Queer fairy tales: Finding the ‘fairies’ in classic stories
By: Michael Earp
Once upon a time, there wasn’t a single queer person in the world, so there was no need to talk about them in stories…
Image: Walter Crane illustration of Faithful Heinrich (right) and his prince
For as long as humans have had voices, folk and fairy tales have been spoken aloud around the fire. Stories to make sense of the world, to teach us which animalistic men to avoid, or how to be a pure, virtuous beauty in order to win a marriage (which, as we all know, is the only way to measure your worth).
These tales came alive anew in each storyteller’s mouth. But someone decided to write them down with ink on a page, and while society continued to change and evolve, the stories dried, dark as a stain.
However, our fascination with them has remained.
Turn a few hundred pages forward in the history books, and we find ourselves in a time where queers are more able to make themselves known (though certainly not universally); and we’re still picking up The Brothers Grimm. People telling stories now read from printed texts, rather than reciting them as best they recall.
I get it. I love fairy tales, too: these fascinating windows into an uncanny archaic mindset. As a teenager, I loved the drama of them and sought them out. I read them in a way others might listen to true crime podcasts – aghast and riveted.
I’m entranced by the matter-of-fact way that fairy tales offer their narrative. A frog did you a favour? Of course you must marry him. Thank goodness he turned back into the handsome prince he once was when you violently threw him against the wall! Into bed with you both!
But what of that frog prince’s henchman, Faithful Heinrich? Did you ever find yourself wondering if he was gay?
According to this tale of ‘The Frog King’: “Faithful Heinrich had been so saddened by his master’s transformation into a frog that he had had to place three iron bands around his heart to keep it from bursting in grief and sorrow.”
I mean, that’s some pretty hardcore devotion right there. We only meet Heinrich when the prince and princess have found their happily ever after. I can’t help but wonder what passed between them before the prince was frog-a-fied.
Time and again, these stories tell us the way things ‘should’ be.
You can clearly see these morals in ‘Hans-My-Hedgehog’, where a peasant is ridiculed for not having children. In his anger, he all but manifests a hybrid (half-hedgehog) child, then spends his life wishing him dead.
This same story has a king promising his daughter to this half-hedgehog man and when she refuses, she is kidnapped by him, stripped naked and stuck with his quills. We’re led to believe she deserved this for her ‘deceit’.
Even the less-extreme examples bestow a ‘happily ever after’ to its characters only once marriage, children, and wealth have been obtained.
Heteronormative constructs are rife in these tales. Marriage, children, class structures, the worth of a human deemed by their social standing, and otherness painted as ugly and evil.
To have a drag queen read a picture book is supposedly indoctrination, but ‘Beauty and the Beast’ can be shared in almost every home because apparently it’s fine to teach a three-year-old that sometimes you just have to love a man enough and he’ll come good. Eh, Belle?
We’re so enraptured, even (or especially) by the sanitised versions Disney gives us. Of course we are – they’re ‘classic’ fairy tales with catchy tunes. (Just don’t mention any of Disney’s blatant queer-coding while in Florida! Won’t someone think of the children?!)
I’m not saying we should discard these stories, but they need to be critiqued. Their ‘truths’ about the human condition may be hidden beneath the surface, or they may just be a reflection of the time they were written down, distorted by ripples.
You don’t need to search far to find extensive lists of fairy tale retellings for any age. It’s not surprising, really. It’s just the post-Gutenberg way of saying, “Did you hear the one about…?” and changing the story to suit yourself and your audience. Even the Grimms revised seven editions over forty years to refine and include their Christian ideology.
It’s no wonder that queer authors want to get in on reimagining these stories, too. I love the way my mind plays with the sparse details, often offered with no context. The space left by the bold and dramatic events is filled by so many questions. I long to state my own truths in such a brazen way.
I recently edited Everything Under the Moon: Fairy tales in a queerer light, an anthology celebrating queer retellings of fairy tales. It also includes a retelling of my own. When I approach rewriting a fairy tale, I like to ask what assumptions about the world are present in the version(s) in front of me, then interrogate them. This can be as simple as giving a character agency; showing that love can bloom outside the castle’s walls; or there are achievements in life greater than marriage.
Why couldn’t a prince fall in love with a peasant, knowing full-well who they really are?
Rewriting folk and fairy tales in a queer light is considered radical; however, there is nothing revolutionary about wanting representation in the stories we engage with.
I think of retelling as a means of refracting the white beam of light we’ve been given by the fairy tale canon, and revealing the rainbow within. I love to question gender constructs, to question justifications, to question what it is that we should be aspiring to.
“Have you heard the one about…? It’s super queer, you’ll love it.”
Michael Earp is a non-binary writer living in Naarm (Melbourne). They are the editor of Everything Under the Moon: Fairy tales in a queerer light and Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories. Their writing has also appeared in Archer, The Age, PopMatters, The Victorian Writer and Aurealis.
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