© 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. Angela Carter, writer of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has collected and rewritten subversive tales; these led the way in feminist Fairy Tale writing. This essay is exploring the societal effect of Fairy Tales in the past and present day; focusing on the portrayal of women and their intrinsic links with the environment and the natural world; from wise women to witches, maidens to princesses, the evolution of stories and their feminist re-workings. It also examines the way painting can explore Fairy Tale and the perception of women, including the Pre-Raphaelite’s work of myths and legend and more contemporary artists like Aron Wiesenfeld and Kiki Smith. 



FIGURE Figure 1 - ‘Bloom’ 2014 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 30x30 inches


‘…And all the mermen under the sea

Would feel their immortality

Die in their hearts for the love of me.’ – The Mermaid - Alfred Lord Tennyson[3]

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’[4]. 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[5]. 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.

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

Painter J.W Waterhouse was working in the 19th century when fairy tales and legends were very popular. His painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ can now be regarded in a new light, the girls not only appear archetypally beautiful and homogenous but nothing more than children. The removal of the painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (J. W. Waterhouse) by Sonia Boyce caused a public outcry in Manchester Art Gallery. The nymphs were interpreted by Waterhouse as children rather than slightly sinister grown women of the original myth. Boyce highlighted the fact that it perhaps has no place in contemporary society’s view of women. In comparing Aron Wiesenfeld’s painting ‘Bloom’ to ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, Wiesenfeld’s figure is  still siren like, gazing outwards whilst playing the flute. The nymphs in Waterhouse’s painting are young and naked, while Wiesenfeld’s is clearly young, angular and dressed in girlish clothing. The girl in ‘Bloom’ is more outward facing, situated in the landscape and grounded; innocent. She is unlike many young women of today’s society who are more preoccupied with self image than ever before.  

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 prince’s love and even her family’s assistance cannot save the day. Comparatively, the Disney version The Little Mermaid (1989)[6] 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. In the chapter ‘The Silence of Daughters: The Little Mermaid’ from the book ‘From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their tellers’ Warner examines the ‘diabolical bargain’ that women make in exchange for their voice[7]. She deliberates the siren like power and how its loss or subjugation is detrimental to the female character, sexuality and power. 

A recent feminist reworking of the original story, ‘The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid’ by Louise O’Neill, delves into the Little Mermaid in a way that the film version does not. This book highlights the slightly sickening nature of a patriarchal society and the effects of male domination on women, perhaps a reflection on the story’s beginnings. It illuminates the sanitisation of the Disney version. The story largely follows the original plot as written by Hans Christian Anderson but takes twists and highlights the flaws in the original message. The Sea King attempts to control Gaia (the little mermaid) whom is often referred to as ‘little mermaid’ as a demeaning and belittling term. Gaia is promised to an older merman who she is repulsed by and who sexually abuses her. This and her jealous sisters lead her to the Sea Witch (Ceta) looking to be reunited with a human man she once saved. The abuse from her father and his subordinates drives her into a desperate situation that only worsens her position. O’Neill shines a light on the insidious nature of domestic abuse by delving into the themes that the original Little Mermaid already presented. Within the story, the characters place a high regard on beauty although it is made clear that you cannot achieve things merely through beauty. Gaia is clearly saddened that people only think of this and it brings about the jealousy of her sisters ‘When Grandmother calls me ‘special’, she means ‘beautiful’.’[8] In society today, so much value is placed on image and they way you present yourself to the world, with more people than ever using surgery to change appearances and purchasing beauty products. At the end of the story Gaia, rather than kill the man she thought she loved to gain her life back, decides to become a Rusalka. A Rusalka is a sea creature much like the mermaid but green and more at one with the ocean, they are the women who have been wronged, the women who have lost children or suffered at the hands of men. Gaia promises she will make a change in her world, by fighting against prejudice for the downtrodden and different. Although, it is still a bittersweet ending as she must stab herself in the heart to achieve this. Gaia takes back control of her life, much as women have today, in comparison to the time Anderson’s version was published. Perhaps O’Neill is also suggesting with the books modern setting that society however has not changed so much, especially with recent high profile cases where men have systematically sexually and emotionally abused women. Where historically emotional abuse was not always recognised, it is now considered a real crime. The whole story has elements of the original violence and brutality that Disney has washed away.

