Editorials on Fairy Tales

Feeding the Imagination: Food in Fairy Tales

Feeding the Imagination: Food in Fairy TalesBy Derek Newman-Stille

“Change Within and Without” by Derek Newman-Stille

Food provides an important role in fairy tales and food frequently had transformative powers. Food is something that links people together. It is something that human beings share – a need to eat. We link food to celebrations that mark the passages of time. Food is frequently linked to our expression of our ethnicity and our culture. Food can also be a means of establishing difference and foods are frequently used as a way of expressing discrimination – for example, calling Germans “Krauts”, The French “Frogs”. Food can be a marker of discriminatory difference and what we enjoy eating is culturally defined.

Tales about fairies frequently feature food, with the caveat of warning that when people enter into the fairy realm, they should never eat fairy food, no matter how appetizing it seems to be. Eating fairy food can forever force people to stay in the fairy realm. In this way, food is linked to space and place, with food becoming an anchor where it becomes literally a part of the body. There is an ingesting of part of the fairy realm that occurs and that realm becomes part of the human guest. Food has the power to change people. 
Yet, it is also considered rude not to offer food. Fairy tales frequently centre around curses that have resulted from not offering a beggar food. Frequently powerful beings take the form of people in need of food in order to test the generosity of a hero. Food represents a bond between person who offers food and the person who receives it, linking them in social custom and tying them together through the notion of “the gift” and of the friendship between guest and host.

Food has a form of magic in fairy tales, a power to evoke changes. In “Cinderella”, food, in the form of a pumpkin, becomes a vessel of change, literally changing into a carriage to carry her to her new life. Cinderella enters into the body of the pumpkin, being swallowed by it in a reversal of the expected consumer-consumed relationship. It is part of her transformation and it is similarly a figure of change, converting to a pumpkin at midnight just as she transforms. It is a companion on her voyage to change.

Yet, many fairy tales feature the idea of food as a threat. They explore the power of food to potentially feed, but also to potentially kill. Snow White is a tale of an apple. The apple is so much a part of Snow that she has white skin like the inside of an apple and apple red lips. Yet the apple becomes a symbol of death rather than life, imbued with poison. Snow White is a tale of the ripening of youth and the experience of age. The apple given to Snow is, like the queen herself, all appearance. It is made to be beautiful to conceal a dark centre of poison. 

And the apple, like the pumpkin is a fruit of transformation. The apple provides a gateway for Snow White into eternal sleep. It is a symbol of the complicated nature of food – both as something that can sustain life and also, through poison or disease, something that can take life away.

Jack in the Beanstalk is a tale of transformative beans. Jack, in hunger, exchanges one source of food (a cow) for another (three magic beans). Yet the beans provide the roots for a tale of transformation. They grow deep in the ground and up into the clouds, providing a geographic gateway for Jack into a different realm and a change of circumstances. The beans are rooted in place in Jack’s world, but their stalks provide movement to a different place. Jack is able to life in two spaces through the beanstalk’s ability to suspend itself, bridge-like, between these two places.

Hunger is something that frequently serves as motivation in fairy tales, propelling protagonists to change their circumstances in order to be fed. These tales or hunger likely reflect reality at the time the tales were written. Hansel and Gretel becomes a tale of displacement due to food. Unable to feed their children, Hansel and Gretel’s parents kick them out of the house. They attempt to use food (breadcrumbs) as a way to trace their way home, but these are eaten. When the two young people come across a house of candy, they believe they will be able to eat in abundance, but this tale inverts humanity and food, making the youths potential food for the witch and the witch’s candy as nothing more than a trap. In fact, the witch complicates the food/human dynamic when she is baked in the oven by Gretel just like food is. 

Red RidingHood is similarly based on venturing with food and cannibalism. When Red wanders into the woods, it is to bring food to her ailing grandmother. However, this is another tale of cannibalism and, when RidingHood arrives, she is targeted as food by the wolf, who has already eaten Red’s grandmother and seeks to eat her.

