Thoughts on Maleficent and retelling folktales


Maleficent opens in a world of beauty, threatened by a greedy human king. The visual contrast between human actors and fantasy animation was great enough to take a few minutes for suspension of disbelief to kick in. After that, I was in for the ride, through an ambitiously re-crafted tale of the Disney arch villainess who gave kids of my generation nightmares in Sleeping Beauty (1959). As the poster implies, this movie belongs to Angelina Jolie, whose performance is gripping.

The Sleeping Beauty themes of love and betrayal remain but they manifest very differently in the two Disney versions of the story. Men betray and women love; implicit in Disney’s previous blockbuster, Frozen, the theme is explicit in Maleficent. For now at least, it’s Disney’s key to box office success.

Retelling fairytales with a modern twist is nothing new. Fantasy authors like Nancy Kress, Jane Yolen, Steven Brust, and Roger Zelazny, to say nothing of Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have been doing this for decades. I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of short retold fairytales, Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by fantasy writers, Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling. There are two different versions of Sleeping Beauty. In both, it is the prince who needs to be rescued.

I take this as an inevitable pendulum swing from earlier Disney movies where princesses mostly sat around singing, “Someday my prince will come.” We have to remember that no Disney movie, then or now, is “real” folklore, nor is any work fantasy fiction. By “real” folklore, I mean stories shaped by the collective imagination of generations of members of a culture, region, or tribe. Strictly speaking, any talk of folktales now must be in the past tense. Nowadays the events that might spawn new fairytales, over a generation or two, become headlines or tweets, “details at 6:00,” to be forgotten in a day or an hour.

Among other things, the old fairytales were full of hints on wise living for those who knew how to listen. Here is one simple list of some of the lessons they taught:

  • Sorrow is real, and so is joy
  • Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune
  • The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

Much as I love them, I don’t find that fantasy movies and novels teach lessons like these in a visceral or unforgettable manner, which leaves us sadly impoverished. Dragons have not gone away – any glance at the headlines makes that clear. What is gone is the wisdom to know how to deal with them.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Maleficent and retelling folktales

  1. I had to pause in reading this and order books. I haven’t seen this film, but my daughter and granddaughter did. They liked it but said it didn’t have much to do with Sleeping Beauty. That said, they have probably never read or seen a Sleeping Beauty other than the Disney versions. I hope to remedy that soon. Thanks, as always, Morgan, for pushing me to read more and look more closely at fairy and folk tales.


    • I enjoy a lot of modern interpretations, but have to remember they are just that. Almost any movie or modern story or novel, for instance, has characterization, while a lot of fairytale characters don’t even have a name. In one sense, it’s more open for the reader to fill in the blanks, and I think that is part of what I find engaging.


  2. The old tales, too, deal with very dark human conditions too – incest, abuse, murder, death – all topics we find it hard to deal with – but always journeying towards some form of redemption. Of course, we may only have fragments of some of them, which leaves the stories hanging. This leaves nice opportunities for a re-working. Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is a good eg of a worthwhile revisiting of a dark Mabinogion tale. Thought provoking post as ever, Morgan.


    • The Owl Service – I’ve heard that name and I think I’ll look into it. I find that story very opaque & none of the commentaries I looked at helped that much. I recall a novel based on Thomas the Rhymer that was fun, but that story is a lot more accessible than some in the Mabinogion.

      I remember Marie Louise Von-Franz, preferring fairytales to myth for Jungian purposes. Her reason was that myths had been partially shaped by poets and theologians. The simple tales, she said, reflect the unconscious psyche more accurately. And yet we’re used to some artistic shaping, eg., it’s now pretty well known that the Grimms edited their stories for literary purposes, so there really are no hard and fast rules!


    • The resurgence of interest in fairytale themes for movies and TV recently is really interesting. Even though I’ve avoided some of these (eg., the Jack and the Beanstalk trailer was all about special effects), I do believe it reflects a widespread hunger for something deeper than the latest sitcoms or reality TV programs.


      • It’s really brilliant, during my degree I analysed the resurgence of the trickster character in movies and modern culture. It’s a really insightful trope. Although they are often less obvious than you’d think as characters that claim to be, whilst being cool, often are not actual full tricksters like Loki from Thor.


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