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 went on to become the framework for Fairy Tale telling in Europe. 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 research in libraries and traditional story tellers. The early versions of their tales were more true to their times, honest and visceral. 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 stories. Animated versions like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are children’s classics. Since the Grimm’s first altered their original collection, the stories have become adaptations based on what parents think their children should be hearing. The film industry has created simple stories with happy endings. Women are often witches or helpless and beautiful damsels. More recently, films have begun to delve into alternative stories, darker plots and empowering characters. How have fairy tales like Rapunzel been altered over time and what is the effect of their sanitization on children and society? How are women portrayed in tales now and then?
FIGURE 1 – Illustrated plate from 1819 Kinder und Hans Marchen
Rapunzel is a good example of how the Grimm’s changed their tales and how a Fairy Tale adapts to film and current popular culture. The original 1812 edition begins with a father foolishly promising his daughter to a fairy in return for an herb the mother craves. The baby girl (Rapunzel) is given to the fairy who takes her to an isolated tower. Eventually, the girl is visited by a prince who, in this version, gives her a child. With the emerging pregnancy, the fairy realises what has been happening. The story ends with the prince violently losing eyesight but ultimately being reunited with Rapunzel and his two children. The herb craved by the mother of Rapunzel is thought to be an herb to prevent. In Giambattista Basile’s telling, the girl is named after the herb parsley for this is what the mother craves. Parsley is thought to be a herb that may contribute to causing spontaneous miscarriage. There are hints of a sexual nature between Rapunzel and the prince in the earlier versions which are later removed in the 1857 version. In the pre Grimm versions, it is a story which holds warnings; to be aware of men and the dangers of pregnancy. Note also that the character taking Rapunzel holds no evil purpose for the child other than to lock her beauty/fertility away. The original tales don’t usually end overtly happy or sad. It does not say they go on to live together or that they are happy, it just ends, sort of how life itself is. A recent animated film, Tangled tells another version of the story of Rapunzel. In which the parents of Rapunzel do not promise their child away, she is stolen by the evil sorceress, Mother Gothel, for her magical properties.
FIGURE 2 – Mother Gretel from ‘Tangled’
This obvious distinction between good and evil makes for a simple to understand plot with the warnings of the earlier tales being lost. It becomes more about love, emerging adulthood and happy endings. In the modern retelling of many tales the lead role of the female character is being given modern attributes; strength, determination, autonomy but combined with evil and demonic female adversaries. The beauty of the early Grimm versions are that they could be told to young or old with messages that are still relevant today.
Marina Warner says that fairy tales should be continually re worked in the telling and perhaps a mid way between Disney and brutality can create tales that are more applicable to the present.
FIGURE 5 – Arthur Rackham ‘Rapunzel’
FIGURE 4 – Arthur Rackham ‘Princess and the Frog’
FIGURE 4 – Emma Florence Harrison ‘Rapunzel’ 1914
Illustration is intrinsically linked to the telling of tales, though the imagination can conjure images with only words (oral or written); the illustration is something magical that adults and children revere. Illustrators like Arthur Rackham have created iconic images for the Grimm Tales and Aesop’s Fables that create darkly romanticised scenes for otherwise two dimensional characters. Romanticism focused on Fairy Tales as part of European nationalism and culture, artist Emma Florence Harrison illustrated a number of these tales. The focus in her illustration often appears to be on the female character, allowing them centre stage.
Contemporary artist’s like Makiko Kudo and Tilo Baumgartel are looking at storytelling within painting in a different way, Kudo’s work is filled with small anime like girls often accompanied by animal companions and surrounded by nature. Fairy Tales are often set within forests and accompanied by animals. Her work expresses loneliness in the figures but also freedom in being within nature. Tilo Baumgartel’s work often depicts collections of characters, often humans and animals or creatures in between. His work is disturbing and intriguing, leading you to questions who the characters are and are they part of a wider story or tale.
FIGURE 7 – Tilo Baumgartel ‘Purchase’ 2017
FIGURE 8 – Makiko Kudo ‘Stage Curtain’ 2011
In my practice I aim to introduce some of the essence of the earlier, darker tales, less of magic but more linked to the warning tales within a modern context. Perhaps taking the older Grimm versions and re working them or playing with symbolism. Through painting I will also look more at the influence of nature on these tales and how we are connected with forests and places of natural isolation.
 Strange, E.F. 2017. Stories from the Pentamerone [Online]. Tim Sheppard’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers. Available from: [28/12/17]
 Ashliman, D.L. 2015. Rapunzel [Online]. University of Pittsburgh. Available from: [02/01/18]
 Tangled, 2010. Film. Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. USA: Walt Disney Pictures
 Tale of Tales, 2015. Film. Directed by Matteo Garrone. Italy, France, UK: Archimede Film, HanWay Film, Recorded Picture, Company
 News; In Our Time, The Brothers Grimm, 2009. Radio. BBC Radio 4, 5th February.21:30hrs.
 Cavendish, R.,2012. The Publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Online]. History of Today. Available from:
 Wikia, 2017. Mother Gothel [Online]. Available from: [03/01/18]
 Steven. 2016. Review: Tale of Tales [Online]. Ireland: Film Ireland. Available from:
 Annisa. 2017. Sleeping Beauty Original Story Grimm [Online]. Best Beauty 2017. Available at:
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 Eden. 2014. Artist spotlight // Emma Florence Harrison: An enigmatic early 20th century illustrator [Online]. Gorgeous Art Girl. Available at:
 2017. Tilo Baumgartel [Online]. Artsy. Available from:
 Phaidon. 2017. Inside the mind of Makiko Kudo [Online] Available from:
CONTEXTUAL PRACTICE - SEMESTER I - The Sanitisation of Fairy Tales in Modern Society
FIGURE 3 – Violet from ‘Tale of Tales’
The film Tale of Tales is another that looks at fairy tales but rather than re working them follows, close to the original, three brutal and sometimes horrific plots of Giambatista’s Pentamerone. Not so moralistic and happy ever after but with a definite message, to be careful what you wish for.