gender-swapping the Greek myths

Fi Webster

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Fun article on two authors gender-swapping Greek myths in an illustrated kids' book.

With its heroic female leads and men who long to be fathers, Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett’s new book looks at modern mores through an ancient lens.
Their first book was Gender Swapped Fairy Tales. “Because they are a big influence on the way children think and are brought up,” he says. “They form the early building blocks of the expectations on you. And it was an easy place to start because they are so gendered.”

So kings became queens, brave princesses rescued imprisoned princes, and a scary she-wolf jumped out from behind a tree into the path of a pretty boy wearing a red hoodie.
The Greek myths, with their peak patriarchy, dramatic power imbalances and raging toxic masculinity, pretty much demanded to be fed into the gender-swapping algorithm.
In a way, though, their gender-swapped Greek myths are still binary, just binary flipped; certainly, they are heteronormative. But the pair believe that by swapping the two dominant gender constructs, the division will be disrupted and this will get us all thinking about how gender defines everyone and everything. “It’s more important for us to make people think about the current world and how it could be different,” says Plackett.

Hmm... given that they're dealing with the ancient Greeks, it doesn't makes sense to me that they kept the switcheroos heteronormative. There are already Greek myths (e.g., Apollo and Hyacinthus) that depict LBGTQ+ relationships. Why not tweak some of the more famous ones in that direction, too?

Maybe they chose a heteronormative route to keep the book from being banned from school libraries.

It does sound like a good start at providing kids with less patriarchal classical stories. I'm not into kids' books, but I'm curious to see how they rewrite Zeus's many celebrated seductions. Hera doesn't seem like the right protagonist for those—not lustful enough. Will the leader of Mount Olympus become a female deity who uses magical guises to rape human men she has the hots for? Would that be a desirable message for young girls?
 
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MythMonger

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It does sound like a good start at providing kids with less patriarchal classical stories. I'm not into kids' books, but I'm curious to see how they rewrite Zeus's many celebrated seductions. Hera doesn't seem like the right protagonist for those—not lustful enough. Will the leader of Mount Olympus become a female deity who uses magical guises to rape human men she has the hots for? Would that be a desirable message for young girls?

from the article:
some of the things that might have been interesting seen through their magic mirror – Tiresias’s actual trans journey, the story of Iphis and Ianthe, Heracles’s gay adventures, Zeus’s serial rape crimes – don’t feature...

Sounds to me like they're not rewriting the affairs of Zeus.

I disagree with your assessment that Hera would simply step in for Zeus in a gender swapped retelling. Zeus, with all his shortcomings, would be recast as a female god.

Sounds like it would be a fun read!

Their observations of how bad several characters are (ie, Odysseus and Theseus) isn't apparent until they were portrayed as female is very interesting.

I also had a good chuckle over "Minoheifer." lol
 

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Fun article on two authors gender-swapping Greek myths in an illustrated kids' book.






Hmm... given that they're dealing with the ancient Greeks, it doesn't makes sense to me that they kept the switcheroos heteronormative. There are already Greek myths (e.g., Apollo and Hyacinthus) that depict LBGTQ+ relationships. Why not tweak some of the more famous ones in that direction, too?

Maybe they chose a heteronormative route to keep the book from being banned from school libraries.

It does sound like a good start at providing kids with less patriarchal classical stories. I'm not into kids' books, but I'm curious to see how they rewrite Zeus's many celebrated seductions. Hera doesn't seem like the right protagonist for those—not lustful enough. Will the leader of Mount Olympus become a female deity who uses magical guises to rape human men she has the hots for? Would that be a desirable message for young girls?
Agreed, but it makes my eyes cross to think of anyone calling Greek societ(ies) in that period heteronormative. Kenneth Dover, anyone?
 
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Fi Webster

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I disagree with your assessment that Hera would simply step in for Zeus in a gender swapped retelling. Zeus, with all his shortcomings, would be recast as a female god

We don't disagree at all. I, too, suggested that Hera would not step in for Zeus, and that Zeus would become a female deity.

