© 2018 Amy Gaudion | Hampshire 

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‘But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things; Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people’  – Tolkien[1]

The magic of Fairy Tales has been a part of our culture for centuries; often derived from folk stories, they have been created, embellished and passed on for generations. They continue to be altered and represented in the present day. Giambattista Basile was one of the first to begin collecting and writing down European Folk Tales in his book, Pentamerone, published in the 1630s. It went on to become the framework for Fairy Tale telling in Europe[2]. The Brothers Grimm first began their work collecting folk tales in the early 19th century and released their original collection in 1812 (final edition in 1857). These were collected from European libraries and contemporary traditional story tellers; aiming to record oral tradition that would otherwise have faded or changed. The early versions of their tales were more honest and visceral. Other Storytellers like Hans Christian Anderson created new stories for the widening audience of the time, often based on the themes presented in traditional tales. This period of history saw a rise in nationalism which also saw a rise in these collectors of tales, each claiming them for their country as part of their heritage and national psyche. As children’s literature has progressed over the last 200 years, these tales have been written and re-written in new forms. During the 20th Century, film has taken these tales and transformed them into everlasting visual stories. Animated versions like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are children’s classics. For the past 60 years the animated film industry has created simple stories from the traditional tales. More recently, live action films have begun to delve into alternative stories, darker plots and empowering characters. These are blurring the lines between animated children’s classics and the original folk tales. This essay is exploring the societal effect of Fairy Tales in the past and present day; focussing on the portrayal of women and their intrinsic links with the environment and the natural world. It also examines the way painting can explore fairytale and the perception of women.


FIGURE 1 – 'Bunker’ 2016 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 32.5x44.5 inches



Marina Warner discusses the idea that women who had been brought up on post war Disney animations had been indoctrinated deceitfully as part of a patriarchal society, in her book ‘Once Upon a Time’[3]. Good women could have a happily ever after but evil women also strengthened men’s position by dividing sisterhoods. She also states how these tales are always bound in class and time and with the values of the author. For example Wilhelm Grimm censors Rapunzel from his original 1812 to his 1857 version, removing the element of Rapunzel’s sexual ignorance and turning her into a fool. In his adaptation, the consequences of a sexual encounter were completely removed therefore removing the main purpose of the original folk story whilst maintaining a Fairy Tale[4]. Reflecting the more prudish nature of Victorian Society and the class for which he wrote. Since the Grimm’s first altered their original collection, the stories have become adaptations based on what parents think their children should be hearing, in many cases removing the original purpose in earlier society. The Tales became more children orientated with entertainment value rather than educational purposes.

In the story The Little Mermaid (1837) Hans Christian Anderson writes of a soul-less sea creature that yearns to gain humanity and an immortal soul. Bargaining away her voice to a sea witch, in exchange for human form at the price of ‘walking on knives’, she endeavours to make a prince she longs for fall in love with her. Only this will allow her to retain this form and gain her soul, failure will result in her becoming sea foam, the end of a mermaid’s life. She fails to gain the princes love and even her family’s assistance cannot save the day. Comparatively, the Disney version The Little Mermaid (1989)[5] tells a sweet story of adolescent love and yearning in which, in exchange for her voice the mermaid is eventually united with her prince and has the ‘Happily Ever After’ ending. Along the way the Sea Witch is portrayed in a more evil light but the mermaid foils her plans and wins the day. Although Hans Christian Anderson’s tale has overtly Christian values, it is still a moral story and a message to Children. No matter how hard you try even by bending the rules you cannot always have everything you desire. It is also a tale of youthful love lost. Whereas the Disney animation focuses on the happily ever after, in that love is all and finding your ‘prince’ is always the answer. Going back to Marina Warner, this version is once again a reminder to girls and women that their place has not changed, finding a husband is the end goal.