Food and what has the potential to be considered food represents change. Perhaps this is because, so often we use food to represent passages of time, marking special occasions with it. The association between food and time is further enhanced when we look at ideas of ripening and rotting. Food has a limited window where it can be considered food – between ripening and rot. This is why the Cinderella tale is so fascinating – Cinderella travels within food, the pumpkin, and that food has a distinct expiry date – midnight.

Food changes over time and also changes us. In fairy tales, we really are what we eat… and we are what eats us as well.

Fairy Tale Traditions Versus Fairy Tale Transformations

Fairy Tale Traditions Versus Fairy Tale Transformations

By Derek Newman-Stille

Transformation Within by Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy Tales have been reconstructed in the 20th century as tales of caution and warning against difference. In reframing them as “Children’s Tales”, fairy tales have frequently been turned into tales of hegemonic control, tales that limit options and possibilities in exchange for ideas of “tradition” and “‘morals”.
Yet fairy tales have always been primarily about the RE-telling, about shifting and changing for new audiences and new listeners. They aren’t made to be static tales and the only traditions that they were made to represent were traditions about the importance of storytelling. 
Fairy tales are so frequently about transformations – from pauper to princess, from man to beast, from mermaid to girl – because they are tales that ARE transformative. They are tales that constantly shift and change with each telling, taking on new ideas as they are presented to new audiences.
Fairy tales come from oral narratives, and oral narratives are meant to be performed. Any performance shifts with its audience, changing as the audience finds certain things entertaining, offensive, humourous, or tragic, and performers know to shift the way they perform their tales to appeal to new and different groups. Fairy tales embrace these transformations, presenting them as metamorphoses of frogs into princess, but they are really about change and the need for change. It is often those in fairy tales who resist change, who become stuck in their ways, that suffer in their mundanity as a world of magic changes around them.
Tradition and transformation collide in fairy tales as they do in our world, generating new potentials that still take into account the stories that have shaped us. 

Fairy Tale Clothing

Fairy Tale Clothing
By Derek Newman-Stille

Clothing shapes the way people view us and we wear certain clothing to evoke certain social reactions. Our clothing shapes the narratives by which we are read and we shape the way we are seen by shifting our clothing. With simple changes in fabric and the shape of fabric we can be read as male, female, wealthy, conformist, outsider. Clothing can be a uniform, illustrating our careers. Clothing changes depending on the events we attend and the way we want to be seen at those events – shaping our celebrations and also the way we mourn.

Perhaps it is the adaptability of clothing that accounts for fairy tale obsessions with clothing and it’s transformative powers, but perhaps it could also relate to fairy tale interests in bodies and changes in circumstances. With a simple shoe, Cinderella changes her social status and circumstances, moving from pauper to princess. She is repeatedly read as a maid because her step-mother forces her to wear maid clothing and, even when she dresses in fancy clothes, these are torn from her by her step family, transforming riches into rags. Clothing seems to confine as well as define her until she is transformed by magic into a look that a princess is expected to have. She is read by her clothing and only seen as significant and noticeable when she conforms to the expected look of a princess. Yet she is shaped this way by the male GAZE, by the way she is looked at by the prince.

The Goose Girl is similarly a tale of transformation and clothing with a maid who changes clothing with a princess in order to assume her identity. Since the maid looks as a princess should (dressed in finery) and the princess looks like a maid, the girl is relegated to the position of Goose Girl and told to mind geese for the castle. Skill sets belonging to princess and maid are ignored because clothing is so definitive of social class and perception.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is similarly a tale of wealth and clothing, but, rather than conforming to expectations of clothing, this emperor seeks to set trends that define himself as different from the rest by wearing superior clothing. He simultaneously seeks the best materials, so light they seem like they aren’t there, and so spectacular they can only be seen by the most refined vision, while also fearing losing face and being seen as somehow deficient. The tale is one of pomposity and the fear that people have of losing face.

