Are Fairy Tales Turning Visionary?

Maleficent in Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Although much visionary fiction has magical and fantasy elements in common with the fairy tales of old, the two differ in some fundamental respects. The themes of the conventional fairy tale revolve about the triumph of good over evil, where the heroes are princes and princesses, or peasants who marry princes and princesses and gain a kingdom or an endless supply of gold. The villains are always jealous stepparents, or evil older siblings, or tyrannical kings and queens. At other times they are monsters, or trolls, or wolves. The latter in particular are ugly and incomprehensible, external forces, wreaking havoc on the heroes and their people, or they are cunning creatures luring some naive vulnerable character to do their bidding, reminiscent of Satan misleading Adam and Eve.

The characteristics of the heroes are equally clear-cut: the shining knight, or the prince, or the peasant who turns out to be a missing prince. They are almost exclusively male, and their relationship with the heroine is defined as “pure” or “true love”, betraying the psychological influence of mysticism that compares this form of love to Divine union. In some tales this true love is key to breaking some spell that has trapped the damsel, as is the case in our story of interest to be reviewed here shortly.

Visionary differences

Visionary fiction, like the fairy tale, is interested in the good versus evil conflict but like other modern literature, it asks what constitutes “good” and “evil” in the first place, and what might turn a good person bad. Its protagonists are frequently female, and even if they are not the lead, they are rarely damsels in distress. Love may feature as a means of defeating darkness, but it is not narrowly defined within the context of romantic or sexual love. Indeed all these can be said to be part of the modern trend of fiction in general, except that for the most part modern fiction arguably addresses these ideas at a more superficial level.

Few would disagree that visionary fiction is a relatively new (or, as I believe, a recently revived) genre, and that fairy tales remain vastly popular. But as many VF writers will attest, the visionary form is also in demand and gaining ground. And it seems that the old fairy tale might tale up for a revamp to accommodate this change in literary ideal.

Maleficent – a review

Recently I saw Disney’s Maleficent (2014), a live-action adaptation of the fairy tale classic Sleeping Beauty and also a rewrite of the 1959 Disney animated movie of the same name in which the evil fairy from the traditional fairy tale was named “Maleficent” for the first time. In the movie trailer, Maleficent is advertised as a fairy tale with a twist – promising to reveal the “truth” behind the “legend” of that spinning wheel curse. The twist is that this is a story told from Maleficent’s point of view, and is an explanation of how this “good fairy” came to place the curse on the newborn princess Aurora.

On the surface this seems to be just another modern Disney movie, but there are some elements that turn the traditional version of the story on its head, and defy the conventions of most other traditional fairy tales in the process. Without going into the details of the story too much, let’s take a look at some intriguing examples.

The villain is the good guy – and vice versa

Unlike in the traditional fairy tale, Maleficent is not merely a bad fairy who resents not being invited to the christening of the princess. In the remake, she starts off as (and essentially remains) a good fairy, but she is betrayed by Stefan, a man whom she had considered her “true love”, and she has taken revenge by cursing his daughter. Unlike in the traditional version, the curse does not entail death, but places the princess into an eternal sleep, and the princess can only be woken by “true love’s kiss”. In the meantime, the Aurora’s father becomes the formal villain, first by cutting off the young Maleficent’s wings in order to gain the throne, and later by attempting to kill Maleficent and take over her homeland (more on that shortly). We might also note that no character is purely “evil” as such, and instead we are shown that many of the characters’ actions, however wrong, often come from legitimate feelings of anger and hurt. And on that note …

Human monsters, internal demons

In the traditional fairy tale, the threat to human life is always external; it is the giant, the dragon, the ogre and the witch. In Sleeping Beauty it has always been the evil fairy now called Maleficent. But in this movie, human beings themselves are the threat, and they are driven by simple greed. They want to take over the Moors, the magical land where Maleficent lives. Interestingly, the Disney Wiki page for the film mentions that the Moors is “home to magical creatures and fairies, whom had no ruler due to their intensely close friendship and trust in one another”  in contrast to the human kingdom ruled by a “ruthless” king. This is a sure indicator of a visionary theme, using the allegories of the human kingdom and the magical Moors to differentiate between the present survival of the fittest mentality and the ideal of altruism and cooperation respectively.

Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) is the most powerful fairy in the Moors and though she is not the official ruler, she is the most loved by its inhabitants, some of whom would be deemed physically repulsive in human eyes.

Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) is the most powerful fairy in the Moors and though she is not the official ruler, she is the most loved by its inhabitants, some of whom would be deemed physically repulsive in human eyes.

Greed similarly is the inner demon that compels Stefan to betray his “true love” Maleficent and cut off her wings, and this act marks him as the villain from this point. Similarly, Maleficent is clearly defined as the possessor of a good heart early on, when she decides not to doom the princess Aurora to death, and instead creates the key to undoing the spell. She also watches over the growing child from afar, when the pixies assigned to take care of the princess in the forest fail to do so properly. She eventually comes to love the child despite her bitterness over the past. She comes into direct contact with Aurora as a fifteen year old and the two form a mother-daughter type relationship. Soon after realising her feelings for the child, she attempts in vain to revoke the curse.

True love is spirit, not form

In both Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, the sleeping princess can only be awoken by true love’s kiss. In both stories, the prince is supposed to be the one to wake her. But in Maleficent, the prince fails to awaken Aurora (in part because he had not known her for long), and there seems to be no hope. Overcome with grief, Maleficent kisses Aurora on the forehead – and that is when Aurora awakens. This again is a break from an ancient idea, namely that romantic love is the highest form of love, and that it can come instantly, at first sight. Or at the very least, it is challenging the conventional view of an ancient idea.

FrozenSince Disney is ultimately a commercial company, it might be said that this story reflects the modern age, in particular the rise of feminism. But I have reason to suspect it’s more than that. Last year’s release Frozen (inspired loosely by The Snow Queen) has touched upon exactly the same elements. Its villains are human; its monsters are emotional (fear and greed); it alludes to ideal social states, and again, the “true love” needed to break a spell comes not from the romantic lead, but from a sister. And since Disney is also the world’s most famous vehicle for the fairy tale, surely these developments are not without significance?

Further reading:

From The GuardianDoes Maleficent’s change of plot hint that Disney is growing up?

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About Saleena Karim

Saleena is a writer and publisher, best known for authoring the political biography "Secular Jinnah & Pakistan". As well as being the co-brainchild of the Visionary Fiction Alliance, she is the author of the award-winning visionary fiction novel "Systems", which is also part of the curricular reading material and the Marghdeen Learning Center, Karachi.
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17 Responses to Are Fairy Tales Turning Visionary?

  1. Excellent analysis, Saleena, of a subject on which there are at least a dozen threads to follow further. I'll pick one from my recent reread of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the handbook on the role of myth in evolving human consciousness.

    In the chapter, "Refusal of the Call," he cites the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which the linked Wikipedia article interprets traditionally as a tale of chastity versus lust, concluding quite righteously: "Daphne is forced to sacrifice her body and become the laurel tree as her only form of escape from the pressures of Apollo’s constant sexual desires."

    Campbell interprets the myth quite differently. Of Daphne's finally calling on her father to rescue her, which he does by turning her into a beautiful but rooted laurel tree, Campbell says: "This is indeed a dull and unrewarding finish. Apollo, the sun, the lord of time and ripeness, no longer pressed his frightening suit, but instead simply named the laurel his favorite tree and ironically recommended its leaves to the fashioners of victory wreaths." (p. 62) Daphne's is the fate of a person who refuses to grow to the next stage.

    No doubt in my mind which of the two interpretations is more visionary–although Hollywood might not dare to make a movie that ends as such.

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    • Thanks very much Vic for your thoughts and the thought-provoking example from Joseph's Campbell's interpretation of the Apollo and Daphne myth. I think I need to read Campbell's book in full.

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  2. drstephenw says:

    I immediately thought of Joseph Campbell on reading Saleena's article, so I was glad to see your comment, Victor. I think the relationship between fairy tales and visionary fiction is all about interpretation. A fairy tale has many variants, sources, and storytellers, but without interp it is raw material, and with it can be the deepest, most visionary ecperience.

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    • Stephen, you are right to say it's about interpretation, which is what I was also trying to get at when I mentioned the challenge to the conventional view of love in the mystic tradition.

      The most interesting thing for me is that Disney's rewrites have been received with such hostility from some critics. But just today I came across an article in the Guardian that happens to make similar observations to mine:
      http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/aug

      I'm updating my article to include this as further reading.

