Magickal Arts: Tale as Old as Time

Since I have not posted a book review in too long of  a time, I figure I’ll hold this over for now with a paper I wrote comparing folktales with more recent picture-book adaptations.  I was lucky enough to enroll in yet another children’s literature class and the above-mentioned comparison was a 6-page assignment.  The reason I feel I can include it on this pagan-reading review is because folktales have very pagan spirits to them.  The parts that relate very closely with paganism, I have emboldened for those that want to skip to the juicy parts.  Enjoy!

The following folktales were first recorded in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in Germany. “Rumpelstiltskin”, “The Frog Prince” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” are supposedly all German oral stories that are quite familiar across the globe. I have examined some more light-hearted picture book versions of these tales. The time spanned across writing these modern versions definitely reflects a different way of thinking vs. the school of thought when these tales were first published.
The first and best example of psychological differences among these tales is Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter. The book maintains the first part of the original story with the miller lying to the king about having a daughter who can spin gold. The king’s avarice and opportunistic trait gets the better of him and he ordered the miller’s daughter to spin a room full of straw into gold for his own benefit. Rumpelstiltskin shows up and offers to help Meredith, the miller’s daughter. Meredith does have a child that Rumpelstiltskin desires. These elements were maintained, obviously, to keep familiarity with the original story, but also to set up a larger conflict with the king and present a better solution to his greed.

Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter
Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter

Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter was published in 1997 by Diane Stanley who is an American children’s author and illustrator. The change in the plot happens when Rumpelstiltskin gives his reasons to Meredith why he desires a child. He says he would want nothing more than to care for and love a little one like his own. Meredith contemplates this and decides she would rather marry this kind little man than be married to the rich, greedy, ruthless king, who gives nothing back to his people. Rumpelstiltskin and Meredith sneak away the night before she is to wed the king and have a child of their own, Hope.
Unfortunately, Hope is also mistaken by the king to have the ability to spin gold and faces the same fate as her mother. Since Hope has inherited her father’s cleverness, she subtly tricks the king into thinking he will have loads of gold. However, in the process, she teaches him to give back to the kingdom and shows him how grateful and thankful the inhabitants are to him. At first he is disappointed with not having any gold as promised, but Hope explains to him that he has something more than gold; the ability to help others in need. He soon likes all this attention and shows his thanks to Hope by offering to marry her and make her the queen. She requests to be prime minister instead and inspires him to give charity to his subjects when he is feeling low.
These differences were created by the author to serve justice to the king and reform him of his greed. Meredith got a second chance at wealth and happiness instead of “spin gold and marry the king, or die”. Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t portrayed as a pagan, wild forest-gnome who is not to be trusted like in Grimm’s tale. The author painted him as a sympathetic character who genuinely wanted to help people and have a loving family. Hope was accurately named in that she was a beacon of hope, not only to Meredith and Rumpelstiltskin but the kingdom’s citizens and the king, himself. She somewhat redeemed Meredith in a feministic way. The original tale involved Meredith being married upwards in society or dying. Hope introduced new, humanistic ideas to the king and was definitely more empathetically evolved than the king and his guards. She became the heroic figure of this story.
Stanley does a lovely job with the pictures, having them touch every inch of the pages, immersing the text within them. They are reminiscent of Georgian-era oil paintings, vibrating a proper, haughty environment where there is no room for tantrums (the exception being, of course, the king.) The pictures really evoke the personality of the king, in particular, and how his greed is so powerful, it causes his kingdom to suffer. What words can only describe of his short-sighted gratification, the pictures speak volumes in showing the reality of how it has affected his people and how he does not hesitate to satisfy his every whim.
Gold was a highly emphasized theme in the pictures, as well.  Almost every page with the king depicted has something made of gold or representing gold (for example, the barley and woolen clothes produced by the citizens of the kingdom.) Other humorous, subtle pictures included various portraits of the king in famous settings throughout his castle such as the Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait, and the Birth of Venus. These can show the young reader how self-absorbed the king was that he had to insert himself within glorious moments of artistic history.
The Frog Prince Continued is a 1991 expansion of the Frog Prince written by Jon Scieszka and painted by Steve Johnson. Both are American. All of the same story elements are there with the Princess turning the frog back into a Prince and they get married. Those events were left untouched to expand the story before the happily ever after. It acknowledges what happened in the tale, but offers a further explanation and journey to the happy ending.
The first change made was saying the Princess turned the frog back into a Prince by kissing him. In the original tale, she throws him at the wall in anger which turns him back to a human. I suppose this change was made to remove violence but it’s also a key device for the prolonged happily-ever-after. The Frog Prince Continued shows the couple’s marital problems of people not changing overnight. In particular, the Princess is still high-maintenance and spoiled. She likes things her way and is greatly irritated by her husband’s froggy habits. The Prince’s old frog ways haven’t quite worn off yet, showing he, too, is having trouble adjusting to his new life.