The interesting question to me is, how would they deal with all the stories about Zeus's promiscuity and rapey behavior, when rescasting the head of Mount Olympus as female?
 

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We don't disagree at all. I, too, suggested that Hera would not step in for Zeus, and that Zeus would become a female deity.

The interesting question to me is, how would they deal with all the stories about Zeus's promiscuity and rapey behavior, when rescasting the head of Mount Olympus as female?

When he turns she, she becomes nympho instead of rapey. Not sure about the non-con aspects. But plenty of people think a guy can't be ... because they can't imagine a guy turning down free sex.
 
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Fi Webster

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When he turns she, she becomes nympho instead of rapey. Not sure about the non-con aspects. But plenty of people think a guy can't be ... because they can't imagine a guy turning down free sex.

Of course a woman can be promiscuous and a guy can not give consent. But these are people writing books for children, who explicitly say that their reason for doing the gender flip is to empower young girls. I'm not wondering what would theoretically happen if he turns she, but how these authors might choose to portray a female head of Mount Olympus, given their stated aim.

Another way of asking the question: what do we writers here think would be the best message to give young girls about a super-powered, lustful female deity's behavior toward human men she has the hots for?
 
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Of course a woman can be promiscuous and a guy can not give consent. But these are people writing books for children, who explicitly say that their reason for doing the gender flip is to empower young girls. I'm not wondering what would theoretically happen if he turns she, but how these authors might choose to portray a female head of Mount Olympus, given their stated aim.

I was thinking more general readers, such as parents buying the books for children and the obvious direction for the author to go if they stay true to the original myths.

Would sex enter the written equasion at all? Would it be shown as positive or negative if it is? In the original myths, Zeus did have all the power in the (lack of) relationship dynamic.

If the original myth is changed so much that there is a positive relationship dynamic in the new story, is it still based on the original myth?
 

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Of course a woman can be promiscuous and a guy can not give consent. But these are people writing books for children, who explicitly say that their reason for doing the gender flip is to empower young girls. I'm not wondering what would theoretically happen if he turns she, but how these authors might choose to portray a female head of Mount Olympus, given their stated aim.

Another way of asking the question: what do we writers here think would be the best message to give young girls about a super-powered, lustful female deity's behavior toward human men she has the hots for?

I get it now! I'd still like to play. :)
I was thinking more general readers, such as parents buying the books for children and the obvious direction for the author to go if they stay true to the original myths.

Would sex enter the written equasion at all? Would it be shown as positive or negative if it is? In the original myths, Zeus did have all the power in the (lack of) relationship dynamic.

If the original myth is changed so much that there is a positive relationship dynamic in the new story, is it still based on the original myth?
I'm thinking back to a children's book having Greek Mythology -- D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. As I recall, the mistresses of Zeus all seemed to be willing participants. Hera was portrayed as more of an interloper, despite her valid concerns. No sex mentioned, per se, just out popped a kid!

It would definitely change things up if female Zeus had to bear the children. The only consequence for male Zeus usually was Hera, lol.

It might work better to think of each myth individually. Take Semele, for example. Hera convinced her to make Zeus show himself in his true form, burning her to death. Zeus saves their child, Dionysus, by implanting him in his calf. Dionysus was granted immortality because a god bore him instead of a mortal woman.

Female Zeus would, instead, place Dionysus in her womb, because why not? Then it would be just like any other affair female Zeus had. This brings up another issue, though-- would all of female Zeus' offspring be immortal because she bore him, like male Zeus bore Dionysus? Hercules would never have his labors, nor Perseus his adventures, etc., because why would they bother?

Maybe they're leaving female Zeus sex out of the book because it was simpler. I can't imagine why sex would complicate things so much. lol
 

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Another way of asking the question: what do we writers here think would be the best message to give young girls about a super-powered, lustful female deity's behavior toward human men she has the hots for?
The stories they used are adaptations for children from 1950. So it's not like they introduced new negative concepts, they used the exact same elements. If it's fine to show boys a male figure who is lustful and rapey, it has to be fine to do the same for girls. If it's not fine, then at least it shows clearly those stories aren't suited for kids, be it the original stories or the adaptations, and both should be removed.
 