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      • Interesting article, Saleena, and it gives me hope that popular culture is maturing to read things like "Pixar also specializes in subverting traditional perceptions of good and evil." (Also relates to Eleni's comment below.) As Campbell in the chapter, "Atonement with the Father," (also spelled as at-one-ment) in Hero with a Thousand Faces, illustrates with myths from many cultures including the puzzling biblical Book of Job: in the upper reaches of consciousness "the elemental pairs of opposites," including that of good and evil, resolve into simply "what is." Not to be confused with amorality, this comprehension is only achieved after passing through all the earlier stages of the Hero's Journey. As a race we are far from the culmination of that journey, but it is heartening to see our media getting a glimpse of the territory that lies beyond the easily depicted dichotomies of black and white, beauty and ugliness, and good and evil.

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  3. Admin - Eleni says:

    “We might also note that no character is purely “evil” as such, and instead we are shown that many of the characters’ actions, however wrong, often come from legitimate feelings of anger and hurt.”

    I think the best stories are written this in mind, which adds depth to the story. I want to see this, but I wish I didn’t know the ending! I think it’s lovely, and yes, love is beyond form.

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    • Oh, no, I'm sorry for the spolier, Eleni! I really should have put up a warning. I'd clean forgotten how new this film still is when I wrote the article. Normally I don't see a film until it's a couple of years old.
      Yes, I agree that one of the most important characteristics of a good story is a villain with a background, and not one who is just born bad. I have thought about writing an article on the visionary villain before, and I think I'll put proverbial pen to paper now, especially after reading your and Vic's comments.

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  4. I haven't seen Maleficient, but I watched Frozen with my little niece earlier ths year. As the story progressed, I realised the tale was following a visionary 'bent' and particularly loved the fact that *non*-romantic love was the key to it all – I confess I cried. 😉

    An interesting and thought-provoking post – thank you, Saleena.

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  5. The only book that survived my youth and that I still read to my granddaughers today is a book simply titled "Fairy Tales." The cover is taped together and the pages are torn, but what a joy to share the tales I once so loved with my girls. "One more story," they say over and over until I have to close the book and call it a day. That said, I so much prefer the Disney’s rewrites.

    Having seven brothers, I got a little tired of damsels being saved or protected by a brave peasant or handsome prince. I sensed early on that, though loveable (at times), my brothers weren't any smarter or more capable than I was in the savior department. I got into, and had to get out of, my own scrapes. Still do.

    In the comment above, Joanna says almost exactly what I thought when watching "Frozen" with my granddaughters. Though aged only seven and nine, "my girls" seemed to get that this story was more about sisterly love than romantic love, even before the surprise ending. I'm sure the three of us interpreted the story in different ways, but, no matter, the "visionary" aspect, I'm sure, did not go unnoticed.

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    • Margaret, I'm an only sister (have just one brother though), so I can relate to your experience. I always used to dislike Disney in part for their stereotypical depictions of the heroine, but like yourself I'm appreciating the newer films.

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    • Gotta love this line: "I got a little tired of damsels being saved or protected by a brave peasant or handsome prince. I sensed early on that, though loveable (at times), my brothers weren’t any smarter or more capable than I was in the savior department."

      Probably, Margaret, because I grew up with two sisters, both older than the eight of us boys who followed in the birth order. Quite a different chemistry than what was in your household.

      Although I look forward to the time when this whole male-female dichotomy is resolved, I worry what will become of the story department without it!

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  6. I loved your comment in your article, Saleena – true love is spirit, not form. This evolutionary idea about what constitutes true love is surely reflected in Visionary Fiction. How fairy tales were originally written offers us so much more richness – dark and light and depth – than the diluted interpretations we grew up with. Having said that, fairy tale remakes such as Maleficent and Frozen are putting forward more significant and evolved meaning to the tales. Fairy tales are more often than not VF in my mind..

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    • True Jodine, that modern fairy tales from the last 300 years or so are more diluted than in the past. The modern ones are tailored more for children when the original ones were more for adults. It seems we're beginning to come full circle now, though the evolved messages of the VF rewrites can be appreciated across all ages.

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  7. Hi, I'm late to the party! I often think of fairy tales and hero adventures as having layers. There's the layer for the "conventional" reader/viewer who wants to be entertained and perhaps uplifted by the story. Evil is defeated, the guy gets the girl, and all is well in the universe again. Then there's the layer for the "initiate," who might read the marriage as the Divine Union, who might focus on what the hero learns in his (and increasingly her) journey. There's probably several other layers as well. Those Druid bards sang for everyone, but didn't limit their message. Maybe that's one source of the saying, "For those with ears to hear, let them hear."

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  8. Excellent Article—Thank you 🙂

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