How fairy tales lost their magic

Renaissance scholar Armando Maggi calls for a new kind of happily ever after.

Prof. Armando Maggi, PhD’95, began his Humanities Day 2011 lecture with a clip from the opening scene of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Released in 1938, it was the first fairy tale to be turned into a feature-length Disney cartoon, and Maggi hoped the two-minute sequence would prove a point.

“This is a clip you know very well,” Maggi told his audience. The wicked queen stood in her chamber, interrogating her mirror and receiving the unpleasant news of Snow White’s beauty.

Then Snow White appeared, a scullery maid in a tattered dress, scrubbing the castle steps and singing into a stone well, her own echo warbling the accompaniment: “I’m wishing (I’m wishing) for the one I love to find me (to find me) today.” Doves fluttered around her. Suddenly, a passing prince, hearing her voice, leapt over the castle wall and sidled up beside her, lending an unexpected harmony. Snow White gasped. The audience chortled.

“I’m glad you laughed,” Maggi said.

An ‘exhausted’ art form

A UChicago scholar of Renaissance and contemporary culture and early-modern Italian literature, Maggi believes fairy tales have lost their magic. “Exhausted,” is how he describes it. The glass slippers and poison apples, the evil stepmothers and fairy godmothers and princes charming—and the kisses that lead to happily ever after—these things no longer exert much imaginative or intellectual force, he says.

“You laughed when you saw Snow White singing, with the prince showing up all of a sudden,” Maggi said. “I’m not sure that the audience when the film came out had the same reaction.”

It’s not only because times and audiences have changed in the past 75 years. Fairy tales themselves have lost resonance, Maggi said. “We can understand reality only through a mythic lens,” he said, and fairy tales once provided that lens. Now the view is narrower.

Yet we can’t move on, as demonstrated by countless literary interpretations, both satirical and straight, “We are not satisfied with these stories,” Maggi said, “but we go back to them. Why? Because in our unconscious, we perceive these as ‘natural’ stories, stories that precede us,” stories that have existed forever.

They haven’t. “The reality is, these stories were constructed,” Maggi said, as his voice swelled with urgency. “They were invented. And they are very recent stories.” But we cling to them, like the queen returning every morning to her mirror, Maggi told his listeners, because we have nothing else to take their place.

“And so,” he said, “We need a new mythology.”

Complex tales become children’s stories

Later, in his Weiboldt Hall office, Maggi explains further. “We cannot live without mythology,” he says. “It’s the way we reason, the way we survive, the way we make sense of our world. It’s just that the stories we’ve been using—mythic stories, fairy tales, legends—they’re not working anymore. We need something new. What we long for is a remythologization of reality.” He leans back in his chair. “This is an important moment.”

That’s the argument—and the frustration—that drives his current work, a book in progress called Preserving the Spell. “We are, in a sense, beating a dead horse,” he says. “We feel like this horse could still ride us somewhere, but it can’t. We need to find another vehicle.” Seven years ago, Maggi, a professor in Romance languages and literatures, taught a seminar called Renaissance and Baroque Fairy Tales and Their Modern Rewritings.

The class came and went, but fairy tales stayed with him, gnawed at him. He began to wonder, he says, about “the end, the exhaustion of certain narratives, and the struggle to replace them.” He taught the course again in 2010, and then last year embarked on the book for the University of Chicago Press. It’s a sprawling study of several centuries’ worth of fairy-tale evolution, and at its center is his call for a new mythology.

The earliest written versions of some of the Western canon’s most important fairy tales appeared in 1634, in a collection called The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, by Italian poet Giambattista Basile. Not actually intended for little ones, the book is structured as an oral performance, in which a series of storytellers offer up one tale each over five days, to satisfy the craving of a prince’s pregnant young wife. Among the contemporary stories that debut in Tale of Tales are Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Hansel and Gretel.

Those early iterations, almost unrecognizable today, were full of complex, unpolished narratives and moral ambiguities, shocking vulgarities and gruesome violence.

Over the next two centuries, the brothers Grimm—and before them, French fairy-tale collector Charles Perrault—rewrote Basile’s stories, adapting them to their own cultural moments. Shortening and simplifying them, combing out the moral uncertainties and narrative imprecisions, they turned the tales into children’s stories.

‘We must be able to dream’

But already, Maggi says, something was being lost.

By reconstructing the origins of contemporary stories and tracing their evolution, Maggi hopes not only to dispel the notion of fairy tales as “natural,” eternal stories but also to help lead the way to new, responsive, robust narratives.

Toward the end of his Humanities Day lecture, closing in on the allure of oral storytelling, Maggi paused. “We must be able to dream,” he said. “We do not dream anymore when we watch this Disney Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.”

He has given several talks on his fairy-tale research, and invariably, he says, someone from the audience will ask, “So, where are the new stories?” It’s a question he can’t yet answer. “What I say is, ‘It has to be a cultural change. It can’t be one person who saves fairy tales.’”