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Will the leader of Mount Olympus become a female deity who uses magical guises to rape human men she has the hots for? Would that be a desirable message for young girls?
I assume they'd tone the rape stuff down/censor it out entirely, the same way they do with kids' versions of the original myths. I remember reading stories about stuff like that when I was a kid, and then reading the real versions when I was older, and being like 'ohhhh'.
 

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:Thumbs: Thanks for the link, Fi - fascinating reading for sure :)


It's interesting to see that others have caught up to where top-quality fanfic authors were a quarter of a century ago over in the online Xenaverse. Back then, there were really no limits when it came to retelling the ancient myths and legends (and that was in part true for the TV show itself, actually). The special Xena Warrior Princess magic dust would keep the stories fresh and sharp.



Fi said:
(...) what do we writers here think would be the best message to give young girls about a super-powered, lustful female deity's behavior toward human men she has the hots for?

"If you want something, go for it." (But that's the Scandinavian way of thinking right there.)

BTW, isn't your description the modern interpretation of Aphrodite in a nutshell, though?


Norsebard
 
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Fi Webster

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I assume they'd tone the rape stuff down/censor it out entirely, the same way they do with kids' versions of the original myths. I remember reading stories about stuff like that when I was a kid, and then reading the real versions when I was older, and being like 'ohhhh'.

In my own case there was no toning down or censoring. Edith Hamilton's book was assigned reading in my fifth grade year. At age 10 I was ignorant of the word "rape," but knew firsthand how awful it was, since I'd already been sexually abused by multiple people. Hamilton makes it clear that something pretty bad is being forced on those women Zeus goes after.

Since I was also looking at art books with paintings of naked women being assaulted by swans and clouds and golden showers from above, naked women being spirited away on bulls, naked women being turned into trees, etc., it wasn't hard for me to figure out what was happening in those stories. And what happens to Persephone was a pretty big freak-out for me as well.

I'm not a fiction writer. That's why I asked the question. Because a not insignificant percentage of young girls already know what molestation and rape is. I don't know whether it would be good for them to read that they're neither alone nor responsible for what's happened/happening to them, to read stories about girls or women fighting back, to read that females in power behave badly, too (one of my abusers was my mother), or what... I was completely alone in my plight, constantly commanded to keep it all secret, and more or less told it was my fault. To this day my own sister doesn't believe me. Since I got all my important information from books, I would've been much better off if I could've read something helpful about this issue.

Sorry to take this in such a dark direction. Obviously this is a broader question than just Greek mythology. But if people are switching genders in the Zeus and Hades tales, they need to figure out what would be the best message to convey. "Uncensored" versions of the Greek myths are widely available to any kid with a library to explore.

ETA: I'm reminded that when I was in my thirties a billboard went up in the city I lived in: it read "Is your father bothering you? If so, call..." and then gave a phone number for some organization doing outreach on behalf of abused kids. I was gobsmacked when I saw that message, thinking, "I sure wish there'd been a billboard like that when I was a kid!"
 
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Fi Webster

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I'm sorry you had to endure so much abuse, Fi Webster.

Thanks. (Please, call me Fi.) There's an upside that took me a long time to figure out: once I escaped from childhood, I turned into one tough cookie, never taking shit from anyone. Plus I'm super empathetic and as resilient as F.

My parents blessed me with great genes and great education. They were both polymaths with graduate degrees, so even though they were abusive, not only school but also the home environment (like the people they socialized with) was rich with learning opportunities. I always give them credit for that.

But OMG was I relieved when they finally died!
 
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Little Anonymous Me

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Maybe they chose a heteronormative route to keep the book from being banned from school libraries.