The Frog Prince...Continued
The Frog Prince…Continued

He becomes rather depressed by their differences and runs back into the forest looking for the witch to curse him again, as he thinks he was better off as a frog. Along the way, he runs into several witches from other fairytales (the sleeping-beauty witch, the poison-apple witch and the candy-house witch) but all they are interested in doing is performing the same curses they afflicted upon their most famous victims. After an unsuccessful run-in with a fairy godmother (she turned him into a carriage, leaving him stuck in the woods until midnight), he hurries back home as he has discovered he has taken his life with the Princess for granted. She was the only person who kissed him when he was a slimy frog so upon his return he kisses her and they both turn into frogs, living happily ever after. Also, the frog prince’s attendant, Iron Henry, was left out of this story, entirely.
The author seems to have written this version with a more relatable portrait of a married couple for modern times. When comparing the two tales, one can notice the original ending was too convenient. The frog was turned back into a handsome prince which merely was enough for the princess to fall in love with him. The continued version showed the characters as less influential and flighty. The absence of Iron Henry, however, seemed to make perfect sense as he did not have a large (or seemingly relevant) role in the traditional tale.
Steve Johnson’s paintings for this piece were cartoonish with lots of shadows, giving the book a quiet, mysterious, floating feel. There were many visual references that complemented the text such as the Prince sticking his long, frog tongue out at the dragon-fly wallpaper. He was shown sitting in a chair that resembled a frog while the Princess sat in a chair with a crown on it, reminding the viewer of their initial backgrounds. This was carried over to the witches. The sleeping-beauty witch has “Z”s decorating the borders of her clothes. The poison-apple witch had a sign saying “The Fairest” on her door and was reading “Hague” magazine (a play on “Vogue”). She was also shown surrounded by potion bottles resembling cosmetics to remind readers of her vanity. Also, when the Prince was turned into a coach, he looked like a giant frog with the opening of his mouth holding the seats. Even the back cover of the book displayed frog-foot-prints with shoe-prints suggesting the Prince’s inner conflict of acknowledging the frog within.
Our final story discusses Snow White and the Seven Dwarves compared to the American Disney picture book. The Disney book is a 1984 re-telling of Snow White based off of Disney’s animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” from 1937. Snow White is still a princess who keeps her red, white and black features, inspiring her name with a jealous step-mother who unsuccessfully tries to have her killed by a hunter. The hunter takes pity on Snow White and lets her run away for her to befriend some dwarves who take her in. As tradition holds, the vengeful queen learns of Snow White’s survival and tries to kill via her own hands but fails and Snow White is married to a prince who finds her lifeless body in the woods.

Disney's Snow White
Disney’s Snow White

Many of the original points in the classic oral tale were maintained to simply glorify it, as opposed to give a new twist to it. Disney is merely celebrating this classic tale with slight modifications, rather than using it to teach a modern morality tale. The story is sanitized to make it family friendly and doesn’t necessarily try to suggest a positive message. For example,the queen falls off a cliff while being chased by the dwarves and dies, accidentally, in Disney’s version. The original story has her dance in iron-hot shoes until she dies. I believe this death was changed to paint Snow White and the Prince as pure, kind-hearted characters. It divides the bad from the good and implies that bad things will just happen to bad people because they deserve it. No person serves justice to the wicked queen in like in the classic version.
Also, the Grimm’s publication shows less magic and more realism and logic. The queen merely poisoned the items she gave to Snow White and painted her face to disguise herself as an old woman. Snow White is awoken by the piece of apple becoming dislodged from her throat, by chance. Disney’s book/film shows blatant, miraculous magic showing the queen drinking a potion to age herself and become the disguise. As fate would have it, Snow White is awakened by a kiss of true love from the prince because it was her destiny. This also implies that good things happen to well-intentioned people.
The Disney picture book is essentially identical to the film adaptation of this story that Disney also released. This book would not be in print under the Disney name if it did not closely resemble its film. Disney is known for its visual accomplishments and that is the selling point for children reading this book. Most people know the story of Snow White, but they want this book in order to see a condensed version of the Disney movie.
Upon the end of this exploration I find that the original folktales discussed above, were much simpler than their modern counterparts. They were simple tales told by/for simple people in much simpler times. The characters were judged more for what they did, rather than what they intended. They were earthier and more realistic. The adaptations I discovered were certainly created with children in mind, therefore changed some events to make the stories less harsh. Rumpelstilstkin’s Daughter and The Frog Prince Continued also both challenged the reader psychologically, to be more empathetic and also the nature of politics in today’s society. Diplomacy was the key to victory, which was shared among the community and not singled-out to the plighted main characters. All three of the picture books were drawn/painted in simplified, colorful format that didn’t bombard the reader with too much dimension or realism. This, of course is what makes a successful children’s picture book.

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