What is the purpose behind fairy tales? Do they just relate romantic fantasies that every woman dreams about and heroism every man half-heartedly aspires to, or are they clever scrutinies of reality with all their caustic examples of human nature? Considering that morals do exist in most stories, fairy tales must also have points, pertinent instructions and warnings for the careful listener and/or reader. However, archetypes of this genre the modern world is accustomed to experiencing through the arts and the media become conventional and foolish after frequent discussion and perusal. Therefore, the only solution available when it comes to overly familiar classics is to either retell the story in an innovative and unspoiled way or to personally leave the fairy tale and its mysteries alone by seeking out a writer who has bravely decided to traverse the flawed territory that is the world of fairy tales. One such author is Jay Williams, who in 1978 published a compilation of six original fairy tales not based on any popular romance already known to fans of the Brothers Grimm and other propagators of old folk tales. The title of his storybook is very direct as well, being The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales. It’s true that the title itself is rather long, but the book’s content reflects exactly what the title notes: these “fairy tales” are modernized versions promoting the common concepts of the historical period during which they were created.
Change is certainly needed, and while Williams may not have a particularly feministic approach he does diversify every tale by silently (and humorously) perceiving the typical stereotypes included and then completely transforming them into better, more humane characters. For example, the title story, The Practical Princess, centers on a princess who finally is endowed with a serviceable gift from magical beings with some brains: common sense. It’s obvious that the author has realized how this trait is deplorably lacking in most narratives of that kind and also in the characters themselves as well as their subsequent actions. Princess Bedelia is described to be beautiful but she is not stupid. She manages to kill a dragon herself by using gunpowder, or she explores her temporary prison to find a male re-creation of Rapunzel, only it is a golden and very long beard that becomes a ladder this time.
Stupid Marco, on the other hand, demonstrates that intelligence is not the only earned quality needed for greatness. Unselfish help from others should always be welcomed, especially when that person could be one’s future spouse. Petronella is a familiar favorite from another modern fairy tale collection called The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight, being a story about a strong-willed princess determined to fulfill family tradition by means of a twist. The last three stories in The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales also feature lessons just as conspicuous.
Like in Stupid Marco, Forgetful Fred has a main character suffering from absent-mindedness and slow wits, but not necessarily idiocy. Unlike Marco, though, Fred is a commoner who gets to marry a pretty girl and forget about wanderlust and wealth, two notions that are still obsessions for men who are not knights or heroes. In The Silver Whistle, Prudence is simply an orphaned servant girl who has a magical whistle and the ability to know exactly when to obey or disobey her cantankerous masters. Her own curiosity and her prudence balance her self-appreciation and her mental clarity; due to her temperament, she marries a prince not because she is a ravishing beauty or the daughter of a king but because she saves his life. Last but not least in the “sextet,” there is Philbert the Fearful. Fear is an emotion understood by all, but Philbert is a knight who feels it only too well. He values his own life to the extent that he only undertakes reading and eating an apple a day “to keep the doctor away” instead of going on perilous quests and risking his health. However, Philbert is not such a selfish coward as he seems; he proves himself to be superior to his colleagues by displaying courage at the right moment, caution being advisable as opposed to laughable public displays of “valor.”
The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales is a lesser known example of perennial wisdom, but Williams’ fairy tales have surprising characters and wit to recommend this collection to anyone who is tired of how ordinary fairy tales generally are.