They 100% did. Having taught public school in Florida for years (and having covered Greek mythology), we have to be very, very careful with what stories we use in the classroom (to the point that I am not teaching at all this year, because I could not handle the stress from having to analyze everything I said and did). Myths covered in my county were Hercule's labors (but taught as his wife and children not existing), Midas and his golden touch, and (perhaps? memory is foggy) Persephone choosing to eat the pomegranate seeds and stay with Hades. Uncensored versions of the myths would not be allowed in school libraries, because a parent would absolutely raise a ruckus and we have enough to worry about as it is. There have been challenges to even teaching these sanitized myths, because they're 'pagan.'

Teaching is fun.
 

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I'm not a fiction writer. That's why I asked the question. Because a not insignificant percentage of young girls already know what molestation and rape is. I don't know whether it would be good for them to read that they're neither alone nor responsible for what's happened/happening to them, to read stories about girls or women fighting back, to read that females in power behave badly, too (one of my abusers was my mother), or what... I was completely alone in my plight, constantly commanded to keep it all secret, and more or less told it was my fault. To this day my own sister doesn't believe me. Since I got all my important information from books, I would've been much better off if I could've read something helpful about this issue.
I'm so sorry that happened to you. IMO it's important to let kids read about these things. I never understand this 'protect children's innocence' idea. Surely you need to give them information so that they understand what's happening if someone tries to assault them? Age appropriate information, obviously. And they might as well learn about these things from books written by someone responsible than from the most loud-mouthed, ill-informed kids at their school.
ETA: I'm reminded that when I was in my thirties a billboard went up in the city I lived in: it read "Is your father bothering you? If so, call..." and then gave a phone number for some organization doing outreach on behalf of abused kids. I was gobsmacked when I saw that message, thinking, "I sure wish there'd been a billboard like that when I was a kid!"
Yes it's sobering to think how recently abuse in the family was covered up. I mean, I know it's still covered up all the time, but at least in theory, it's not supposed to be tolerated by law. But only a few decades ago, the authorites considered these things to be family matters. I've read stories about UK social workers in the 1960s bringing women back to abusive husbands who they'd 'run away from'. They'd send a police officer in the first time in case the husband wanted to hit the wife, and after that, I guess she was on her own 🤷‍♀️
 

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Thank you for sharing the link. I can't help feeling they would be better off writing new fairytales with strong female leads that are current to the world today and leaving these as history.

As for the pregnancy aspect, a lot of the myths are precisely Zeus showing he doesn’t need Hera (or any woman) to give birth and that women can not give birth without men because if they try they fail. (And by extension a perfect Athenian society wouldn’t need women/their wombs and breast milk.) (Sheila Murnaghan’s introduction to Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Homeric Hymns is very good at spelling this out.)

Still, Greek myths are popular. One thing you have to ask is why people still like Greek myths. You can go on about archetypes and good stories but I think one of the huge things is they are religious.

I think what people like is the accessible polytheism and the horizontal nature of the gods.

(I can’t remember where I first came across this but basically there are vertical gods and horizontal gods and a lot of the western world has been living under the idea of vertical gods for quite a while.) (I’m also going to go right out on a limb here and say I also don't think there is any thing as feasible monotheism but feel free to disagree. I’m living in a polytheistic country where one deity is as good as another and now from here every religion looks like it has a bunch of gods, it’s just being semantic about the names.)

Still really, it comes back to my point at the start, what people are perhaps truly seeking is a new type of myth to the ones they have and maybe a lot of them can't yet create something new so they turn to old models.

Also, for what it is worth coming from someone who has never met you and is only online, Fi, I am so sorry to hear that. I'm so glad you could grow strong.
 

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I think what people like is the accessible polytheism and the horizontal nature of the gods.

