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Then and Now: Folklore

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Disney is out this month with a much-anticipated streaming service, Disney Plus, with which it hopes to take yet more of our leisure time. In addition to new movies and shows, Disney has thrown open the door of its “vault” and populated the streaming service with older titles, both cherished and forgotten.

The presence of timeless classics, such as Peter Pan and Fantasia, call to mind a time when Disney was more creative than it is today and made its name putting winsome heart into tragic, often gruesome legends.

Take Snow White, Disney’s first animated feature film. The 1937 film is based on the German fairy tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century. Little Snow White, as their tale was called, featured many similarities with the Disney version, but also much more death and torture, plus some eating of intestines. In her original folklore depiction, the princess is by no means bland or entirely cute. In the Grimm version, the Evil Queen attends the wedding of the Prince and Snow White (who becomes a bride at the tender age of 7) and there receives her final punishment; she is made to dance herself to death in coal-fired iron shoes.

The original Sleeping Beauty, unsanitized for the silver screen, is even more macabre than the story of Snow White. The 1959 movie follows the story popularized by Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales in the 17th century. In this, a beautiful princess is woken gently from her enchanted slumber by a dashing prince who delivers “true love’s kiss.” But in the earliest known version, Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia, the slumbering maiden is found by a wandering king who rapes her and then leaves. The princess continues to sleep, waking only after giving birth to twins.

Beauty and the Beast was based not on folklore but on the real-life story of a 16th-century odd couple, Catherine and Petrus Gonsalvus. Poor Petrus was the first person known to suffer from an ailment called hypertrichosis. This is an extremely rare condition that causes excessive hair growth, and its sufferers thus might be said to look bestial. His bride was tricked into marrying him by the French queen, Catherine de’ Medici. Yet their tale was not all tragedy. The two grew to love each other and were happily married for 40 years.

Still, I think I prefer Walt’s Wonderful World.

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