Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/10/21: Fairy Tales I

A Kay Nielson illustration for Cinderella

Fairy tales were not intended for children.

I repeat that, fairy tales were NOT intended for children.

Just take a look at the Kay Nielson illustration for Cinderella above. Despite the name, Kay is a he, a classically trained Danish artist who worked heavily during the first half of the 20th century. The moment depicts Cinderella in her finery meeting the Prince at the Royal Ball she has been forbidden to attend. But the meeting is… questionable, let’s say. For a start, the Prince looks awfully feminine with his slim legs, high heels, and heavy-lidded eyes. Perhaps he’s meant to be besotted with her, but by the way he’s grabbing the item from the leering, slinking  Negro servant on the right, he looks about to offer poor Cin a date-rape drug as she (futilely) attempts to fend him off. The other ball attendees look equally decadent with their powdered faces and high wigs, whereas Cinderella is tiny and helpless, trapped in her immense ball gown. The whole scenario speaks of an innocent wandering into exploitation.

Well, I could just be talking out my ass here, but at any rate, I’ve wanted to showcase Nielson’s art forever, and this post seems as good a way as any to do this. The stylized ink illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley were a big influence, obviously, as well as Art Nouveau and the vogue for stylization inspired by the off-kilter compositions of Japanese woodcuts, all of which Nielson likely absorbed. He did many other fantasy illustrations and even worked for Disney for a while, supplying sketches for Fantasia.  I first encountered this picture on the front of a greeting card in Seattle’s Pike Place Market decades ago, and I had to buy it. I still have it, even though it’s now widely disseminated on the internet.

Back to the idea that fairy takes were meant for adults: what we think now of fairy tales are part of the folklorish tradition which includes myths, legends, and morality tales, all of which were passed down orally in cultures from generation to generation. It’s only in recent times that a “fairy tale ending” meant a happy one with everything tied up neatly and sweetly. In some of the original versions of Cinderella, for example, the stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit them into the glass slipper of the Prince, one cutting off her toe and the other her heel; the deception is noted only when blood drips out.  And the other great Disney Princess-inspiring tale, Sleeping Beauty, has been seen through the lens of sexual awakening and rape.

The delightful thing about all of these tales, however, is the creativity and outlandish nature of their names. Like the ones I created for an imaginary version of 1001 Arabian Nights, these were fairly easy to generate. And who knows, the titles might inspire some real-life stories.


Unwritten Fairy Tales I

The One-winged Partridge

The Cripple and the Sausage

The Tongue with No Smile in It

The Boy Who Tried to Catch the Sunset

The Widow and the Crystal Blackbird

The Sky Brother and the Fire Sister

The Sea-Peacock

The Two Curious Charwomen

The Three Greedy Monks

The Dutiful Squire

The Iron Prince of the Sea

The Widow Who Wasn’t Crippled Enough

Emperor of the Fortunate Isles

The Child Born of a Loaf

The Boy Who Thought He Was a Goose


The Story of the Two Cursed Cabbages

The Scholar Who Taught the Chicken to Squawk

Why the Clouds are Always Youthful

Pretty Little Hungry-Eyes

The Princess Has No Stockings

The Magical Onions

The Misadventures of Prince Benjamin

The Wise Simpleton

Snow Blue and the Ten Brides

The Bad Gift of the Fisherwoman

The Donkey Husband

The Pavilion Made of Glass

Jack the Unicorn-Killer

The Little Monk Boy

The Clever Little Hermit


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