I love fairy tales. Admittedly, they don’t always love me back.
Fairy tales can startle people who aren’t used to them. We’re now a little too influenced by Disney, a company known for bowdlerizing already bowdlerized versions of the stories. You have to step outside the Disney bubble to find fairy tales in their full glory. Some of what you encounter will be muted—the Brothers Grimm, for instance, carefully removed most of the sexual elements from stories such as “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood”—but some fairy tales will be full of sex and death and incest and cannibalism and teeth in extremely strange places. People experiencing these tales for the first time go in expecting princesses and come out the other side having learned, against their will, what happens when a girl accidentally sleeps with a bear. A fairy tale is what you get when someone decides to tell a story in which a kid with a terrible life blunders into the forest and suddenly becomes extremely lucky for no reason. The end. It’s not about good triumphing over evil. It’s about a person who would be a loser in the real world meeting a helpful duck and killing an ogre’s entire family with cleverness, in the process ending up with several kingdoms and a profoundly inflated self-image. Sometimes, the duck tries to eat someone. That’s just the way it goes.
Because fairy tales are essentially wish-fulfillment stories, disability crops up in them a lot. Back when the stories were told orally, the tellers were people in the labor classes, people who lived with the specters of illness and starvation as everyday realities. Their wishes, consequently, often centered around comforts: eating their fill, sleeping luxuriously… and living in utterly perfect health. And this is where it all gets a little cringe-inducing.
Disability in fairy tales is almost invariably something to be overcome. The devil cuts a girl’s hands off in an attempt to make her his. A man wishes for a child but rashly adds, “Even if that child is half a hedgehog.” A boy sits in the ashes all day, every day; his brothers dismiss him as a halfwit. A girl remains mute until she can break the spell on her brothers. Another girl peeks at some trolls and ends up with a calf’s head. A little mermaid gives up her tongue and experiences unbearable pain whenever her feet touch the ground, all so she can be human and gain an immortal soul. Disability is everywhere in fairy tales if you look for it, as an obstacle, a source of ridicule, or both. By the end of the story, the girl will have her hands again, the half-hedgehog boy will be fully human, the ash boy will demonstrate his cleverness and win a wife, the mute girl will speak, the girl with the calf’s head will become a beautiful princess, and the little mermaid will ascend to a higher plane of existence, where she will float around and feel no pain and even get a chance at a soul.
There are a couple of problematic layers of meaning here. The first is the idea of disadvantage. Many fairy tale protagonists begin their stories trapped in unfavorable circumstances. They’re often youngest children. They’re unwanted or poor or persecuted or ugly or just plain overlooked. Giving a character a disability adds another layer of disadvantage. The lowest of the low rises to be the greatest of the great.
The second layer is the way that everything becomes about erasing disability.
“Rapunzel” is one of the best-known fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. When it comes up, it’s usually because of the girl imprisoned in the tower. However, late in the story, the witch who has served as Rapunzel’s godmother sets a trap for the prince who has been visiting her. When he realizes Rapunzel is gone, he leaps from the tower and scratches his eyes out on the thorns at its base. Blind, he wanders the world in misery until he happens upon Rapunzel, banished to the wilderness with her twin children. Her tears fall into his eye sockets, and his vision is restored.
The blind prince gives us fairy tale disability in a nutshell. His blindness is his absolute low point, his moment of complete disadvantage. He lives on roots and berries for years while he is blind. He doesn’t return to his home and send servants out to find Rapunzel; he just wanders mournfully through the forest, lamenting his fate. Blindness cancels out his old life, destroying everything he used to be, and he can’t emerge from this strange limbo until Rapunzel cries his eyes back. While he’s blind, he’s no longer really a prince. Disabled fairy tale protagonists operate under the same set of assumptions that define Rapunzel’s prince. They are lesser than. Even if they have other traits or roles, the disability comes to define them and must ultimately be removed.
