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Highlighting Folk and Fairy Tales on TV: Once Upon a Time…

Once Upon a Time; folk tale
Cast of Once Upon a Time Photo: ABC

I’m turning my attention to folk tales this week…and beyond. As I alluded to in last week’s list of Top 20 Folk Tale Adaptations to Curl Up With, I will be focusing on folk and fairy tales in my blog posts from now on. With the return of Once Upon a Time and Grimm, I just couldn’t help myself. They are begging to be picked apart and analyzed. I’m going to start looking at the folk tales featured in particular episodes and dissect the tale itself to discover it’s possible meaning, relevance in society today, etc. I am also going to look at how the show’s episode deals with the tale, how true they stay to the original, and compare meanings and significance between the two versions.

As Once Upon a Time just returned to television last night, I thought I would dedicate this Highlight of the Week to beginning my project and give you a general introduction, as well as an analysis of this week’s chosen folk tale.

Evidence exists of folk tales having been around for thousands of years. However, if you were born in the last thirty years or so you were probably introduced to them through iconic Disney films. The tales Disney adapted differ quite drastically from what we are all accustomed to seeing on the silver screen. One of the first people to actually jot down these oral tales was Madame d’Aulnoy in the late 17th century in her book Les Contes des Fees. Madame d’Aulnoy became wildly popular for telling these stories in her salon, which was frequented by the leading aristocrats and princes of the day.

Other names you may be familiar with are the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. The Brothers Grimm are most well known for their collection of popular folk tales, Children’s and Household Tales. From them, we have such stories as “Cinderella,” “Snow White”, and “Rumplestiltskin,” among many others. From Hans Christian Anderson we gain such stories as “The Little Mermaid” and “Thumbelina.” While The Grimm brothers collected stories from their friends and neighbors, Hans Christian Anderson actually wrote revised versions of stories he had heard as a child. Like our modern television shows, books, and movies Anderson was writing his own adaptations of oral folk tales.

With all of the adaptations and trading of stories for thousands of years, you can imagine how these stories have changed since their introduction into the world. The tales we are familiar with today are even wildly different from those known one hundred years ago. That is why I plan on looking at these differences and asking the million dollar question, “Why?” Why have these changes been made and what purpose do they serve?

As it is the very first folk tale OUAT introduced, I would like to look at “Snow White” today. Snow White addresses the “evil stepmother” syndrome of childhood. Basically, as Bruno Bettelheim elucidates, our minds in childhood prefer to divide our parent’s, and specifically our mother, into two people in order to better comprehend the different actions they perform in relation to us. We create the benevolent and kind “good mother” and the cruel and evil “stepmother.” The kind mother, our “real” mother, buys us presents, let’s us watch all the television we want, and bakes us cookies. The “evil stepmother” (she couldn’t possibly be related to the good and kind “real” mother) makes us eat our vegetables, doesn’t buy us the toys we want, and makes us go to bed at a reasonable hour.

In Snow White, the kind mother dies in order to make way for the evil stepmother. This is how our childhood brains loosely understand what is happening to our parents when they go from being the kind mother to being strict and imposing rules upon us. It is easier for the young child’s mind to use this reasoning than to come to terms with a parent being both kind at times and what we see as “evil” at other times.

So, in Snow White you have the evil stepmother taking over and also eliminating the kind father, who would let you watch tv and eat as much ice cream as you desired. You are of course completely innocent of any wrongdoing, your actions being white and clean as snow, and are being unjustly harassed by the evil stepmother. Eventually, after many trials and tribulations, you, with a lot of help from the dwarves and your prince (a symbol for the eventual husband who will help you break free from the tyranny of your mother), vanquish the evil stepmother. Essentially, we grow up, get married, leave the old castle or home where the stepmother resided and are no longer subject to our parents’ rules and regulations.

Now, I must include that this is a very quick and rough interpretation, and if allowed I could write you a thesis on the tale. However, I won’t put my dear audience through that and will hurry up and “get to the good stuff.”

In Once Upon a Time, we have the same scenario of the evil stepmother taking over and killing the father, as well as the trials and the eventual happy ending. One thing that is very different is the independence of the character of Snow White. In the television show, she is not solely reliant on the dwarves and finally her prince to take care of her and free her from her stepmother’s tyranny. She is capable of outwitting and escaping from the machinations of her stepmother on her own and indeed is portrayed as even being able to rescue her and her prince from that evil force.

This demonstrates the emphasis on “girl power,” and the independence and capabilities of the modern woman that has increased in the last fifty or so years. Women’s rights are definitely making an appearance in this adapted version of the folk tale. Snow White is capable of helping herself and doesn’t rely solely on outside forces for her survival and freedom from the evil queen.

Another aspect I found interesting about this modern interpretation was how the plan of the queen’s to eat Snow White’s heart is left out. The show merely shows her preparing to stow the heart among her collection. This could have been left out due to the show’s aim to include a younger audience. Maybe it was considered to be gruesome and inappropriate.

The consuming of the heart is most often interpreted as the child’s fear of being consumed, or rather their wants and needs being ignored and erased, by the evil stepmother. Perhaps it is left out to negate this fear being realized by children and parents watching the show. The show, being part of a business to sell to the audience through commercials, aims to influence parents to give in to their child’s wants and needs. So, perhaps the show’s writers and creators would not want to negatively affect business with the inclusion of this imagery, even if it’s significance might only be perceived subconsciously.

Well, make of it what you will. Is television trying to control our impulses by excluding certain material, or am I just crazy? You decide. That will be all for today’s episode of “Behind the Folk Tale.” I hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned for next week’s show!

Did you agree with my interpretation? Did I leave anything out that you noticed? Sound off below…



Check out our previous highlights here!

Check out Autumn’s Top 20 Fairy Tale Films.

Read my Top 20 Folk Tale Adaptations in Literature to Curl Up With on a Rainy Day.

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By on September 30th, 2013

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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