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 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.

Cinderella – The Art of the Glass Slipper

Cinderella – The Art of the Glass Slipper
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cinderella is a tale of social transformation, a tale that begs the question “what is it like to walk a mile in my shoes”, and it is a tale that centres around a shoe, around a glass slipper. It is a shoe that speaks as much to its impracticality as it does to its power to display. Cinderella’s shoe is a commentary on class and the notion that clothing can create identity, that wearing a particular type of clothing can create a particular performance of selfhood.

These images examine the glass slipper as a central part of the Cinderella narrative and its fragility perhaps mirrors the fragility of wealth and identity.


“Cinderella’s Glass Slipper” by Chris Thompson CThompsonArt on DeviantArt


Chris Thompson’s “Cinderella’s Glass Slipper” explores the centrality of glass for the Cinderella story, creating a work that explores the fragility of story by transposing Cinderella’s image onto the heel of her glass slipper. The focus on creating Cinderella’s body from the bridge of the heel of the shoe illustrates her fragility and her association with the pain that is often associated with walking in heels.

Thompson’s use of a stained glass style links fragility to the notion of the fractured body. The Cinderella tale is one that is mutliplistic, with multiple pieces pulled together to form a narrative.

Thompson portrays Cinderella by herself on the shoe, which is significant since many images of the glass slipper tend to either show the prince picking up her lost shoe or putting the shoe onto her. This image focuses on Cinderella as complete in herself rather than an extension of her prince’s narrative.


“Cinderella” by Alexandra Dawe


Alexandra Dawe’s “Cinderella” accentuates the connection between the Cinderella narrative and time, portraying the clock just passing midnight and Cinderella on the ground in a look of despair. This is a Cinderella who believes that she has missed her opportunity, that this, like so many of her potentials in life, has gotten away from her.

Dawe illustrates Cinderella in rags and surrounded by other images of her poverty that were also figures transformed by her fairy godmother into representations of royalty – her rats and her pumpkin.

Yet, leaning up against her pumpkin is her glass slipper, connecting the wealth that could have been to what she believes her circumstances are now. Only one shoe is illustrated here, likely showing that this is the matching shoe to the one left on the stairs down from the palace. The slipper has become a reminder of what she believes she has lost.

The gears and works of the clock contrast nicely with the image of fairy tale magic, bringing magic and machine together in a way that paints this tale as one about the mechanics of human interactions.


“Cinderella at Midnight” by Jasmine Beckett-Griffith (jasminetoad on DeviantArt)


Jasmine Beckett-Griffith portrays Cinderella in wide eyed doll-like innocence. This Cinderella is associated with time like Alexandra Dawe’s figure, but her pocket watch has just struck midnight and she is portrayed still on the stairs with her glass slipper behind her.

Both Cinderella and her rats are portrayed in the act of transforming. Cinderella has her peasant clothes on with patches sewn into them, but she still has an expensive pocket watch and her hair is still done up in aristocratic style. Her mice are similarly transforming with some of them still in a state of shimmering brilliance behind her and those on her lap fully in their rat form. The centrality of the clock in this image is illustrated by the drifts of glittering dust falling from it onto the pumpkin, rats, and shoes, connecting this dust to the residual magic of her transformation. Beckett-Griffith seems to make the watch the agent of change, highlighting the role of time in this narrative. The use of dust in the image also conveys a sense of the connection between magic and time since it is the literal settling of the dust here that denotes that her time has passed.



“Disney Elementals Cinderella” by Joel DeQue (CeruleanRaven on DeviantArt)


Joel DeQue connects the Cinderella tale to the moon, exploring the power of the night as a place for transformations. This is especially significant for Cinderella’s connection to the ball, where she experiences her transformation over the course of an evening.

DeQue only shows one shoe peaking out of the bottom of Cinderella’s dress, which has taken on the form of a constellation in the night sky. Her glass slipper mirrors the glass bobble hanging down from the horn of the moon above Cinderella’s head. By connecting moon and slipper, DeQue highlights the transformative power of both – the moon changes over the course of the month as it goes through moon phases and the slipper changes Cinderella over the course of the evening from maid to princess to maid again and it will eventually reunite her with her princess identity when she is reunited with her lost shoe.