On my way to a recent hospital appointment, the sign on the tube opposite me had a picture of a wolf wearing a mask, with the heading: “You can huff, and you can puff, but please don’t pull your mask down.” Whilst the questionable morals of tales-of-old aren’t always to my taste, it made me smile beneath my mask to see that fairy tales are still sometimes used as a request for us to please be the “good guys.”
Fairy tales are slippery beasts born hundreds of years ago. They breed, they evolve, and we breathe life into them time and time again. Storytelling is essential to the fabric of our being, and a fairy tale is a big part of that.
We make up stories when we’re scared and when we don’t understand things: a way to mine for answers. We’ve told stories about leopards and their spots, the relationship between the sun and the moon, and all the things that might happen inside a forest where it’s too dark to see. Some fairy tales are cautionary, yes, but historically it was more about voicing fears. Giving them names and examining them from all angles, and having fun, too.
Fairy tales are important tools when it comes to fear. If we can create an environment where scary things happen, but we know it’s a story, it’s one way to problem-solve. It’s a way to turn on the light.
The history of fairy tales has always fascinated me. They have been passed down through generations and across continents, pieces added and taken away depending on the agenda of the storyteller. Before they were written down, they belonged to everyone, because you didn’t need to be able to read or write in order to tell them. Sometimes they can be traced back to real-life events. Hansel and Gretel emerged from the great famines that swept Europe in the 1300s, where families abandoned children in churches and there were whispers of cannibalism. Bluebeard was possibly based on Conomor the Cursed from the 6th century, who was rumoured to be a werewolf, and this was used as an excuse for murdering his wives. Beauty and the Beast was a novel written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and it’s thought to have been inspired in part by Petrus Gonsalvus, a man born two hundred years earlier, with hypertrichosis, who was well-known in the royal courts. His arranged marriage to Lady Catherine was seen as some form of joke. His medical condition meant he’d been “owned” by various monarchs and put on display. No thanks to them he was happily married to Lady Catherine and together they had seven children.
However, there was no “redemptive healing” for Petrus, and I’m using all the air quotes here because this sentiment is one of the main things I like to dissect and then subvert when it comes to fairy tale retellings. In many old stories (and unfortunately many modern-day ones, too) disability and disfigurement are used as metaphors — as markers for villainy, or as punishment for bad behaviour. This is called physiognomy, a word that traces back to the Greek phusiognōmonia, meaning judging a person's nature by their features. In Beauty and the Beast, Beast is transformed into a “beautiful man” when he falls in love and becomes more selfless. It’s a concept tied up in religious messages and, as a disabled person myself, it’s one I would like us to leave behind. In the 1800s, the folklore surrounding my disability, ectrodactyly, was that a mother of a child with the condition must have eaten a lot of shellfish when she was pregnant, because ectrodactyly was more commonly referred to as “Lobster Claw.” Freak show owners would create their own fairy tales surrounding people with disabilities, mixing science with storytelling and announcing that we were “proof of evolution” because we were mythical creatures: part animal and part human, existing somewhere in the in-between space.
Whilst being called a mythical creature may have certain appeal, these days when it comes to retelling fairy tales, I’m more interested in incidental representation of disability. In celebrating disabled characters and not using disability as punishment. It’s something that I was thinking about whilst walking through our local woods in spring last year. My husband and I went for 5am walks, right into the belly of the forest, with all the birds singing. Far from being the scary setting of fairy tales, for us the woods acted as an escape from the scarier outside-of-the-woods world. The wolves in here were early morning joggers, and we could pretend for a while that we were in a different space — until the starlings, perturbed by the ongoing ambulance sirens, learned to mimic their sound, and echoed it loudly across the canopy. Experiencing that noise was one of the strangest moments of my life.
And so, in a time when it is perhaps more necessary than ever to discuss our fears, I decided to write a collection of fourteen gruesome tales from around the world. This book is called The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers, and it has all the grisly elements of traditional fairy tales: a castle that screams, a sister who longs to eat her family, a young boy who tricks a troll in the middle of the night. It’s primarily for 8-13 year olds, but also for any adults who enjoy a creepy tale or two. It has positive representation of disability, and queer representation, too, and is beautifully illustrated by Adam de Souza. It also has a ribbon bookmark, and don’t we all love one of those?
I continue to believe that there’s something special about sitting in the dark with a night-light, whispering the words “once upon a time.” Who knows what will happen after those words have been uttered? Who knows what strange paths the tale will lead us down? Take my hand, close your eyes. Let’s get lost in the woods.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.