(I can’t remember where I first came across this but basically there are vertical gods and horizontal gods and a lot of the western world has been living under the idea of vertical gods for quite a while.) (I’m also going to go right out on a limb here and say I also don't think there is any thing as feasible monotheism but feel free to disagree. I’m living in a polytheistic country where one deity is as good as another and now from here every religion looks like it has a bunch of gods, it’s just being semantic about the names.)
I think monotheism and polytheism are more of a gradient than entirely separate concepts. All my family is Catholic. And, sure, there's God that's "up there," but if you need some magical help, you can ask Mary or Jesus, or Saint-Whatever, or even the witches in the wood or a ladybug you found somewhere. It's not a rigid belief system, and there's no notion that the Bible is more reliable than any of the rest. If anything, God is a little too abstract and distant, whereas Mary is a pretty safe bet.

What appealed to me back then in the Greek myths was the flexibility of the system. If you didn't fit one god's guidelines, there was always another! And my friends and I all had different favorite god and goddesses.
 

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I want to point out that Greek myths are not written in stone. There's so many different ancient sources for them, and they changed century to century, locale to locale, that a modern writer can pick and choose what version they want, or combine them.
 

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I would not be surprised to find a few myths were carved on stone tablets to display in sacred sites.

Much of Greco-Roman and other myths were certainly oral traditions cultivated over generations of belief. I see writen versions of older folklore changing over the decades. Disney's Cinderella? Very different from the Brother's Grimm version based on oral tradition, to name one example of changing from one writing to another.
 

Fi Webster

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Much of Greco-Roman and other myths were certainly oral traditions cultivated over generations of belief. I see writen versions of older folklore changing over the decades. Disney's Cinderella? Very different from the Brother's Grimm version based on oral tradition, to name one example of changing from one writing to another.

This makes me think of a particular bugbear of mine: the way that some movies based on folklore or written fiction catch on so thoroughly, especially for successive generations of impressionable children, that the impact of the original stories is greatly diminished, nearly lost altogether.

A personal example: I was deeply impressed by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" when I read it as a girl. I won't spell out why, but it was nothing less than a way of making sense of my whole life experience. It was much more than a story to me: it was like a very distilled form of therapy. I shudder to think of how my journey of growing up might've been different if I'd first (or only) been exposed to the Disney movie—which strikes me, at least, as carrying a radically different message.

One time I tried to explain my objections to the movie to a dear friend who is decades younger than me and who's never read the story. He got so furious with me he cut off all communication for a while! It was a painful episode for both of us. For reasons I don't completely understand, he has such a strong personal identification with that movie, he couldn't tolerate hearing that it started out as a very different story.

Culture is weird that way. Always shifting around. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. And definitely hitting each of us in different ways.
 
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I read somewhere (I'll try to find it again) that Hans Christian Anderson was gay, and the The Little Mermaid was an allegory of himself pining for a another man who liked him only as a friend, and who later married a woman. Makes a ton of sense!

I think 1940s Disney would have done a Little Mermaid that is more faithful to the original story. I know the modern musical version is beloved by many, but to my mind, it's only inspired by the story, not a valid version of it. As Frozen was inspired by The Snow Queen.
 

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I want to point out that Greek myths are not written in stone. There's so many different ancient sources for them, and they changed century to century, locale to locale, that a modern writer can pick and choose what version they want, or combine them.
If memory serves, that was one of the functions of the Dionysia.
 
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Fi Webster

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I read somewhere (I'll try to find it again) that Hans Christian Anderson was gay, and the The Little Mermaid was an allegory of himself pining for a another man who liked him only as a friend, and who later married a woman. Makes a ton of sense!

Just google "little mermaid gay," and you'll find oodles of articles on the queer coding of the story. From what I've read, there are multiple takes on Andersen's sexuality, or lack thereof. Most scholars agree he was biromantic (he pined for unattainable women as well as unattainable men). Many think he was asexual. It's widely agreed that "The Little Mermaid" was a love letter to one particular man.

