There’s a new school of thought roaming the halls for fiction. I’ve referred to it in the past as revisionist fairy tale history. The stories handed down through the generations are very clearly morality tales all with the same basic message–being good is better than being bad. There are myriad ways to put that, but the easier to digest the better. Wolves, vain queens, little men who can spin straw into gold are best avoided and it’s easy because they so obviously look evil. It’s Black Hat Syndrome or the Disney-fication of character as I like to call it. But a new tendency, a revisionist modern view, is starting to take root in fairy tales.

I say modern because it’s our modern sensibilities, our post-Freudian minds, that asks the question, “Why does evil exist?” It begs the question, what happened in the evil queen’s life to make her hate the step-daughter so much? Can we really blame a wolf for wanting a meal–a lot of us eat meat? Is it wrong to expect payment for doing all the work while the maiden gets a new life? My question is, do you think our fairy tale reading ancestors would have asked these questions?

It’s a topic I’ve been wrestling with lately regarding the new crop of fairy tales. I’m sure everyone knows about Maleficent, Disney’s new live action take on Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. I will admit, when it first heard about it I was a little miffed because I was in the middle of writing a novel called The 13th Fairy based on the original story and I set it in Reconstruction America. It was told from the point of view of the overlooked fairy who didn’t make the party list because of a lack of golden dishware. A ridiculous reason to exclude a guest who has the potential to give some great gifts or (as they found out) a truly horrific curse. I started to wonder what happened to the fairy after she dropped the party-killing bomb. I thought her story would be much more interesting than a girl who falls asleep and waits for a prince she’s never met to wake her with a kiss. I always thought it was a little presumptuous of the other fairy to put the rest of the castle to sleep while they waited for the big rescue. Talk about royal prerogatives! Nowadays the castle folk would have sued.

But I digress. I think it’s a sign of maturity when you start wondering more about the bad guys in a story than the heroes. When we’re kids we ask why about everything, but I don’t remember questioning the stories that ended “….And they lived happily ever after.” I figured it went without saying it included pretty dresses and lots of cake, the only happily ever after a seven year old can imagine. Now I wonder about the other characters. Were the castle folk paid for their time in stasis? Were the king and queen relieved to have some new clothes? Most importantly, did Maleficent (the best name for a villain, by the way) regret her impetuous act or did she have a real axe to grind? I still haven’t seen Maleficent, but I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Are there any fairy tale villains you wish you knew more about?

4 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Devil?

  1. I’ve always enjoyed layered antagonists who make me feel, “There, but for the grace of whatever higher powers, go I.”

    They’re so much more interesting than sugary sweet protagonists or psychopathic villains lacking complex motives.

    I love the way George R.R. Martin portrays his darker characters. They may do things we hate, yet we can sort of see why they’re what they are.

    As for your question, I’d love to see Professor Moriarty’s point of view some day. 🙂

  2. Actually, in fairy tales, I usually wonder more about the supporting characters than the villains. For example, I’ve considered writing a take on “Snow White” based more around the dwarfs (who are arguably the heroes of that story). While many these days write the dwarfs as some kind of mythical race, I always figured they were just little people. So, reimagining “Snow White” as a conflict between a queen who is both gorgeous and fixated on traditional beauty and a group of outsiders who would have been considered unusual-looking at best and ugly at worst during those times would be interesting.

    Though, I have started wondering about the Big Bad Wolf lately. I’ve been wondering why he’s always depicted as alone. Wolves are pack hunters. So, why is this one wolf going around tricking little girls in the woods rather than out hunting deer with his pack brothers.

    1. That would be a great story. The wolf who loses his pack and is forced to subsist on the fringes by attacking human passerby. If you ever write it, I would love to read it. As for your other story, I can see the appeal of wanting to explore the supporting characters. What brought all these men together and what made them take in a stranger and then mourn her so deeply? Another one I would love to read.

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