FIGURE 2 –‘Hylas and the Nymphs’1896 J.W Waterhouse, Oil on Canvas, 52x77.7 inches


Although Disney has attempted to reflect modern societal relationships in The Little Mermaid and other films, the overriding ‘get the prince’, ‘happily ever after’ theme prevails. Women and girls of the present are still presented with this goal in popular culture. Angela Carter’s subversive fairytales have not become main-stream although they aim to provide alternative outcomes to the traditional/Victorian patriarchal fairy tale.  In The Shape of Water (2017)[6], a stunningly visual and subversive tale, Guillermo del Toro creates an alternative reality Little Mermaid story.  A mute and downtrodden woman discovers a captive South American aquatic humanoid creature. In realising his intelligence she moves to rescue him and in doing so a romance ensues. The story is dark and with echoes of the brutality in early fairy tales. The difference with this film is that it is not directed at a child audience and deals with adult themes of love, redemption and finding oneself. This new fairy tale reflects a more equal symbiotic relationship between the main characters, with the supportive nature of friendship.




Fairy Tale magic is rooted in the Natural world; Warner says ‘Grimm Brothers and other collectors rely on an idea of Natural Magic’[7]. In earlier tales, magic is controlled by nature, animals provide assistance, inanimate objects posses the power of the forest, sea creatures may become women and fish turn out to be powerful princes. Characters are not alarmed but take it in their stride that, in this parallel world to our own, nature is a force of magic and wonder. Evil is not necessarily an evil witch or powerful step mother but a mother or father who goes so against nature that it is a dark magic in itself. The sanitisation of Fairy Tales has led to natural magic being sidelined to a more beautified ‘magic’. In more modern tales people have replaced nature as the wielders of magic; evil women are portrayed as witches and fairy godmothers replace spirit trees. As nature’s representation has changed within these stories it has also affected the representation of women



FIGURE 3 –'Bloom’ 2014 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 30x30 inches


Female protagonists in traditional tales were more rooted in the natural world; they were often canny, intelligent and resourceful. Although nature prevails in many classic fairytales, with creatures and forest’s aiding either good or evil, the original tales had a wilder sense of nature, untamed and unpredictable. Paracelsus attributed the elements to spirit creatures that governed them, Undine for Water etc[8]. Looking at Undine in her original portrayal she is an elemental being of water that later became a water nymph. She forms the historic basis for the later story ‘The Little Mermaid’, which in its modern telling is a more princess like character, more human in her emotions and at the mercy of the elements. In the Disney characterisation, the sea witch or the sea king controls the magic and the environment. ‘The Shape of Water’ changes this theme and subverts the classic Anderson tale. The creature is wild, intelligent and mysterious; he is the personification of the untamed and unknown parts of the natural world.


"Aron Wiesenfeld.  Like Hopper he is concerned with solitude, like Magritte he is bewitched by mystery" Guillermo Del Toro[9]

When defining a Fairy Tale it could perhaps be described best by Warner ‘…there is more magic in inaugurating a different reality, to meet the hunger of hope and desire’[10]. Painting and Art address Fairy Tales and Folklore in a different way to literature and popular culture; their alternative realities have endless possibilities. Artist Aron Wiesenfeld creates windows into new worlds of isolated nature and adolescent characters. His paintings are left open to interpretation but clearly have themes of mythology and dark folk lore. They are a reminder of the ethereal and magical power of the natural world, whether it is part of suburban edge land or desolate forest.  They feel as though they have embraced the atmosphere of earlier and darker fairy tales especially with the focus often being a female character. His women are oddly gangly and childlike but also fiercely unapologetic and melancholy.  Their separation from others and their isolation within nature give them individuality and control over themselves. Wiesenfeld’s uncanny images are evocative of emotional states and stories frozen in time.  

