no way to comfort the child except by singing until your throat is raw and by begging passing strangers to help you nurse. Sometimes the well-coiffed witch who is also your mother-in-law steals your babies and smears your mouth with blood while you are sleeping, and, because you must remain mute, those who love and trust you stare at you in horror and you can’t do what you most need to do in that moment, which is run from person to person in a panic, screaming “Where are they?”

It’s the bargaining from a place of desperation.

If you save my life I’ll give you anything, even my child. If you save my child, I’ll give you anything, even my life. If I could only have a child I wouldn’t care if he were a hedgehog, or a snake.

In order to marry the handsome knight, I’d drown my sister in the briny, briny sea. In order to walk on land, I’ll bear the pain of knives slicing into my feet with every step. In order to turn my brothers back into human men, I won’t talk until I’ve finished weaving these stinging nettles into shirts. Never mind that my mother died before she could teach me how to sew.

Please let my dead wife return to me – I won’t look back. I promise.

It’s the betrayal.

Don’t eat me – my brother is much bigger and tastier. She taught me my alphabet; I can’t believe she drowned me in the sea. I know I promised you my firstborn, but that’s not the sort of promise I can keep, no matter what I said, no matter what you did in order to save my life. How could my father do that to me? How could everyone standing around us let him?

She was both mother and father to me, and now that I need her most and am most confused, she’s shaved my head and thrown my out of my tower. After he impregnated me and I woke up, he said I was the love of his life, but he’s married. To a cannibalistic ogre who wants to kill me and eat my children.

Just so I’m clear about this, you were going to cut out my heart and bring it back to her in a box?

And, after all of this, what endings are truly happy enough?

They lived happily ever after. And they lived happily together for the rest of their days. And all was restored to her.  Really? Please tell me how. Because even in stories where magic is real, these seems impossible.

Well, what about this one?

And life was more bitter than she’d known it could be, though parts of it were sweeter. She remembered how to laugh. They remembered how to talk to each other again, and, when they passed into song and story, the people who loved them gifted them with the happiest ending they could, because part of what is important in storytelling is what we want to be true.

Well, maybe.


  1. fairy tales really are grim and violent and filled with mean people. The non-watered down versions are really too much like real life.

  2. Wonderful piece of writing. Fairy tales, the real ones rather than the Disney-fied versions, can be very dark places indeed. I often think they are told as preparation for the adult world – gird your loins to be betrayed, despairing and alone kiddo. I was a compulsive borrower of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books from the library when I was growing up (I believe that I even thought of stealing them which would have been very out of character!) and I think they shaped my world view.
    I’m terribly haunted by those stories where a mother bargains for a child now. Particularly Thumbelina for obvious reasons. We have a book of fairy stories that I read to J and she consistently wants to skip out Rumpelstiltskin and go straight to the next story. I think she doesn’t like because I can’t read the line where she bargains her first child away without my voice breaking.

  3. This reminds me of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. They weren’t all sugar and light but also salty and dark. But that is what life is, a combination of all of those things and to pretend it is anything but is a lie. Like you wrote, “And life was more bitter than she’d known it could be, though parts of it were sweeter.”
    Beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. This is beautiful. I mean really. I’ve just been reading fairy tales prepping for a class i’m going to teach this winter, and you’re right–it’s all about bargaining from place of desperation. It’s eerie to consider how realistic some of those magical tales might be. And how *do* you live happily ever after, after all that trauma?

  5. This was haunting, Erica. I find that I can’t really cope with sugar coated Disnification anymore. I prefer the darkness and danger of “real” faerie tales.

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