Exploring the Dark Side of Fairy Tales – retellings and reinterpretations by the Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney, Angela Carter and Paula Rego

We’ve long been fascinated by fairy tales and their fairly gruesome undertones. The light-hearted Disney princess adventures may hide their more brutal sources well, but they still linger at the edges. Deceptively simple on their surface, these are tales waiting to be unpacked. They’re tales of adventure, of growing up, of parents and children, children and step-parents, romance and marriage, of woe, ambition, bravery, and luck.

Paula Rego, Snow White and her Stepmother, 1995

In Paula Rego’s Snow White and Her Stepmother, adapted from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the artist addresses a theme central to her work: the complex relationship between mother / stepmother and daughter, particularly as the girls reach puberty. Here the daughter is subjected to a humiliating attempt to test her purity and suitability for marriage. The contrast between the glamorous, stiletto-heeled stepmother and the awkward young woman is intended, and this disturbing picture addresses the issue of power and expectation with unprecedented frankness.

By choosing to re-interpret Snow White, Rego places herself within a centuries-old tradition – the passing down of folk tales through multiple generations.

Annie French Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters About 1900 - 1910 © Estate of Annie French. All Rights Reserved 2017/ Bridgeman Images

The written-origin of many fairy tales is widely known to be down to the Brothers Grimm. Jacob Ludwig Karl (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Carl (1786–1859) were German academics, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who collected folklore during the nineteenth century. They were among the first and best-known collectors of German and European folk tales, and popularised tales we’ll definitely recognise today in Western culture, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Interestingly, the Grimm Brothers published several different editions and the seventh and final edition, published in 1857, was more popular with expanded plots and modified stories to be more accessible to children (compared to their first edition in 1812).

Cinderella is a prime example of the juxtaposition between the cosy Disney version and original tale. It is in fact a ubiquitous tale with roots all-over the world, such as Ye Xian where it is a fish that helps the protagonist. In the Grimm’s version, the sisters slice cut off their heel and big toe to fit their feet into the tiny shoe and have their eyes pecked out by Cinderella’s birds at her wedding, a far cry from the helpful animals in her animated adventure.

Disney’s Snow White stays more true to the Grimm’s version, though we still don’t see all the attempts to kill her (poison combs and cursed corsets). In the 1812 Grimm’s version it is Snow White’s mother, rather than her step-mother, who wants to kill her and in their 1857 version of Snow White, the step-mother asks for Snow White's lungs and liver to eat. Further, like the step-sisters in Cinderella, the step-mother is punished at the wedding – in this case by being stuck in burning iron shoes that are so hot she dances in them until she dies. The wedding is the moment both Snow White and Cinderella are raised in status and no longer dependent on their step-mothers.

Rego’s reinterpretation of fairy tales calls to mind the stories of Angela Carter (1940-1992). Her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, 'extract the latent content from the traditional stories and use it as the beginnings of new stories'. The shortest and arguably most disturbing story in the collection is The Snow Child which, though not a retelling of Snow White, mimics the beginning of the original tale where her mother wishes for a child based on snow, blood and wood. In Carter’s tale it is the Count, not the Countess, who wishes for a girl who is white as snow, red as blood, and black as feathers, and, as soon as she appears, the Countess ‘hated her’. As the Count favours the girl, the Countess’s furs and boots jump from her to the girl. Her welfare depends on the preference of the Count, and, like Snow White’s step-mother, she is intent on retaining her status. The blood could be a reference to menstruation, akin to Rego’s Snow White and Her Stepmother, where the transition to womanhood is a threat to the step-mother.   

Like Carter, Rego is unafraid to delve deeper into these tales. Rego is a renowned and celebrated storyteller. She has long been appreciated as a masterful narrator who can reinvent and reframe stories, freely interpreting existing accounts and interweaving them with personal anecdotes. Part of the draw of Rego’s works is the familiarity of tales we know, the narratives around women in culture, society and art, but also the new and unique way these narratives have been framed.

For a broader look at the ways the female form has been depicted in art, take a look at our recent podcast episode Art, Life and Love: Representing Women.  

Interpretation of Paula Rego’s works from the exhibition book.

By Katie Smith, 21 February 2020