One of the more interesting reactions to the last episode of Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere,” has been the often stated, “This isn’t a fairy tale!”
I say interesting, because of what is meant/implied by this statement: that fairy tales are happy, safe places where no one is hurt and no one dies.
Even in the Disney versions, often criticized for softening the original tales (which I don’t think is entirely true or fair; the animated Snow White retains much of the horror of the original, even with the cute little animals and the merry dancing and singing), people get hurt. Good people get hurt. Snow White is poisoned and ends up in a coma. Cinderella is imprisoned by her own stepmother and forced into household drudgery. Rapunzel is imprisoned (and in the original, her prince is blinded and they go through a lot before finding each other.)
Outside of the Disney versions, fairy tales contain terror: Bluebeard killing his wives. Sleeping Beauty trapped behind climbing roses that have ripped out the eyes and torn the skin of those trying to rescue her, only to emerge in a new unknown world (Perrault has a little, aching detail about how the fashions had changed and the prince has to keep himself from telling Sleeping Beauty that she is dressed like his grandmother). Another prince has spent years – how many, we are never told – shivering at the bottom of a well, separated from everyone he knows, disguised as a frog; when he is finally, finally so close to transforming back, to becoming human again, he is flung against a wall. A girl weeps as her father strikes off her hands to save her from the devil. Wolves track little girls in the woods, caught by their bright red cloaks. Parents watch hopelessly as their children follow the Piper into an unknown world.
And many of the tales have unhappy endings, or contain death, sometimes quite literally – the Grimm Brothers collected many stories about Grandfather Death, and Death also appears in many Italian fairy tales, as someone to be bargained with or tricked or greeted as a friend.
I am hardly the first to note this, but it seems so often forgotten, perhaps because what we want to remember is Cinderella dancing with the prince, Aladdin gaining his heart’s desire just from rubbing a lamp, a sister regaining her brothers. Yes, the familiar tales have happy endings, and some of the tales are more lighthearted more others – Puss in Boots is not especially traumatic. But these endings have to be earned, through cleverness or virtue or trauma or pain or sorrow or agony. I have no idea how Game of Thrones will end. But I can say that some of its trauma is not so far removed from fairy tales.