The Never-Ending Fairy Tale--Disney Style 
by Marjorie C. Luesebrink
Appeared in Orange Coast Magazine, June, 1995
The Fairy Tales we Deserve

    The Disney Stories that enchant us today are drawn from ancient, worldwide folk tradition. Some folklorists believe that "Cinderella" in its most basic form--neglected youngest child is tested, found worthy, rewarded with mate--dates back to the Old Stone Age. And, from the firelit evenings when stories were whispered in the cave, to slick films at the cineplex today, fairy tales evidently serve to educate as well as delight. We can see this in the way the tales change over time and across cultures.


    Folk versions of "Cinderella" were related in hundreds of societies. In thesestories, the "test" for the unfortunate child is different. Our familiar Cinderella is beautiful and has tiny feet. By contrast, the Japanese Cinderella gets her Prince by writing a prize-winning poem. In Senegal, the Cinderella figure proves she is worthy by bringing harmony among the Prince's other wives. The Chinese Cinderella protects the spirits of her ancestors. In the American Indian version, the maiden wins the West Wind by being honest.

    It seems that each culture gives to Cinderella the qualities it values most. Actually, the Disney Cinderella reflects this value-making as well. Charles Perrault, who wrote the first European version, crafted his tale for the aristocrats of the French Court. Beauty and small feet were desirable attributes. Willingness to do housework was not.

    So, when Disney made the American movie, a new element entered. In the Perrault version, the mice were dismissed in a sentence. Disney gives us Jaques and Gus-Gus, a long scene of singing and cleaning house. What really gets Cinderella to the ball is a spirit of cooperative work effort. Our Cinderella can't just fit the slipper--she needs a kind heart and an egalitarian outlook.

The Little Mermaid

    "The Little Mermaid" underwent a more radical change as it crossed the Atlantic. In the original Hans Christian Andersen story, the Mermaid is not rewarded for "seeking something better." At the outset, the cost of ambition is frightful. The Little Mermaid's tail will divide in two and she will have "pretty legs"--but with every step she will feel as if she were "treading on a sharp knife" and her feet will bleed. Worse, the sea witch will have her tongue: "Put out your little tongue and let me cut it off in payment...." And, at the end, the Prince decides to marry a real Princess from a neighboring Kingdom--not our Mermaid.

    Andersen tells us: "She knew that this was the last evening she would see the Prince for whom she had turned her back on kindred and home, given up her beautiful voice, and every day suffered hours of agony without his suspecting a thing...." Since she has not secured the love of a mortal man, she must, by the terms of the bargain with the sea-witch, become sea foam forever.

    At the last moment, she is reprieved. Good news! She can win an immortal soul by being a "daughter of the air" and doing good deeds for three hundred years. The listening children are admonished by the "daughters of the air": "Unseen we float into human homes where there are children and, for every day we find a good child who makes father and mother happy and earns their love, God shortens our time of trial." Andersen's tale provides Danish children with a clear warning: girls! don't try to rise above your origins! honor your parents! remember your place in God's kingdom!

    Andersen's audience was presumably comfortable with a story that stressed the futility of human struggle and the importance of the immortal soul. The Disney version suggests Americans would not be. We are reluctant to tell our children fairy tales where the test is too gruesome or the outcome seems unfair. Like all societies in all ages, we tell our children stories in ways that confirm our value systems. Our culture places a premium on transformation, upward mobility, and happiness in this life. Accordingly, the Disney Little Mermaid succeeds in her quest and has her talents restored.


Folk tales are just "made-up", so it seems somehow right that they undergo change. Yet, the same thing can happen to history herself. Disney's movie, "Pocahontas," transforms our favorite Indian maiden from historical footnote to culture heroine. Woodrow Wilson's ten-volume History of the American People does not mention Pocahontas. He does speak of the 76 out of the 104 "discredited noble idlers" who starved or died of fever in the first months of the colony. In 1607 "seventeen men and one boy" were slain by that "wily, ruthless savage" Powhatan, Pocahontas' father. Despite being center of the story, Captain John Smith left America in 1608 due to a gunpowder accident. Furthermore, Pochontas had a brief, tragic life after myth. When she was seventeen, in 1612, the governor of the colony, assisted by the Patawomack Indians, kidnapped Pocahontas. She converted to Chritianity and was married to John Rolfe, the originator of commercial tobacco. She went to England, where she was dressed in British finery, met the Queen, and died at Gravesend in 1617. She was only 22.

    We can be thankful that Disney rescued Pocahontas for us--tying her story to racial harmony and the beauty of nature. In fairty-tale history, Jamestown will not be a heroic Anglo-Saxon conquest nor a brutal capitalistic misadventure; instead, kids will sing and dance with an adorable, buckskin-clad maiden beside the big waters in riparian Virginia.

Never-Ending, Ever Changing

Perhaps the most magical thing about fairy tales is their flexibility. The message is always changing and the enchantment is forever.
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