Red RidingHood is literally defined by her clothing, named after the red hood she wears. This hood represents the power to conceal, hiding her beneath red fabric. Yet that fabric is also the colour of blood, representing both the menstrual blood she will have as she passes from girlhood into womanhood and also the blood that will be shed by the wolf. It situates her as prey to the wolf, already marked in blood.

Clothing in fairy tales is transformative, but it also SPEAKS. Clothing is invested with symbolism and shapes the message that readers receive. So many fairy tales focus on clothing and it’s symbolic power because it IS a symbolic medium that already carries messages and shapes our understanding of the bodies that lay beneath the clothes.

The Darker Side of the Mirror: Why Fairy Tales Need Witches

The Darker Side of the Mirror: Why Fairy Tales Need Witches

By Derek Newman-Stille


Everyone has glowing things to say about figures like the fairy godmother who helps someone out by bringing them blessings, but what about those figures from the candy houses, the lonely castles, or the dark woods? What about the witches?


Witches are as much about transformation as fairy godmothers, and they may do even more than those light buoyant floating guardians by forging heroes and heroines out of unfortunate situations. Witches pose challenges to the heroes of fairy tales, not allowing them to go about their normal lives until they have asked themselves fundamental questions about who they are and who they want to be. They literally cause transformations that challenge preconceived ideas by transforming people into animals, inanimate objects, or physically unattractive bodies. They invite the challenge: if you don’t change, you will not be able to regain your normal form (and they always remind us that “normal” is a concept that is open to interpretation and disruption). They entwine the physically transformative with the psychologically transformative, shifting perspective by shifting the body.


Witches also serve the important role of providing punishment. They serve as the threat that underlies fairy tales, the notion that harming others will bring about repercussions.


Ultimately, most fairy tale witches want to change people for the better. Why else would they always linger on the side of the path, pretending to be poor and needing alms and then cursing those who refuse to give them consideration? These witches serve the role of equalizers, asking people to care for one another – especially those in need.


Witches serve as the counter-narrative for the wonderful women who rescue people from lives of darkness. Witches remind us that darkness is a place of reflection, a place of the unconscious where nightmares can teach.


Fairy godmothers bail people out of their problems, but witches invite people to deal with their own problems, depend on them to change themselves, and make their own circumstances change.




Why We Need Queer Fairy Tales: Complicating the Happily Ever After

Why We Need Queer Fairy Tales:
Complicating the Happily Ever After

By Derek Newman-Stille


So many fairy tales end with a Happily Ever After that involves a straight relationship, as though everyone’s life becomes complete when boy meets girl. This is a message that is repeated to queer people through our heterosexist society – that life is only positive if it is heterosexual.


Narratives shape us and queer people are often confronted with narratives that tell us that we don’t belong in our own societies. We grow up with repeated messages that we don’t belong, that we are outsiders in our own societies. Like many of the heroines and heroes of fairy tales, we are left in a place without a home, without a sense of belonging to the world we grow up in. We are dislocated.


Fairy tales also provide a chance to change our circumstances. I have always been drawn to fairy tales because they provided a chance to escape. As a young person, I was frequently called “fairy”. This was meant to be an insult for being queer, but it provided a space for me to think about the role of fairies, those outsider figures who bring a sense of enchantment to our world. Fairies often appear in fairy tale narratives as a critical question, a change in circumstances that makes the protagonist think about everything s/he has taken for granted and considered normal. They challenge the pre-existing and preconceived notions of how to interact with the world, by providing a voice of estrangement, a weirding of the world we have been told is the only possibility.


Queer people provide this critical challenge to heterosexism, asking society why it excludes and why it only presents certain ways of interacting with the world as “the right one”. Our presence in society invites the question “who is being excluded? Why are they excluded?” We invite questions about what we are told is “just the way things are”.


Fairy tales have the potential to open possibilities for queer re-tellings because they are tales about transformation. They are tales of transition, allowing a character to undergo bodily, psychological, and economic changes. They recognize that these transformations are beautiful, embodying the magic of new possibilities and new beginnings.


