Most fairy stories have a dark side. The good ones put the protagonists in genuine jeopardy with a true threat of violence. The original Grimm Brothers stories are truly grim and very, very bloody. A while back I bought a collection called “Grimm’s Grimmest” with the bloodiest and scariest stories you NEVER heard as a child. It included stories from the 1812 and 1822 editions that never made it into the fairy story collections we all grew up with.
(Chronicle Books, 1997 with illustrations by Tracy Arah Dockray and an introduction by Maria Tatar)
I thought about those fairy tales when I went to see “Snow White and the Huntsman.” I didn’t expect to like the movie, but I enjoyed it. The exploration of the evil queen — her back-story, her addiction to magic and her almost successful quest for eternal youth and beauty — added a deeper dimension to the character. She wasn’t just vain and jealous; she was pathological.
Good fairy tales also impart lessons. That part of the equation has also gotten soft and mushy in most contemporary retellings. There are exceptions. I recently read a new collection of stories — true contemporary fairy tales — “The Wishing Eel” by Gil Macdonald. You can find it on Amazon. I recommend it.
I also recommend that we all try writing Grimm Brother inspired tales. Not every story needs to have an obvious lesson, but the idea that something is at stake — safety, sanity, love, pride, status… even a dream — is at the heart of all the really good fairy tales, and it is a wonderful ingredient in exciting fiction.