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A bed with golden posts and stacked mattresses, inspired by fairy tale 'The Princess and the Pea'.
The stacked mattresses from 'The Princess and the Pea' are among the displays in the new museum devoted to H.C. AndersenImage: Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

Why fairy tales need updates to survive

Christine Lehnen
January 3, 2022

Classic fairy tales are being revisited and diverse characters added. But even H.C. Andersen and the Brothers Grimm modified stories to reflect the values of their time.


The birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, who was born in 1805, is an inconspicuous one-story yellow house in the small Danish town of Odense.

As the son of a shoemaker who died prematurely and a laundress who could neither read nor write, no one could have predicted that he would become one of the world's most famous fairy tale authors.

His stories are still popular today. From "The Ugly Duckling" to "The Emperor's New Clothes," the tales have inspired many film and theater adaptations, including Disney movies, such as the popular "Frozen" franchise, which borrows from Andersen's "The Snow Queen." 

The new Andersen museum in Odense

The Danish author's first home has served as the Hans Christian Andersen Museum since 1930. The museum has meanwhile become part of an affluent neighborhood and has been completely renovated and rebuilt by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, whose firm was also responsible for the new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

The historic H.C. Andersen Hus serves as the entrance to an upper and underground fairy tale world. A spacious new museum building and garden have been added to the house, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the beloved stories from their childhood.

"We had the feeling that the guests in the old museum wanted something more than a traditional birthplace museum," explained museum employee Lone Weidemann. "People want to dive into his fairy tales because that's what they know. They need his imagination and inspiration for their everyday lives."

Fairy tales are trending

Countless films, video games and novels have in recent years contributed to renewing well-known fairy tales by classic European authors.

In Disney's "Maleficent" (2014), the wicked fairy godmother from Charles Perrault's fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" is turned into a tragic central protagonist, portrayed by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.

For her novel "Six Crimson Cranes" (2021), Japanese-American author Elizabeth Lim combined Andersen's fairy tale "The Wild Swans" with East Asian folklore — and created a bestseller.

But the trend is not new, points out German author, editor and fairy tale expert Christian Handel: "Fairy tales never disappear," he tells DW.

Classic European fairy tales such as "Snow White" by the Brothers Grimm, "Cinderella" by Charles Perrault or "The Princess and the Pea" by Hans Christian Andersen are actually based on much older sources, explains Handel, who adds that many of these stories already existed in written form at the time.

The widespread belief that the Brothers Grimm collected and wrote down old folk tales that had until then primarily been transmitted orally is therefore just a myth.

The myth of the 'folk tale'

The Brothers Grimm "sold their fairy tales to the outside world as something other than what they really were," explains Handel. Many of their sources were written, and above all of international origin.

For example, before the Brothers Grimm included "Puss in Boots" into their compilation of fairy tales in 1812 century, Charles Perrault already had a version written in French at the close of the 17th century, while an even older written Italian version dates from the 1550s.

Contributing to this cultural crossover was the fact that the city of Kassel, where the Brothers Grimm lived, was under French occupation during their lifetime.

Enchanting: Grimm World in Kassel

While Hans Christian Andersen did not claim that his stories came from popular oral sources, he still used culturally diverse and older tales and themes, adapting them to the values ​​of his time. "His typical hero or heroine is a God-fearing good person who is then rewarded," summarizes Handel. "Ironically, the original stories weren't Christian fairy tales at all; they were just reworked that way."

"When we read 'Snow White' today, we think we already know how the story goes. Most people are not even aware that there are very different versions ancient versions of the fairy tale around the world," explains Handel.

A fairy tale world for the 21st century

It is precisely this international aspect that is at the center of the current fairy tale trend, explains Christian Handel. What might be perceived as controversial modern transformations of classic tales is simply amounts to "doing the same thing Andersen and the Grimms did — redesigning the stories to adapt them to the values of the time."

Today, the myth of the national "folk tale" is no longer central to these stories; it is rather their intercultural and international origins that is in the spotlight, points out Handel.

Many modern fairy tales focus on characters who are not white or male: powerful female protagonists such as Elsa from "Frozen" (2013), a Black and lesbian youth in Kalynn Bayron's novel "Cinderella is Dead" (2020) or a gay prince couple, as in Handel's own novel "Rowan and Ash" (2020). 

But there is also some resistance to this, which is particularly vocal on social networks, reports Handel.

For example, Disney's announcement that they would be casting Black actor Halle Bailey in the lead role of their live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid" sparked backlash online.

Fairy tales bring hope

The fact that fairy tales are so familiar contributes to their charm, explains Handel, which is also why some people are irritated to see them changed. But such updates which integrate modern values ​​are essential for the survival of fairy tales, adds the expert.

If a new version of a fairy tale is controversial, it is because it demonstrates that the values ​​of a society are changing. That might also explain why fairy tales are being revisited now — to be updated with today's ideals.

This ability to change is actually one of the reasons why fairy tales survive, says Christian Handel.

But despite all transformations over time, fairy tales remain universal because "they clearly show that you can personally change something in your destiny. In almost all fairy tales, the heroine or the hero has to be active in some way for their fate to change."

And, Handel adds, "I believe fairy tales survive because in most cases they give hope. They often contain moments of wonder and carry with them the hope that something better will come."

This article was originally written in German.

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