Queer tales make for great fairy tales because they are tales of battles against impossible odds. Daily we have to wander into the unsafe and unfamiliar woods, dealing with wolves of homophobia who tell us that they will tear us apart. We have to battle dragons of discrimination to even carry out basic tasks like using the washroom. We encounter monsters of prohibition telling us “no” to the basic act of love itself. And queer stories ARE love stories, fundamentally about love triumphing over all even when that love is socially rejected by the majority. We live in a world where large parts of it still have the death penalty for just being queer, where others force jailing on queer people, and where homophobic violence is accepted and not protected against. We live in a world where politicians can win votes by talking about their hatred of the queer population and where homophobia is considered part of the general rhetoric of hegemonic masculinity.


Like fairy tales, queer tales too have their fairy godmothers – those figures who transform our perceptions of ourselves and reveal to us that we have an important place in this world. They are the figures who fight for social justice so that we can have a Happily Ever After that isn’t the one that society tells us is the only possibility. They reveal that there are multiple Happily Ever Afters, each made to encompass the feelings, perceptions, desires, and needs of each person.



Fairy Tales as Resistance to Conformity

Fairy Tales as Resistance to ConformityBy Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales are often presented as messages of conformity, telling us what we shouldn’t do. They were re-written with moral messages attached to them: don’t go out in the woods alone; don’t take what isn’t yours; don’t trust strangers. Conform, conform, conform. But, fairy tales are really just oral narratives. The moral messages were tacked on as the tales were re-branded for children.

Despite this re-branding to try to achieve the conformity of children, fairy tales have always been complex things, imbued with ideas of uncertainty and complicated questions. Fairy tales are tales of enchantment, of the impossibilities of the world, and this influx of impossibility invites readers to question their reality, to ask themselves what might be possible. When we ask what might be possible, we resist conformity. We look for new potentials and new ways of living in our complicated world instead of conforming to it. 

Fairy tales are tales of change. They often feature a change of circumstance, a shift in possibilities, fate, and potential to give a character a new path through the woods, taking them off of the well-worn roads. Fairy tales represent the uncertain path, where everything is in flux, everything flowing and changing, and nothing certain or mundane. This potential for change is part of the resistance narrative of fairy tales – the potential to open up new possibilities that wouldn’t be considered in the strictly ‘normal’, ‘mundane’ world.

In addition to the changes within the fairy tale, fairy tales themselves, having come from oral narratives (tales told out loud) have – embedded in their very nature – the potential to shift and change with new audiences. Experienced storytellers shift their stories to fit with the audience in front of them, sharing the core of their stories but also changing parts of the message so that the message speaks to each listener, engaging them and making them feel like they are part of the story, a watcher in the woods. But this adaptability of oral narratives may account for the reason why fairy tales continue to be retold to new generations. These tales were made by a narrative that is about changing to fit the audience, and perhaps that has left a germ of potential within the fairy tale for it to continue to adapt to new social circumstances, new societies, new geographies, and new groups of people.

Fairy tales are fluid tales. They can adapt and flow into areas where there are stories that need to be told. This is one of the reasons why they have so much potential to take up marginalised voices, to represent voices that are often silenced. They have the ability to present people with a familiar tale but also with the expectation that that tale is going to be full of the magic of change, that it is going to do something different and take them out of their ordinary, everyday comforts. Fairy tales can be ways for those of us on the fringes, whether they are disabled and queer like me, or asexual, transgender, a person of colour, a person from an ethnicity outside of the majority, an aboriginal person, an aged person, or any other under-represented group, to speak back to the narratives that have shaped our lives. We can use fairy tales to shift the narratives about us – those messages of conformity that I mentioned at the start of this post by proposing something different and using the power of fairy tales and their adaptability to express new messages and resist those conformist messages that have been projected upon us.

Fairy tales are often called a Tradition, and many of us have been told in the past that we are untraditional, that we represent a degradation of traditional values, or that we should respect traditions. Fortunately, the adaptability of fairy tales explains to us that traditions are meant to change and that our tales are meant to open up possibilities for new traditions.