Are Fairy Tales Turning Visionary?

Editor’s note: This article (slightly edited here) was originally published at the VFA in November 2014, before the sequels to either Disney’s Maleficent or Frozen were made.

Although visionary fiction often 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 the story reviewed here shortly.

Visionary differences

Like the fairy tale, visionary fiction is interested in the good versus evil conflict; and like other modern literature, it asks what “good” and “evil” means in the first place, and what might turn a good person bad. Its protagonists are frequently female, and even if they are not lead characters, 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 be up for a revamp to accommodate this change in literary ideal.

Maleficent – a review

Disney’s Maleficent (2014) is a live-action adaptation of the fairy tale classic Sleeping Beauty. The film is also a rewrite of the 1959 Disney animated Sleeping Beauty movie in which the evil fairy from the old 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 better-known 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

In this retelling of the fairy tale, Maleficent is not merely a bad fairy who resents not being invited to the princess’ christening. Instead 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”. The curse that Maleficent places on his daughter Aurora is thus an act of revenge. Whereas in the traditional version the curse entails death, in this version it places the princess into an eternal sleep, and the princess can only be woken by “true love’s kiss”. In the meantime, Stefan 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 in the movie is purely “evil”, and instead the story reveals 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 land where Maleficent lives. Interestingly, the Disney Wiki page for the film mentions that this land 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.

Greed is also 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 shown to possess 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 their job properly. She eventually comes to love the child despite her bitterness over the past. Maleficent 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.

Since Disney is 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 (2013), 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?


5 thoughts on “Are Fairy Tales Turning Visionary?

  1. Victor Smith says:

    Thanks for this, Saleena. Lots that could be discussed. First a question: since I have lived a somewhat deprived adulthood when it comes to movies, especially fairy tales, and have seen none of the titles mentioned, is the 2019 version of the Maleficent a remake of 2014 or a part 2? I want to put one of them on my bucket list–which do you suggest?
    I usually view fairy tales as allegories, teaching tools that make an abstract lesson more memorable and comprehensible. Full length movies seem to make them too complicated. An opinion.

    • Saleena Karim says:

      Aaargh! I wrote a comment here twice but the ‘invalid security token’ bug is back. Trying again, this time from Firefox browser:

      Thanks Vic. The 2019 Maleficent movie is a sequel to the 2014 one. I haven’t seen the 2019 sequel (nor have I see Frozen 2) but from what I have read of the plot, there isn’t anything new to take away – certainly not from a VF perspective – from the sequel. Plus, you probably need to see the first movie to fully follow the second. So I would say just see the 2014 version, which is a self-contained story.

      You make a fair point about fair tales as a vehicle for allegories and absract concepts in short form. Unfortunately, while the movie industry gives us many opportunities to offer the same allegories in a different format, it is really disappointing that the industry is presently playing it safe and merely cashing in on sequels all the time.

  2. Robin says:

    Thank you, Saleena. You make some interesting points. I do think Disney is growing up in that they are focusing on female protagonists. But moviegoers are lagging. Evidently, Rotten Tomatoes’ reviews showed that they related more to the purely evil character of Malificent than the redeemed version. An example of the opposite, Moana earned much higher approval ratings. She was purely good, and her character didn’t change through the story. She always wanted to do what she did, and she did it. Pure adventure, with a female hero, grounded in mythology. Entertaining and educational, maybe, but I don’t think it would be called visionary.

    • Saleena Karim says:

      Hi Robin, that’s so interesting about the moviegoers who prefer the evil version of Maleficent, especially versus Moana. I have a friend who sees Moana’s story as at least containing visionary elements, since the girl broke a fixed concept of tradition and followed her dream. From what you’re saying, if the girl is ‘perfect’ from the start and doesn’t evolve in some way then it sounds like she is in effect a messiah character (which in my view is usually the opposite of visionary, with some exceptions). The ultimate litmus test of course, is whether there is a clear reference to the evolution of human consciousness. Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking observations.


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