The meaning of one of the oldest fairy tales in the world
Iona and Peter Opie, in their The Classic Fairy Tales, call ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the most symbolic fairy tale after Cinderella, and ‘the most intellectually satisfying’. It’s also one of the oldest: we can trace the archetypal versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ back some 4,000 years, making it over 1,000 years older than Homer. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck a little, what will it take?
Perhaps such an august fairy tale of such fine vintage deserves closer analysis, since it’s clearly spoken to many cultures across a vast time span. What makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ so intellectually satisfying (to borrow the Opies’ phrase), and why has it endured? Well, first, here’s a quick reminder or summary of the plot of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. A wealthy merchant has three daughters, the youngest of which is admired widely for her beauty, and comes to be known simply as ‘Beauty’. Her older sisters are far prouder than she is, and let it be known that they will only marry an earl or duke. When their father loses his fortune, the two older sisters find it difficult to adjust to a life of penury, but the loyal and modest Beauty sets about finding ways to help out her father around the house. Read the rest of this entry
‘The Little Match Girl’ is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales for children. It is also one of his shortest, running to just a few pages. In any case, below we’ve offered a brief summary of the tale that highlights some of its salient points, before moving on to a brief commentary on, or analysis of, the key themes of ‘The Little Match Girl’. What is the meaning of this intriguing little tale?
In summary, on New Year’s Eve a poor little girl leaves home, wearing the only shoes she owns in the whole world: her mother’s old slippers, which are too big for her little feet. As they’re too big, they fall off her feet, and a boy runs off with one of them while the other is lost in the street. She wants to go home, but she hasn’t sold any of the matches she left home with yet, and knows that if she returns home without having made any money, her father will beat her. But she is so cold, with the snow falling about her, that she goes and crouches in the corner of a house, and lights one of the matches. As the flame comes into life, she Read the rest of this entry
On a well-known fairy tale
‘The Princess and the Pea’ is one of the shortest of the classic fairy tales. It also manages to be simultaneously one of the most straightforward and one of the most baffling. It’s straightforward because its plot is so simple, but it’s almost too simple. What are we to make of this tale of royal oversensitivity to bed-dwelling vegetables? Does the fairy tale (if it even is strictly a fairy tale at all) have any discernible moral?
It is easy to summarise ‘The Princess and the Pea’: a prince wishes to marry a princess, but he wants to make sure she is a real princess, rather than one of the dozens of royal pretenders who appear to inhabit the realm. He goes on an extensive search to find his royal bride, but he cannot be completely sure that any of the women he meets are bona fide princesses. This pickiness when it comes to courting looks set to end in perpetual bachelorhood, until one day, on a dark and stormy night, a young woman arrives at his castle, asking to take shelter inside until the storm has passed. The woman claims to be a princess, so the prince’s mother takes a pea and places it under twenty mattresses in the bed where the princess is to spend the night. Read the rest of this entry