Single-sentence Fairy Tales

Once again this morning, in reading my daily dose of social media, news and blogs, I ran across the term “Wizard of Oz”, used as a pre-determined phrase, a metaphor, if you will. And it made me think of just how ubiquitous that story is in American society. We can use that term and everyone knows what we mean by it, because the Oz story is a meme in American culture – its meaning, or message, has become just about independent of Baum’s little novel from the year 1900. You just have to say “Wizard of Oz” or “Wicked Witch of the West” and people know what you mean, the whole story pops into their heads. There is a word for that – it’s a literary device, and I can’t think of what it’s called right now. Oh – here we go (thank you, Google): it’s synecdoche, which, as I just found out, is not pronounced SIN-eck-doak, but sin-ECK-do-kee. You learn something new every day.

And then I kept thinking about the fairy tales I’m studying, and how much this “the-part-represents-the-whole” thing is the case for them, too. Probably even more so than for Oz. We ALL know about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty & the Beast, and the Frog Prince, right? Right. But what do we know about them? There is one core meme, one key part to each story that sticks with us. You can sum up each story in one sentence. Here, let me give it a try.

Cinderella: Girl is made to work as slave by her stepmother, but magically gets to go to the ball where she meets the prince.

Sleeping Beauty: Girl falls asleep for a hundred years in a rose-covered castle, and is kissed awake by the prince.

Beauty and the Beast: Girl hooks up with really ugly guy, who turns out to be a prince.

The Frog Prince: Girl kisses frog, who turns into a prince.

Okay, that’s just one key meme for each story. There are other, secondary ones – for Cinderella, in particular, there’s the lost & found slipper, of course, and the pumpkin coach, which are also used memetically; but for the most part, when we speak of someone “having a Cinderella experience”, we mean the rags-to-riches, ashes-to-ballroom transformation.

And then there’s the fact that not every version of every story contains exactly those elements I mentioned. Take the Grimm’s version of “The Frog Prince”, for example: no kissing whatsoever takes place in that on, froggy gets chucked against the wall (splat!), which very effectively unfroggifies him. I’m sure most enchanted princes are grateful that the meme which took hold of our imagination is the kissing one, not the Grimm’s version – can’t you just see all those princesses going around hurling innocent amphibians against the walls of their bedrooms? Uh, no, let’s stick with kissing. Much tidier, and less work for the chamber maids. (I haven’t found out yet where or at what point in the development of the story the kissing came in; I’m not getting to “The Frog Prince” for a while yet. But it’s definitely one of the things I’ll have to look into.)

So, one thing I’m wondering: what is it about those memes that made them memes? Why do they stick so hard in our minds? Lots of thinking to do yet.



7 thoughts on “Single-sentence Fairy Tales

  1. So interesting isn’t it that there is always the savior Prince? There is, of course, the whole patriarchal concept that a woman cannot be safe or successful without the help of a man. She is not complete until she “becomes” with a man’s kiss. (Or splat in the case of the Frog Prince. Lol) That is to say, sexual contact–the deflowering that makes her the possession of a man. It happens still. The bride veiled and in white. The representative “kiss” at the altar. The public removal of the bride’s garter. All of these little rituals signify the man’s claim on the body of his bride. There was a time when, after a marriage was consummated, the woman’s virgin blood on the white bed sheets was hung out the window (or somewhere) to publicly display that she was a chaste bride. Perhaps it might be that fairy tales have been recreated and retold in “the image of” the mindset of the culture that produced them? Just spit-balling. That said, aside from the feminist slant, there is the idea, the persisting and never-ending idea of love and romance. Boy meets girl. Boy rescues girl from horrible fate. They fall in love. They marry. They have children, and so the human race continues, happily ever after. I think for some people, and probably many people, the idea of finding that special someone to share life and love with is a stronger urge and brings greater satisfaction than the objections to the rampant patriarchal disparagement that runs thick through the fairy tales. Most people want to find that special someone, and fairy tales tell them that he/she is out there waiting for them.
    I dunno…. maybe. Maybe not.


  2. You’re right, all those elements are in the stories – the sexual, the deflowering, the love-for-the-purpose-of-procreation, etc. However, the prince/princess element in fairy tales also has another place, another function. In the tales which are focused on the Prince (the pure adventure tales, hero goes forth and conquers, blah blah), usually the Princess is his reward at the end – she’s featureless, just pretty and princessy. In these here stories, though, which are focused on the Heroine (not always a princess to start with; Cinderella and Beauty are merchants’ daughters who become princesses in the end) in a sense the Prince is the final reward for the Girl. The Prize-Prince isn’t quite as passive as the Prize-Princess, but he really doesn’t *do* much other than show up, see her and kiss her (or dance with her). In the animal bridegroom stories here, the Beast and the Frog are being rescued (or disenchanted) by the Girl, so they’re definitely *not* the rescuers. Disney, of course, played around with that; especially in “Sleeping Beauty” where they have the Prince doing battle with the thorn hedge and witch-dragon.

    So yes, that patriarchal “princess needs prince” idea is in there, and it would be easy to make the point that that’s the key idea of these stories, but to be honest, I think that’s the easy way out. Just like “Harry Potter”, when you look at it closely, is actually *not* anti-feminist, but rather the opposite, I think these fairy tales are too. And that’s the seed of an idea which I have to find good proof for yet…


    • Hmmm. I wish I knew a good source to suggest. Maybe something “out-of-the-box”–not exactly fairy-tale stuff, but one that discusses similar ideologies. Again, hmmm. Good hunting though. 😉


  3. At least some of it must be about the crossing ontological boundaries thing — a princess KISSING a frog is ontologically boundary-crossing in a way that a princess chucking a frog against a wall isn’t. So it makes sense that would stick in our minds. Ditto the Cinderella bits — a slipper that’s made of glass, a pumpkin that turns into a carriage…


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