Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fairy Tale Endings: Happy, Bittersweet, Tragic

Roland Risse

Fairy Tales are often criticized for being simplistic, and for providing unrealistic happy endings. Of course, when you begin to familiarize yourself with more fairy tales, you realize this simply isn't true in all cases; however, many of the most well-known fairy tales do end happily, and happy endings remain true to the "fairy tale formula."
John Batten, "Tattercoats"
Beloved stories like "Cinderella," "Jack and the "Beanstalk," "Sleeping Beauty," "Frog Prince," and so many more end in the most traditional way: usually a wedding, while the villain gets punished. Yet even among the favorites, there are exceptions. There are unhappy versions of Cinderella (see here and here), Andersen originally wanted his Little Mermaid to end with her death and had to adjust the story to please his editors, Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood" is eaten at the end.

Yet still, fairy tales that have become popularized are predominantly happy.

Kay Nielsen

But the "happily ever after" stories aren't the only form of fairy tales. There's another category I would call "bittersweet." Although there is a form of resolution at the end, it isn't perfect; there is still some physical evidence of trauma left after the story is done. For example, in the tale Juniper Tree; while in the Grimms' version the bird is transformed back into a boy, in other versions, such as the English The Rose Tree or the Scottish "Pippety Pew", the child remains a bird. But they aren't completely tragic stories; the bird is a beautiful creature, who sings a song which reveals the truth, rewards the kind father and daughter, and kills the evil mother. There is still life after tragedy, but the life is different than it was before. There's a sort of comfort and realism in this fact-it's not an empty assurance that things will be fine, but hope that a horrible situation can be redeemed.
Eleanore Vere Boyle

Another fairy tale with a bittersweet ending is "The Wild Swans." The princess is united with the good King and her brothers transformed back into humans-all except the last one, who will forever remain with a wing for an arm; a reminder of their enchanted state, and the fact that curses will often have consequences. Andersen's "Little Match Girl" is another very sad tale in which the Match Girl dies, although the story makes it clear that her life is very unhappy, and in her visions she sees her Grandmother welcome her into Heaven, so even in that unfortunate tale, there is hope.
Anne Anderson

Then, there are the fairy tales that are completely tragic. You won't find these in collections of children's tales, but they abound in the collections of Schonwerth, the Grimms, and Andersen. Hans Christian Andersen just loves to feature helpless creatures with no control over their destiny; besides "Little Mermaid," which I mentioned before, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" ends with him being burned in the furnace. Throughout the whole tale, he never makes a move or utters a word to help himself; I like to think Andersen was playing on the fact that, while he might have had feelings, at least in the eyes of the child who played with him, he was, ultimately, a toy; incapable of actually doing anything to defend himself.
Kay Nielsen

Along the same vein, a random little story of Andersen's called "The Money Pig" is about a toy piggy bank. After describing some of the games the toys played in the nursery, the money pig falls off the shelf, shatters, and his pieces are swept into the dustbin. The tale leaves you with no sense of purpose or hope.

Of all the tales I've ever read, I still think the creepiest is the Grimms' "How children played Butcher with each other." It's not just that there's a tragic death, which happens in other tales-but there's no villain or motive; it's just children being shockingly ignorant and cruel.

Many of the stories in Schonwerth's collection weren't meant as much to entertain, but to warn people about local superstitions. You might find stories about certain events which were interpreted as foretelling doom or death; warnings about how to recognize Drudes or witches, or stories such as "Death of a Woman in Childbed" in which a woman dared to comb her hair after giving birth, on a Sunday while everyone else was in church, and died because of her unbelief. Or this other, very short and sad tale, "Till Death..."

"A girl had committed herself to being eternally faithful to her beloved; he died serving in the war, and she began a new relationship. One night, her former beloved appeared on a white horse and took her away to his grave where she was found dead in the morning."

Edmund Dulac

I think there's a place and purpose for each kind of tale. Sometime we just need an escape: a happy, predictable tale to comfort or give us hope. Other times we want a little more realism, and sometimes we want send warnings, or just to be a little scared, which is a form of challenging ourselves/having fun with friends and giggling at ghost stories. It's unfortunate, though, that few people realize the spectrum of fairy tales that are out there; some people think fairy tales are too violent and old-fashioned and unsuitable entertainment for children; others think they're too simplistic and perfect, and not realistic enough. But whatever your preferences and purposes, there's always some fairy tale, in some version, that could be helpful.


  1. Whenever I see comments or lamenting how dark children's fairy tales are, I want to ask the person how many children's novels and books have they actually read. So many books and stories from Rosetti to the original Babar are actually rather dark and violent. Which is part of their power and why they resonate with each generation.

    1. It's very true-recently children's books seem to be becoming more and more tame, but even I am sometimes surprised to return to childhood books and realize how dark they were. Although some stories terrified me, others weren't troubling at the time

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  3. The ending of the Anti Semitic story "The Good Bargain" is supposed to be happy, but since the only things, besides the punishment that he receives, that the Jew in the story doesn't have in common with the utterly victimized Shylock of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which I believe is actually Pro Semitic, for the Christians are hypocrites and kick him while he is down and broken, is that he doesn't have nearly as much faith in the law, that he is treated slightly better than the former, and that he doesn't plan to cut the flesh off his tormentor. Sure he does a couple of bad things, but the character convinces the king that the Jew was lying, when he wasn't. The Jew did give the countryman his coat so that he to be punished, but he did criticize the king, after he rewarded him no less, and besides, the countryman made sure that the Jew was beaten up. The Jew is punished in the end by beating, when his "crimes" were 1. telling on the Countryman who insulted the king, and 2. being Jewish. Well I guess that I can say that unlike Shylock, who was crushed by the same law that he held in such high esteem, the poor Jew wasn't forced to convert to Christianity, although I imagine the countryman suggesting that as an idea, and then he is forced to convert.

    1. Hmm...yes, I guess racist tales deserve another category; they're tragic not through intent, but for how they portray certain people groups!