When Snow White, Rapunzel & Oz
Meant Much More Than Fairy Tales

Video games may be the modern equivalent of fairy tales. But if child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim was right, those ancient stories about damsels in distress and their rescuing knights are far from having exhausted their appeal. The good old doc should know it.
He survived the Nazis only to fall in disgrace for enhancing his resume and being nasty to his pupils. Alas, the man who taught us about warding off life’s demons, could not handle his own. He suffocated himself to death with a plastic bag wrapped around his head in 1990.
After such a florid intro, though, we’re switching gears to focus on some hardly known facts behind two classics of children’s literature, Rapunzel and Snow White, and a book written a century ago that became a breakthrough movie, the Wizard of Oz.
They all share an underlying common trait: the confusion and hardship typical of impoverished children going through puberty. While predating even the concept of childhood and adolescence, there’s never doubt about what demographics they were catering to.
Behind a veneer of an idealized world to which the young protagonists long to belong and conquer, and a patina of virtue and redemption righting all wrongs, deep down, the stories are suffused with intrigue and betrayal, brutal competition and carnage.

For all the high-def graphics and sensory numbness-inducing FX of video games, and all modern entertainment for that matter, they’re no match to the emotional intensity and masterly manipulation of deep-rooted fears, which are the currency of fairy tales.
All are about lonely children transitioning to adulthood, trapped by conspiring circumstances and on the verge of defeat until the very end, often when their rivals perish. Strife and miserable family bonds are never far from center stage, and neither is the threat of annihilation.
For Bettelheim, beyond their imagery, these tales are loved for offering kids happy outcomes, which they can come up with on their own. Behind the Dark Ages’ ambiance and archaic social settings, (more)
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the conflicts at the core of fairy tales are still part of growing up.
The Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1857, but the story had been percolating for at least three centuries prior. As with many fairy tales, it may have been based on even older oral versions.
Recent research points to the possibility that they’re based on the life of two young German girls too. Margarete von Waldeck, born in a small mining community in 1500, left to Brussels and managed to attract the attention of Philip II of Spain, before falling ill and dying at 21.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal lived in a castle in Lohr, in 1729, the daughter of another Philip, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal. Since children worked in mines until early 20th century, there’s some speculation that the dwarves of the fairy tales were actually kids.
Scholars see elements Snow White shares with these stories, including the ‘looking glass,’ in the case of Maria, as an indication that the brothers used them. It’s also possible that the girls’ nationality helped to stake a German claim on what’s become a classic children genre.
1812 Rapunzel, another Grimm’s adaptation, is also based in an earlier story, 1698 Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. And it’s eerily similar to the 10th century Persian tale of Rudāba, and to the myth of Saint Barbara: all long-haired damsels trapped in a tower.
The oft told story found the incarnation du jour in Ni Linmei, a 60-year-old Chinese woman, who hasn’t cut her hair in two decades. Her aim is the Guinness Book of Records, but although at a striking 2.53m long, her hair’s not yet enough to beat the title holder.
Her small Taiyuan village is obviously excited to appear on the world press. But it’s unlike that anyone there, including Ni, has ever heard of Rapunzel, Rudãba, Saint Barbara or even the Grimms. Which, if you’d ask us, is part of the beauty of it all.
Legend has it that L. Frank Baum was broke around Christmas of 1900. For all he knew, the five books he had written that year were not doing that great. But one of them suddenly did, and a hefty publisher’s advance saved all future holidays for him and his family.

Inspired by the Grimms, Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with his illustrator partner, W. W. Desnlow. Despite having been rejected many times, once out, the book was an overnight sensation, the kind of work of fiction that inspires an entire nation.
He became a successful author, under his and assumed names. Nothing else compared to the Wiz, though. Two years after published, it premiered as a Broadway hit, and, in 1939, it was the Judy Garland vehicle that defined the American brand of silver screen entertainment.
A marvel for which Technicolor was created, the movie made a star of the 17-year-old child-actor, and cultural icons of Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg‘s Over the Rainbow is still one of Hollywood’s most memorable tunes.

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.
Not too shabby for a previously failed actor, salesman, and chicken breeder. The tale’s central metaphor, of an all-commanding authority, who’s actually a small man hidden behind a curtain, may have influenced many authors, from George Orwell to Thomas Mann.
The Wiz also became an accidental champion for human values, even as it was a box office failure while Hitler’s armies were terrorizing people like Bruno Bettelheim. For in the long run, it was its message of hope and faith in mankind that proved to be the one that’s endured.

(*) Originally published on Dec. 13, 2011.

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