Saturday 17 August 2019

Panto: What can flawed fairytales and folklore teach children and adults in modern times?

As panto season kicks in, Deirdre Sullivan looks at what flawed traditional stories and folklore can teach children and adults in modern times

While you were sleeping: The prince kisses Aurora in Sleeping Beauty
While you were sleeping: The prince kisses Aurora in Sleeping Beauty

Deirdre Sullivan

Fairy tales and folklore contain multitudes, and there is no shortage of powerful women hidden in the background. But the ones we are all familiar with, it has to be said, are not without their problems.

As panto season approaches, let's take a look at a few traditional fairy tales and consider what lessons they can teach children - and adults - for the world we live in now.

Sleeping Beauty

Charles Perrault's classic tale will be staged in the Tivoli this year, but it's also been in the news recently for other reasons. In the UK, a mother called for it to be withdrawn from her six-year-old son's primary school because it promotes "inappropriate" sexual behaviour, but said that the story should be used to start conversations about consent with older children in the classroom.

I feel quite sorry for poor Aurora, cursed by a spinning wheel to sleep until a prince delivers that non-consensual coma shift. But it's an interesting story about how we can't avoid our fate. The spinning wheel could be read as representing domestic labour, which, even now, is largely done by women.

I think a good modern message to take from Sleeping Beauty is you don't have to do it all. Stop spinning, if you can. Have a nap. But maybe lock the door first?

Jack and the Beanstalk

This traditional tale of a young boy who sells his cow for some magic beans and then goes robbing giants has been reworked by the Olympia this year into Polly and the Beanstalk.

Beauty And The Beast
Beauty And The Beast

Playing Polly will be Rory Cowan who has stepped into the role as a result of Al Porter, much like the Jack of the fairy tale, being allegedly too interested in grabbing other people's stuff, whether they like it or not.

I think Jack's poor mother is the real hero of the story, putting up with his nonsense while presumably raising him on her own. The happily-ever-after of it all is that Jack kills the giant by cutting down the beanstalk, then lives like a king with his mam on the fruits of his crimes.

The lesson from this? Make sure you have a burglar alarm, even if you live up in the clouds. And consider going vegan. Jack got more from that beanstalk than he ever did from the poor cow, after all.

Beauty and the Beast

Both Galway's Town Hall Theatre and Dublin's Helix offer adaptations of the French fairy tale, and it is one of my favourites, despite the Stockholm Syndrome. Love can look beyond crimes - and even beyond species itself - provided it's still heterosexual and the dude is burly and rich enough to keep you in the manner to which you became accustomed when he imprisoned you in his castle. So much better than Gaston, am I right?

Beauty takes responsibility for her father's sins and sacrifices her freedom to save his life. After some time in the castle, she makes like a half-heard John Lennon lyric and gives Beast a chance. They fall in love (in fairness, he is the only thing resembling a human man in the castle and no young woman wants to snog a candlestick, no matter how sexually-charged it is) and eventually a happily-ever-after happens. At least until the revolution comes.

In the original fairy tale, Belle has older sisters, but they only love themselves and are always mean to her because of how good and kind she is. A lot of wicked women in fairy tales are characterised as vain creatures because you're supposed to be naturally beautiful, not to work at it like some sort of sordid painted lady. No man-bear-yoke will ever give you a library if you've notions, for goodness' sake.


Rapunzel is coming up at the Gaiety. Rapunzel always felt a little Irish to me because of the round tower and woman in black robes stealing your baby.

In the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale, climbing up her hair wasn't all the prince got up to, and the witch discovered Rapunzel's secret when her pregnant stomach began to push at her waistband (in spite of living in a tower for all of her life, Rapunzel is always depicted as thin - she must have some metabolism on her).

Unplanned teenage pregnancies do have a way of making your parents mad at your boyfriend, which Rapunzel learns when her witch mother cuts off her hair and tricks the prince into climbing up the braid so she can blind him. All's well that ends well and when the lovers reunite, they find out that true love is the best eye surgery you can have.

Rapunzel teaches us that consent is sexy (he always asks her to let down her hair, even though he could have bought a really big ladder with all his prince money, fair play to him) and that bench-pressing a witch with your big plait a few times a day for your whole life is a killer work-out.

In this world where happily-ever-afters seem further and further away for so many of us, there's something to be said for escaping into the stories of your childhood, seeing their flaws and loving them anyway.

There's a comfort and a power to fairy tales and the fact they've survived for so long is testament to how much we share with those who came before us. The way we tell the stories may change as the world does around us, but something in the core of them, of us, still stays the same... and always will.

Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island, €15.99) by Deirdre Sullivan has been shortlisted for Young Adult Book of the Year and Best Irish Published Book of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2017. The winners will be announced tonight, and the event will be broadcast tomorrow at 9.30pm on RTÉ One.

Irish Independent

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