FIGURE  3 - ‘Delayed’ 2012 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 31x40 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. Marina Warner’s afterword in ‘Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales’ considers how Carter collected folklore from all over the world ‘not the prettified, kitschified, Victorians elf land – but the darker dream realm of spirits and tricks, magical, talking animals, riddles and spells…snatching out of the jaws of misogyny itself useful stories for women’.[9] Carter groups her stories into useful chapters including ‘Clever Women, Resourceful Girls’, ‘Good girls and where it gets them’ to name some. Her stories empower the women rather than cutting away their voice and many are the voice of the Mother Goose. Women are not white washed into good and bad but have varied aspects to their characters. When her works were first published she was a pioneer in giving back women their liberty in these stories.

In The Shape of Water (2017)[10], 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.  



Fairytale magic is rooted in the Natural world; Warner says ‘Grimm Brothers and other collectors rely on an idea of Natural Magic’[11]. In earlier tales, magic is controlled by nature, animals provide assistance, inanimate objects possess 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. In O’Neill’s little Mermaid the Sea Witch asks not to be referred to as a witch ‘’My name is Ceto,’ she snaps, pushing herself out of the chair until she towers above me. ’It is your father who insisted on calling me witch’. That is simply a term that men give women who are not afraid of them, women who refuse to do as they are told.’[12] Historically women have been named witches for having a pet cat, for having knowledge or refusing to conform, when men do not understand women it is easy to label them and demean them. It is empowering that the character Ceto recognises this and she embraces her body and her powers, seemingly more at one with nature.  

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[13]. 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.

CONTEXTUAL PRACTICE - SEMESTER III - A comparison of the portrayal of women in sanitised popular Fairy Tales and their feminist counterparts: an exploration through film, literature and painting.

FIGURE 4 – ‘Ophelia’ 1852 John Everett Millais, Oil on Canvas, 30x40 inches

Tales of women at one with wild nature can be traced back through the centuries and in many countries. The legend of Melusine was first written down by Jean D’Arras in 1393-1394 although, it may have older roots in the gaulish language. The story goes that the daughter of a king and a fairy is cursed to become half serpent/ half fish every Saturday[14]. In some versions she is more of a water nymph, a guardian of lakes and rivers. The character Melusine is close to the supernatural, close to water and shrouded in mystery. Starbucks’ logo is a depiction of Melusine, perhaps to underline their closeness to something mystical or their roots in the historic. Similar to the way families would contrive distant relationships to Arthurian characters or historic tales in the period ‘The Picturesque’ by building ruined follies on their estates. For centuries tales of women and water have pervaded our culture, from Melusine to Undine to the Little Mermaid. Coastal areas of the United Kingdom have always had myths, legend and folk tales of women and the sea, specifically the Selkie (seal women) like creatures. The stories about them shedding their seal skins and becoming human could have been peoples’ way of explaining nomadic sea peoples. The women in the stories were part of nature and always craved and often returned to the sea despite emotional ties to the land. In many of Phillipa Gregory’s works she weaves the story of Melusine through her contemporary historical fiction. Her perspective focuses on the women’s side of history, some female characters are said to be descendants of Melusine and as such possess powers attributed to the water goddess.


"Aron Wiesenfeld.  Like Hopper he is concerned with solitude, like Magritte he is bewitched by mystery" Guillermo Del Toro[15]

When defining a fairytale 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’[16]. 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.  