Figurative painting goes beyond the two dimensional depiction of modern Fairy Tales. The Pre-Raphaelites were preoccupied with romantic storytelling and their paintings reflect this. J W. Waterhouse painted scenes of mythological characters such as Undine however; his work is more illustrative, less open to interpretation. Wiesenfeld supplies imagery that is less prescriptive and instills emotion rather than a complete story scene. Also, his women display an independence that is missing in the Pre-Raphaelite damsels. The rich and highly detailed way he expresses foliage and the landscape place an emphasis on the longing to be close to nature. Painting allows artists to begin telling new stories that are left open to the viewer; they can be individually significant or universally understood. 

FIGURE 4 –'Delayed’ 2012 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 31x40 inches


To conclude, this essay has found that fairytales are continually influenced by the times they are written in, but can also be an influence on the viewership or readership. As our society changes in regards to feminism, with campaigns like ‘#heforshe’ and ‘#timesup’ it should also follow that Fairy Tales in popular culture begin to reflect that. Stronger female characters are coming through, but the ‘happily ever after’ just won’t go away. Although, many surviving Fairy Tales have such a dramatic focus on ‘beauty’ being an important quality for women that it will be hard to move away from this as our society places so much importance on image. Perhaps, painting is where true expression of stories can lead to an entirely new visual recording of Fairy Tale. The fascination with storytelling shows no signs of abating. Folk tales and Fairy Tales could be said to be a part of collective unconscious and therefore have a universally binding nature. The changes in our understanding of nature and the environment, especially with climate change will inevitably mean that Fairy Tales cannot return to this idea of ‘natural magic’ in its original form, as our natural world has been so heavily influenced and changed by humans. Here in Britain, many of the wild places have disappeared under pressure for development and modernisation. The idea of ‘edge-land’ is perhaps the place where natural magic now occurs, as in Wiesenfeld’s images patches of meadow or forest next to railways or roadsides create a new kind of fantastical land.

CONTEXTUAL PRACTICE - SEMESTER II - The Sanitisation of Fairy Tales in Modern Society and its Societal Effect on Women and their Links with Nature

FIGURE 5 –'The Garden’ 2012 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 36x30 inches


[1] Tolkien, J.R.R., Flieger, V. Anderson, D.A., 2014. Tolkien on Fairy-stories: Expanded edition, with commentary and notes. London: Harper Collins Publishers. p. 59

[2] Strange, E.F. 2017. Stories from the Pentamerone [Online]. Tim Sheppard’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers. Available from: www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/stories/pentamerone.html [28/12/17]

[3] Warner, M., 2016. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Reprint Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 132-133

[4] Ashliman, D.L. 2015. Rapunzel [Online]. University of Pittsburgh. Available from: www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm012a.html [02/01/18]

[5] The Little Mermaid, 1989. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. USA: Walt Disney Productions, Walt Disney Feature Animation

[6] The Shape of Water, 2017. Film. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. USA: TSG Entertainment, Double Dare You Productions

[7] Warner, M., 2016. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Reprint Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 23

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica. 2018. Undine | mythology. [Online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/undine-mythology [05/05/18]

[9] Del Toro, G. 2015.[Online] Available from: https://twitter.com/realgdt/status/678714553560129536?lang=en-gb [09/05/18]

[10]  Warner, M., 2016. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Reprint Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 18


1. Wiesenfeld, A. 2018. Bunker. [Image] Available at: http://www.aronwiesenfeld.com/2016/ [12/05/18].

2. Hylas and the Nymphs. 2018) [Image] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waterhouse_Hylas_and_the_Nymphs_Manchester_Art_Gallery_1896.15.jpg [12/05/18].

3. Wiesenfeld, A. 2018. Bloom. [Image] Available at: http://www.aronwiesenfeld.com/2014/ [12/05/18].

4. Wiesenfeld, A. 2018. Delayed. [Image] Available at: http://www.aronwiesenfeld.com/2012/ [12/05/18].

5. Wiesenfeld, A. 2018. The Garden. [Image] Available at: http://www.aronwiesenfeld.com/2012/ [13/05/18].

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