Monday, February 14, 2011

The good, the bad, and the gruesome of fairy tales

Rapunzel and The Princess and the Pea Papercuts by Quill & Ink Handmade

You may have seen some of our beautifully intricate fairy tale papercuts at markets or on facebook – they’ve actually been an interesting and challenging extension to my obsession with childhood fairy tales.

I’m sure I loved fairy tales (as much as I do now) as a kid; I mean, who doesn’t? Aside from the ‘handsome prince rescues beautiful maiden’ scenario, I love the way that the stories are so predictable; each one follows a similar formula – no matter how the tale starts, you know that the bad guys will be punished, that the prince figure will always find his way to the beautiful maiden, that good will eventually triumph over evil, and the world will be set to right. I love the predictability, the tales’ certain path – I’ve always found it very comforting.

Over the years, I’ve read stories from all over the world, studied the way they work, applied and tested various well known formulas, and written plenty of my own. But the thing that has struck me the most? The disparity between my remembrance of childhood fairy tales – the stories that were soft, warm, rosy and beautiful – and the gruesomeness of reading the same stories as an adult. They’re violent, bloody, scary, filled with double meanings and suggestive adults only content. They almost always involve some kind of ghastly sacrifice, true love is constantly put to the test (and left to the pure-hearted maiden to master), and yes – Stepmothers are always, always bad.

Briar Rose Papercut by Quill & Ink Handmade

When I started reading them again as an adult, I’d often find myself laughing out loud at the content. Take for example, the original version of Rapunzel by the Brothers’ Grimm - the naïve, unmarried Rapunzel alludes to a lover (yes, a lover) and the child that she’s carrying by complaining of the increasing tightness of her gowns to her captor, Dame Gothel.
And the wicked Stepmother in the Juniper Tree decapitates the head of her small stepson, then props him up against the wall, his head balanced precariously on his shoulders, and goes on with her chores. She later goes on to chop up his corpse, adding the meat to a stew that she feeds to his father.
As gruesome as the tales are, I actually think it adds to their specialist appeal – they’re able to span the divide between childhood and adulthood, making the tales accessible to a wider audience. As a child, I glossed over the horrid for the happily ever after; as an adult, I’m able to laugh at the scandal, decadence and the audacity of the content.

The Seven Ravens papercut by Quill & Ink Handmade

It’s also one of the reasons I started papercutting the tales – I wanted to encourage adults to re-read these astonishing and beloved stories. While most of the papercuts are for children, containing sweet scenes with beautiful girls trapped in their beautiful worlds, each one comes with a blurb of the story, which I hope prompts a rediscovery of the classic.  And in some, there’s also a hint of the true nature of the tale - like the small knife in the hand of the girl in the Seven Ravens, which she uses to cut off her finger in order to save her enchanted brothers.


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