Given that many of them are thousands of years old you could argue that the longevity of fairy tales is pretty extraordinary. It’s almost impossible to find a child who doesn’t know about Cinderella, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty.
Despite the sanitised Disney-esque versions, however, it often disturbs me that fairy tales aren’t just sources of enchantment: they’re also devices of psychic oppression.
This is not to say that beloved guardians necessarily or consciously force toxic narratives upon the very young. It’s more that the essence of culture is everywhere, not least in the stories that are told and retold through the generations. I remember how dazzled I felt at the thought of a prince hacking through tangled brambles to find his sleeping love; how much I longed for the little mermaid to find her feet instead of her fishtail, despite the terrible price that had to be paid. I jeered at Cinderella’s ugly sisters when they got their comeuppance, and was frightened when Snow White’s beauty made the queen seethe with envy. “Mirror, mirror on the wall” was a chilling mantra that entered my consciousness long before the global mirror of the internet arrived to try to make furious witches of us all. Apart from their beauty, the girls at the centre of these stories are uniformly passive, sitting around waiting for their fate to be determined by others.
We all need stories. They nourish us, and feed our imaginations, and help us to make sense of this chaotic world. Many of us are lucky enough to have been cherished by parents and grandparents who understood this. But a hard truth remains. Some of our most beloved and ancient stories contain poison, even if (or perhaps especially if) they taste like honey.
You don’t have to dig too deep to know what the messages contain and how stark they are: Beauty and compliance are the only routes to happiness; being chosen by a man is the pinnacle of a woman’s ambition; older women are murderously jealous of their younger counterparts; wealth and riches alone are the routes to a successful life; and, perhaps most remarkably, the only way of being freed from illegal incarceration in a round tower is to grow your hair long and fling it out of the window so a prince can climb up your tresses in the same way someone would climb a rope. Ouch.
It’s dangerous to censor the storytellers since they also send us secret messages of resistance and defiance in a world that is already oppressive (think of Austen’s wonderfully ironic ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ an ingenious, ever-famous line which immediately has us questioning those very truths from the start). Still, it’s good to know that stories can change. In the more ancient versions, Cinderella’s ugly sisters hacked off their toes to try to fit into the slipper in the hope that they too might appeal to the prince. At some point, someone obviously decided this was not a good image to plant in the minds of young children. These days though, children and young adults continue to be bombarded with debilitating visions of their own inadequacy. At the click of a mouse, they can be subjected to an infinite number of narrow beauty standards and impossible ideals of success. We know that this makes them feel terrible about themselves. They’re more vulnerable to toxic messages than ever before. And it’s a very good thing that many novels and stories focus on the protagonists’ enlightenment and agency.
Still, there’s something else among those ancient fairytales that makes them so compelling. The rags-to-riches meme is as old as time. It provided me with a trusted plot arc that forms the basis of my new novel, All The Money In The World. Penny Nolan lives in poverty. She and her friends are teased and excluded for their disadvantage. She longs for something better in life, gradually becoming more and more determined to escape from the things that hold her back. She meets someone who, in many ways, is not unlike Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
I hope readers will notice that in the end, Penny’s story is not about the money. It’s about how she learns to become her own hero. It’s about having the courage to declare herself. It’s about being proud of who she already is.
(c) Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
About All The Money In The World:
One day you’re broke. The next, you have all the money in the world. What would you do? A gripping, timely story about cold, hard cash and little white lies for fans of Jenny Valentine, Siobhan Dowd and Lara Williamson.
Fifteen-year-old Penny longs for something better. Better than a small, damp flat. Better than her bullying classmates and uninterested teachers. Better than misery and poverty day in day out.
An unlikely friendship and a huge sum of money promise a whole lot of new chances for Penny, and she realises that not only can she change her life, she can change herself.
But at what cost?
Perfect for readers of 10+.
Order your copy online here.