When Snow White, Rapunzel & the
Oz Mean Much More Than Fairy Tales
Cynics may say that video games are the modern equivalent of fairy tales, as movies and books about old-fashioned heroes are ever harder to become blockbusters these days.
But if child psychologist, and Holocaust survival, Bruno Bettelheim’s research was correct, those ancient stories about damsels in distress and their rescuing knights are far from having exhausted their appeal.
After such a florid intro, though, we’re switching gears to focus on some hardly known facts behind two classics of children’s literature, and a book written a hundred years ago that became a breakthrough movie.
If there’s an underlying trait common to most fairy tales is that they seem to be rooted in the confusion and hardship typical of impoverished children going through puberty.
If the classics of the genre predate even the concept of childhood and adolescence, since they’re mostly set in Medieval Europe, there’s never a doubt about what’s the demographics fairly tales appeal to.
Despite their veneer of an idealized world to which the young protagonists long to belong to and often wind up conquering, the stories are not short of intrigue, betrayal, carnage and brutal competition.
TALES FROM THE DARK AGES
Video games, for all their high-definition graphics and sensory-numbness inducing special effects, are no match to the emotional intensity and masterly manipulation of deep-rooted fears, which are the currency of Snow White, Rapunzel and The Wizard of Oz, to name but three.
All are about lonely children, transitioning to adulthood, trapped by conspiring circumstances and always on the verge of utterly defeat until the very end, often reached when their rivals perish.
Poverty, strife and miserable family relations are never far from center stage and often threaten our heroines and young warriors with nothing less than annihilation.
For Bettelheim, fairy tales are loved not because the imagery children find in them conforms to what goes on within them, but because these stories always result in a happy outcome, which they can’t imagine on their own.
Behind the Dark Ages ambiance and archaic social settings, the conflicts at the core of fairy tales are fairly contemporary and still very much part of growing up.
MARGARETE AND MARIA
The German Brothers Grimm published “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in 1857, but the story had been percolating throughout Europe for at least three centuries. As with many fairy tales, it may have been based on even older oral versions.
It has several elements that, in one way or another, were used by the brothers and others in different stories, as it got repeated and translated to different languages.
Now, there’s some research supporting the possibility that Snow White may have had a local element too, based on the life of two German young women.
Margarete von Waldeck was said to be a beautiful girl, living in a small mining community in 1500. Since children worked in the mines at the time, there’s some speculation that the dwarves of the story were actually kids.
Margarete left to Brussels and managed to attract the attention of Philip II of Spain. She fell ill, though, in what many thought it could be poisoning and died of it at age 21.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal lived in a castle in Bonn, in 1729, the daughter of another Philip, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal. There were some “smaller-statured” miners too in her story, the only ones able to fit in the tunnels of Bieber.
To some scholars, the common elements that Snow White shares with these stories, including the ‘looking glass,’ in the case of Maria, are an indication that the brothers purposely used them for their version. It’s also possible that the girls’ lives helped to stake a German claim on what’s become a virtually universal children’s classic.
LET DOWN YOUR CHINESE HAIR
Another of the Grimm’s adaptations, Rapunzel, published in 1812, is also based in an earlier fairy tale, Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force originally published in 1698.
But the tale of yet another lonely child, who by the whims of a witch, in imprisoned at the top of a tower once she becomes 12, is eerily similar to an even earlier 10th century CE Persian tale of Rudāba, and to the myth of Santa Barbara, both long-haired damsels trapped in a high tower.
The oft told story, fairly mocked in popular culture, just found the incarnation du jour in Ni Linmei, a 55-year-old Chinese woman, who’s been growing her hair for over four decades.
Accordingly, she’s plans to compete for a place, where else? in the Guinness Book of Records. Her hair now stands at a striking 2.53m, about 8’3 feet, which is not yet enough to beat the current long hair holder.
The small Taiyuan village where she’s from, in the outskirts of the capital city of Shanxi province, is obviously excited by the prospects of having its name mentioned in the international press.
But it’s unknown whether anyone there, including Ni, has ever heard of Rapunzel, Rudaba, Santa Barbara or even the Brothers Grimm. Which, if you’d ask us, is part of the beauty of it all.
WE ARE OFF TO SEE THE WIZ
Legend has it that L.Frank Baum was a 40-something writer who was all but broke around Christmas of 1900. For all he knew, the five books he had written that year were not doing that great.
He was wrong, of course, and one of them, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, granted him a hefty advance from his publisher, which pretty much saved that and all his future holidays for him and his family.
Again the Brothers Grimm appear in the picture, this time as an inspiration for Baum, who wrote Oz with his illustrator partner, W.W.Desnlow.
Despite having been rejected by all but one publisher, once out the book became an overnight sensation and one of those works of fiction that inspire a whole nation, as it went through war and hardship in the first half of the new century.
Baum went on to become a very successful and prolific author, publishing under his and assumed names, but nothing else he’s ever done compared to the Wizard of Oz.
Two years after published, it received its first Broadway production, also a hit, and, in 1939, the movie that defined the American brand of entertainment in the silver screen.
The movie was a technical breakthrough, for which Technicolor was created, and an artistic triumph for MGM studios. Above all, it made child-actor Judy Garland one of the most famous entertainers in the world.
In fact, the movie turned her character Dorothy, and friends, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, into cultural icons, and Over the Rainbow one of all-time most memorable songs of a Hollywood musical.
The book became a long-running series and Baum wrote its 14th book sequel, Glinda of Oz, on his deathbed. Published posthumously, it was followed by 26 official sequels, written by other authors, which have been translated into 22 languages, from Tamil to Serbo-Croatian.
YELLOW ROAD AND THE DICTATOR
The endurance of this old-fashioned but modern fairy tale can not be summarized in a sentence, but the tale of all-commanding authority, an actual small man who ruled the world from behind a curtain, may have influenced authors such as George Orwell and Thomas Mann.
Unlike the fairy tales from which Baum drew inspiration from, Wizard of Oz also became an accidental political artifact of sorts, as it anticipated and commented the rise and fall of Hitler.
In one of those synchronized cultural events of the times, the German mass murdered happened to reach the top of the world with his armies, around the same time that the movie was ruling the box office with its message of hope and faith in mankind.