by Karla Fetrow
“Disenchanted” is not living up to expectations. Reviews are negative, but the criticism isn’t about the characters. Bean stacks up well as a princess who would rather be a rebellious teenager looking for a good roll in the hay rather than a life-long commitment to a prince. Other human characters have the Groening touch and are easily compared to Futurama personalities.
Matt Groening disappoints his audience by failing to utilize the textured world of fairy tales. Elfo flops around without a single magical elf attribute and one-liners that either sink or swim. He could as easily be Igor or a talking rag doll.
Although the castle and its surroundings are called “Dreamland”, the fairies don’t appear until just before a raging party. They are upstaged by mythical mermaids and not so mythical Vikings. Instead of a fairy tale, you’re hit with a deluge of fantasy spoofs that elicit giggles but distract from the charm of fairy tales.
Once Upon a Time, There Were Dark Fairy Tales
The origins of fairy tales go so far back in history, they become tangled with ancient gods, sea monsters, witches and demons. They are stories that were passed down from generation to generation, going through the same transitions and alterations all tales experience with the changing of each story-teller.
Fairy tales are cultural, reflecting a society’s earliest superstitions. Even when we collectively outgrow our belief in fairy tales, the dragons and sorcerers still strike a chord in the imaginative part of us that dreamed up space flight and instant communications. We inherently believe in magic.
A popular belief is that the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales were designed to frighten children into good behavior. The original collection was a scholarly work. The two brothers traveled throughout Western Europe, listening to storytellers and gathering the local myths for their historical and linguistic value. Their purpose was to preserve this era of history before it was too late.
“Children and Household Tales” wasn’t at all designed to be placed in a child’s category of reading material. The Grimm Brothers stories used nudity, implied sexuality and graphic violence; all elements of the original content.
The Real Meaning of “Happily Ever After”
The Grimm Brothers believed that the most natural and pure forms of culture were linguistic and based off history. Later editions modified their work, removing any suggestion of nudity or sexuality but pumping up the violence, and often ended the story with a moral lesson.
Many fairy tales did not have happy endings. Brothers were turned into swans. Children were cast under spells and lost forever in an enchanted slumber. Lovers were lost at sea, lives could only be freed through self-sacrifice.
Walt Disney’s happily ever after fairy tales reflected a changing era of attitudes toward acceptable children’s literature. Stories ended on a more positive note. There was the promise of reward for diligence, faith and kindly acts. There were lessons in forgiveness. Fairy tales took on less sinister proportions as good battled with evil and triumphed.
The Formula for Fairy Tales
Fairy tales, in their best form, belong to a specific genre categorized as fantasy, although not all fantasies are fairy tales. Disney’s fairy tales remained faithful to the subject of the tales. The plots were grounded in stories that had been passed on for centuries and remain incorporated in children’s literature. He also remained faithful to the nature of fairy tales. Animals talked. Objects became animated. Potions and spells were liberally sprinkled.
Most of all, in fairy tales, humans aren’t the only sentient beings with ambitions and long-term goals. They contain an assortment of bi-peds, all with the characteristics traditional to their species. Fairies assist Mother Nature and sometimes grant wishes. Elves are an industrious, inventive species that are generally good, sometimes chaotic and are invested with magical powers. Dwarves are small, hard-working and have astonishing strength. Ogres are large, dim-witted and are inclined to eat any species smaller and weaker than themselves.
There is a certain balance of power among these species, with humans often coming out on the low end, with only cunning and group efforts giving them any kind of edge at all. Many authors write their own fairy tales but stay faithful to the environment of different sentient species and their attributes.
JRR Tolkien’s epic journey through Middle Earth, as seen through the eyes of a Hobbit, was a fifty-year labor of love that began with a study of Beowulf and other Norse legends. His early writings, which faithfully followed the author of Beowulf, were criticized by an academic society who felt literature should not contain elements of the fantastic. He argued that human destiny, in general, was not limited by tribal politics, making monsters a necessary element for the completion of a poem.
Legendarium Fairy Tales
The body of Tolkien’s mythopoetic work formed the basis of what is now known as legendarium fairy tales. Contemporary fantasy writers and fan-based fiction use the Middle-Earth background, environment and various species to build their own stories of love, adventure, mystery, intrigue and war. Middle Earth rules apply to fantasy games such as “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Magic”.
Contemporary fairy tales often give their princesses stronger roles than merely being a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. Some princesses don’t need rescuing at all. Some prefer to choose their own mates. Groening delivers the alternative princess with delightful disregard for convention, but to date, has not delivered the full promise of a fairy tale.
Matt Groening isn’t really comfortable with Middle Earth. He isn’t comfortable with surrounding his humans with other species that don’t cater to human whims and don’t follow a human agenda. He downplays his monsters, preferring to instead, transfer his Futurama inspired characters to a fantasy setting that still assumes humans are what life’s all about.
A Fairy Tale Parody That Tickles
A far more enticing contemporary legendarium can be found with L.M. Warren’s, trilogy, The End of the Magical Kingdom. His contemporary princesses are three distinct personality types whose individual belief systems set the entire kingdom at war with each other.
Warren’s fantasy world stays true to the fairy tale art form with witches, sorcerers, talking animals, potions and spells, but blithely gives a scientific base for each one of his marvels, stretching the imaginative quality so far, the lines between fantasy and science fiction become blurred.
Like Groening, Warren’s satire reflects the human condition with characters who go to the extreme and whose own foolishness creates their demise. Like Tolkien, his legendarium is a labor of love that slowly develops his kingdom as he looks around and begins recording identifiable landmarks.
A Fairy Tale Satire That Bleeds
A good fairy tale believes in Middle Earth and all its inhabitants. It doesn’t see extra species as a sub-species of human but as intelligent beings living separately and in conjunction with humans. Unlike Groening, who seems to be afraid that giving extra species their equality would be to acknowledge fantasy as more than made-up fairy tales, Warren takes delight in developing his mythical beings, sometimes making them more noble and courageous than their human counterparts.
Warren’s kingdom is sprinkled with liberal doses of modernism and bizarre, comic-book violence wrapped up in a flurry of bipolar behaviors and emotional turmoil. There is a feeling that he has only just begun, which shouldn’t be surprising. With the introduction of his first set, he leaves readers hanging and wistfully wondering about the fate of their favorite characters. He has built the foundation for a new world of fantasy and like all writers who delve into fantasy, has discovered it takes a long time to build a legendarium.