Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Fairytales in the 21st century

The Cottingley Fairies Hoax, 1917

What is the place for fairytales in 21st century society? I ask this because they have been on my mind recently. The current, free, exhibition at the V&A is Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design which explores story-telling through decorative devices. The exhibition is divided into three sections, The Forest Glade, The Enchanted Castle and Heaven and Hell. All three section titles are strong themes within fairytales.

I got home from the exhibition and pulled my dog-eared copy of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales from the shelf. Doomed love, failed quests and death are all presented as inevitable yet the reader is held to account and asked to look at their own moral code to see how we ourselves can ease the burden of the human condition. Through good deeds The Little Mermaid can gain an immortal soul, which will take 300 years. But children can help shorten this sentence by being good to their parents - for every good child found The Little Mermaid's sentence is reduced by a year.

The new production of All's Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre references fairytales through the set and costume design. The marrying of the fairytale theme with this Shakespeare play works incredibly well. The production team have thrown this play into the 21st century and have placed the audience into the shoes of the small child reading Hans Christian Andersen. In this morality tale, Helena is the protagonist who goes on a quest to win her love, the Count Bertram. She is set a succession of seemingly impossible tasks but it is through the 'trial' of Bertram that she really wins. She is Cinderella, she is Red Riding Hood but ultimately, she is a modern heroine as no-one can beguile her with pumpkins and big eyes.

I also have to mention, as a shoe-lover, that Helena wears the most amazing pair of sparkly shoes I have ever set eyes upon. Oh, to have a key to the National Theatre's Wardrobe Department!

Fairytales have got lighter over the last century, perhaps attributable to Walt Disney. The Little Mermaid that I grew up with was actually the 1989 animated Disney film. She does not die in the end. The lesson learnt was that we would grow up to have whatever we wanted, in this case Prince Eric. When I read the original at university I was shocked to say the least - things are not always going to turn out how we want?! A year later in 1990 Pretty Woman hit the cinema. The modern, self-conscious Cinderella story. Another reminder that dreams will come true. But are we turning back to a darker interpretation of fairytales?

Does the 21st century audience now crave the gritty reality that Hans Christian Andersen so expertly delivered? Are we like the children of the 19th century, in need of moral instruction? Telling Tales at the V&A highlights a reversion to the exploration of mortality through modern design and All's Well That Ends Well does not end on a particularly light note, Helena got her man - but does he really deserve her? I am not sure where 'happily ever after' originated and I don't know how appropriate this line is to the fairytales I have encountered this week.


  1. I recently read a collection of tales by the Grimm brothers and thought about how those dark tales have been replaced by the lighter, Disney-type versions for my and my daughter's generation. It really is too bad because the original tales are much more satisfying and entertaining reads. I have only read one Anderson story...The Storks. It was so different from what I opened my eyes to a completely different world in storytelling.

  2. I agree entirely! In fact, I am now on a quest myself to discover more original fairytales - I will tackle the Grimm Brothers next. And I need to do some more mulling as to why we ever sweetened the originals.
    I really recommend Andersen - particularly The Red Shoes and The(real)Little Mermaid.