But there are many more layers to the story than "fish out of water who's not a woman loves a man who marries a real woman instead." The mermaid's weird fascination with human culture, which goes on long before she falls in love with a statue. (Echo of Pygmalion.) The permanent sacrifice of the mermaid's voice, her most celebrated gift. The excruciating and never-ceasing pain she undergoes in her legs, felt in every single step she takes. The fact that the odd gait caused by that pain is interpreted as graceful, as if she were always dancing, by the prince and his courtiers. So she's greatly admired for what her pain causes, while also being treated like a pet, a non-human, because she can't speak, can't communicate. The bitter irony of her thinking what would make her human is legs, when giving up her voice to get legs actually means she's as non-human as before. The proffered dagger, the potential for healing and return through blood of murder, the rejection of that option. Her relationships with her sisters and her father. The peculiar ending in which she's ethereal but earthbound, with the possibility that after 300 years of good deeds, she could go to heaven. The swap from sisters of water to sisters of air. Etc.

The thing that bothered me most about the Disney version was that they left out her pain. In doing that, they left out what is most intensely expressed by the story—the author's pain. But never mind: it's just "inspired by," so it's a different story.
 
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Set in stone. (Tee hee.) Also, yes, the fact that there are lots of them them to choose from was kind of what I was saying.

I guess I just feel they’re not doing anything much by just gender-swapping the characters but keeping the story. If they had written a picture book about a hairy mono-browed cyclops (female but I wouldn’t put the -ess) wearing gumboots and stomping on ships and winning a sheep-dog trial then I would be like, that is awesome. That is taking the cyclops myth and doing something with it.

Anyway, the best people at playing around with ancient Greek myths are, not too surprisingly, the ancient Greeks themselves. I say this to people who say they want to read more Greek myths. Have you read any of the comedies? I mean when it comes to a new funny story about Herakles then Aristophanes takes the cake (yes, apparently that phrase comes direct from ancient Greek.) BUT, you also have jokes like “He’s a slave – pour vinegar down his nose until he tells the truth” or “He speaks funny and he’s slow because he’s a Libyan” or “If I catch that nice dancing girl” or “I don’t want to have sex with an old lady” which make you realise just how horrible it was for a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Also, very importantly, these were written at the time. You can say what you want but they weren’t written by someone today. If you are writing today you have a moral duty not to write stuff like this unless you then go on to expose what is wrong with it. (Seriously, Horrible Histories series. I’m looking at you. Especially the chauvinistic misogyny fest that was the TV series.) (Also if one more person says to me, Oh, the Rise of Machines and AI means we’ll be like the Ancient Greeks hooray I will make them drink hemlock.)

Plus, entirely a personal opinion, but my second best people for playing around with ancient Greek myths are Germans playwrights circa early 1800s.



And now I will get on to Andersen. You know, I totally agree with you that Disney failed. It’s a sad painful story but let’s all laugh at her because she combed her hair with a fork. She is surely no threat to the established world order.

I read somewhere that Andersen had chronic tooth pain. Is that right? In any case he was living in pain for a lot of his life and definitely knew what pain was like and to remove it from the story is just a disservice to the braveness of the writer.

Disney has completely narrowed the field of fairytales as perceived by the average person to a series of colour-coded merchandising props. To the point that small children get confused when you read a book and Cinderella isn’t blue. Oh, and don’t point at Anna and Elissar (wait, wrong sisters) Anna and Elsa like they are better, because they are still colour-coded and still have a whole heap of problems. And this is one case where Disney should have followed Andersen MORE closely, because the Snow Queen has a whole bunch of interesting female characters in it.

You only need to go back and read Lang’s Fairy Tale collections (before TV and pretty much before radio) to see the difference. Skip the prefaces by Lang himself, they are often horribly dated and racist, but the stories are remarkably unedited. (And translated and adapted by women for the most part.) (In fact one of the few that seems to be by Lang himself is the worst adaption of the Medusa/Perseus tale I have ever read. EVER.) Of course the content is heavily edited, it’s still very much no sex or swearing, but the form is not. If a princess inexplicably decides to ride a deer and go and talk to a dwarf in an oven then she does that because, well, that was the story the folklorist wrote down. She doesn't have to find a happily ever after, just keep doing things as long as the listeners want.