Of course, it’s not as if any of this is unexpected. It fits with the history, for one thing. In a society divided into landowners and laborers, the idea of disability is upsetting to a laborer because it means the person cannot work and has thus been relegated to one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. Even in our present society, where the idea that disabled people cannot perform useful work has no basis in reality, we tend to see disability as the worst of all possible outcomes, the most terrible situation imaginable. Why wouldn’t stories built on wish fulfillment wish disability away? It’s only when you come at the issue from the other side that it all starts to look different.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t rewrite fairy tales in my head.
When I was younger, I had no idea why I did. I always felt a bit guilty about it. I would be disappointed when the girl got her hands back or the other girl got her voice back or the awkward, dysfunctional half-hedgehog boy became human and beautiful. Did I want these characters to suffer? Was I the kind of person who giggled at the misfortunes of others? It was much later in life that I began to realize what was happening: I was identifying with the disabled characters, not because they went from deeply disadvantaged to powerful princes and princesses in the blink of an eye but because I knew, at least in part, what it was like to be them. I didn’t want them to suffer; I wanted them to succeed without losing their disabilities or their bodily differences. I wanted their disabilities to be normal. Why couldn’t a blind girl become queen or a deaf boy become king or a woman with no legs save the kingdom or a man with deep anxiety slay the dragon? Why couldn’t they stay disabled? Let the hero’s new wife learn sign language. Let the heroine’s new husband be excited about his wife’s cleverness, and never mind that she gets around in a wheelchair. Why couldn’t disability just be in the story instead of being the bit of the story that had to be wiped from existence?
It’s hard to love stories while simultaneously knowing there’s no place in them for you. It’s uncomfortable to be told, over and over, that people who stay disabled don’t win. In a way, fairy tales take this a step further, positing that those who can’t overcome their disabilities just aren’t trying.
The fairy tales that survive today were, for the most part, recorded long ago. Their values are not the values of today. Some people feel they should quietly be left behind. I disagree. The fact that the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and others were written down centuries ago misleads us; we assume these versions are authoritative, carved in stone, whereas they’re really just interpretations by particular writers. The majority of these stories come from the oral tradition. Before they were frozen in place by their literary adapters, they grew and changed with each retelling, their elements shifting as the societies in which they were told also shifted. Today, in our literacy-based culture, we’ve effectively lost this sense of oral tales as alive and forever changing while also essentially remaining the same, but we retain some hint of it in the way writers continually return to the stories and rework them.
Maybe we don’t need to leave fairy tales behind. Maybe, instead, we need to pause and think about what “disadvantage” means and how we portray wish fulfillment. It’s too easy to take for granted the idea that disabled people are inherently lesser than, that the adventure isn’t complete if the protagonist remains disabled at the end of it. This assumption gives us a lot of the worst disability tropes: disability-related superpowers (where the character’s disability directly causes her extraordinary abilities), inspiration porn (where the character’s overcoming of disability serves as encouragement for the able-bodied reader), disability as punishment (where the character’s bad behavior results directly in his disability), disability as mark of moral deficiency (where the character’s villainy is accompanied and sometimes explained by disability), and many more. If we see the treatment of disability in fairy tales as a natural, inherent part of those tales, these tropes seem natural when they turn up in our literature.
On the other hand, if we recognize that fairy tales are fundamentally fluid, we have space to challenge and change the tropes. There’s no reason the blind prince can’t accept his blindness and get on with his life. There’s no reason the mermaid can’t learn to sign. Disability is part of life for so many of us. Consciously rewriting fairy tales—and subsequently, fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories—so that disability is not automatically the worst possible disadvantage, but instead just is, is a necessary step towards shifting our assumptions.
Fairy tales are about transformation, not just of body but of circumstance. The third son becomes the king. The kitchen maid dances at the ball. The child born to fail rises to greatness. That’s all right. We’re always going to tell wish-fulfillment stories; we’re always going to root for the disadvantaged kid. However, “disadvantaged” and “disabled” don’t have to be synonymous. I’m going to continue to love fairy tales, but in my head, and in my stories, they’re going to become narrative spaces in which people like me can remain themselves all the way to the end.
© 2019 Kari Maaren