The painting ‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais is one of the PRBs most famous works. Ophelia’s story is similar to Gaia in ‘The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid’, she is driven to an end of self destruction through the actions of men although; she gains a kind of power against the men who desired her by passing into her watery grave. An extract from Hamlet likens her to a mermaid moments before her death:

‘…When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up;…’[17

FIGURE  5 - ‘Bunker’ 2016 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 32.5x44.5 inches


Millais’ painting is an exquisitely painted figurative version of Ophelia drifting down the river. This painting has been used as a basis of inspiration by many creatives since it was painted. Overwhelming the scene is the beautiful English hedgerow whilst Ophelia drifts unseeing and seemingly peacefully along the river. Visually it feels like it could be placed in an area of ‘edge- land’ today, a ditch, a large puddle or hedgerow by the road. Millais captures a contemplative and bittersweet moment of magic. The beauty of the figure surrounded by nature creates a universal longing to witness this painting. Unlike ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ Millais is not sexualising this character, he is somehow allowing her a moment of triumph that she does not get in the play version, a similarity to the defiant ending of Gaia’s tale. She relinquishes this world and gives herself to the ethereal landscape surrounding her. The painting ‘Bunker’ by Aron Wiesenfeld shares a connection with ‘Ophelia’, they are visually and symbolically similar. However, unlike ‘Ophelia’ there is no story associated with it. It is unclear why the young woman in ‘Bunker’ is there; is she resting as she lies atop the overgrown bunker, is she dying or is she abandoned. She looks like her body is uninhabited, indicated by her stiffened limbs and her glassy eyes. Abandoned bunkers reside along coastlines as a remnant from the world wars. These deserted places form part of our history and wild edge-land. Children are drawn to play and explore these sites because of their mystery and connection to the past. Where Ophelia is triumphant in a beautiful death, it is ambiguous what fate awaits this waif like figure. The tumultuous sky feels forbidding and the flowers around her feel as though they may consume her as she sinks into them. The Bunker is a reminder of her connection to the real world despite the imagined scene. Although it is not an illustrative work of a Fairy Tale, it has echoes of pieces like ‘Ophelia’; it is uncanny in its similarity.   

FIGURE  6 – ‘Lying With the Wolf‘ 2001 Kiki Smith, Ink and Pencil on Paper, 83x73 inches

The artist Kiki Smith is a contemporary figurative feminist artist who has been influential since the 1980s. Her more recent work is delving into the relations of women, animals and nature in myths and Fairy Tales. The symbol of the Wolf extends through many of her paintings, drawings and sculptures. In the drawing ‘Lying with the Wolf’ Smith uses the wolf as a sign of feminine power and strength, subverting its negative societal view, a predatory creature. The woman embraces the tranquil creature in a controlled way, as though gaining succour from its closeness. Animals reoccur throughout her work, there is a sense that these women are born from the creatures and embody the spirit of the natural world. Although her women are typically feminine in their form they are unadorned and non-sexualised, they are stripped bare as though born into a spiritual world. If you examine her collective works a thread/theme runs through, but unlike Waterhouse or Wiesenfeld she is not laying the scene before you.

Figurative painting goes beyond the two dimensional depiction of modern fairytales. 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 instils 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 7 – ‘St Genevieve’ 1999, Ink and Pencil on Paper

To conclude, this essay has found that Fairy Tales 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 in all its forms; film, literature and painting. 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 historical idea of ‘natural magic’ in its original form, as our natural world has been so heavily influenced and changed by humans. Many of our wild places are being eroded 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. Female artists like Kiki Smith will continue to explore women’s societal relationship to the mythological within the spiritual realm and the unconscious.

[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] Tennyson. A, L., 1907. The Complete Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Macmillan and Co. p.20

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

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

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

[7] Warner, M., 2015. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their tellers. [Kindle Version] London; Vintage Books L.7600

[8] O’Neill, L., 2018. The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid.[Kindle Version]London: Scholastic Ltd. L.54

[9] Carter, C., 2005. Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. Great Britain: Virago Press. P.448

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

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

[12] O’Neill, L., 2018. The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid.[Kindle Version]London: Scholastic Ltd. L.1211

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

[14] Reed, S., 2015. The Tale of Melusine [Online]. The British Library. Available from: http://blogs.bl.uk/european/2015/10/the-tale-of-m%C3%A9lusine.html[28/07/18]

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

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

[17] Tate. 2018. The Story of Ophelia [Online]. Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-ophelia-n01506/story-ophelia [29/07/18]

FIGURE 8- ‘The Garden’ 2012 Aron Wiesenfeld, Oil on Canvas, 36x30 inches

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