In the company of wolves. In Italy the heroine of "Rumpelstiltskin" eats seven plates of pasta; in China Cinderella has an ugly sister called Pock Face. A new study explores the universal appeal of fairy stories

The Classic Fairy Tales

Maria Tatar (editor) <em>Norton Critical Edition, 394pp, £6.95</em>

Norton anthologies market themselves as a course in a book, but this collection of classic fairy tales, edited by Maria Tatar, a professor of German at Harvard, is especially compact and inclusive. Tatar herself is partial to the Nursery and Household Tales of the brothers Grimm, who "purged the collection of references to sexuality", especially incest, but left in "lurid portrayals of child abuse, starvation and exposure" and "fastidious descriptions" of cruel and unusual punishments, including cannibalism. "The sheer number of cannibalistic fiends in fairy tales is impressive," Tatar cheerfully reminds us in her comments on "Hansel and Gretel". "Giants, ogres, stepmothers, cooks, witches, and evil mothers-in-law are driven by a ravenous appetite for human fare."

Small wonder that many readers over the centuries have been troubled by the messages and morals of fairy-tale literature, and have thought about ways they could be harnessed to social needs. In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim recommends offering children fairy tales to help them cope with their existential predicaments - "narcissistic disappointments, Oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries . . . childhood dependencies". The radical feminist Andrea Dworkin thinks fairy tales are all pernicious propaganda for sex roles: "Between Snow White and her heroic prince, we never did have a much of a chance."

But not all versions of the fairy tale are as grim as the Grimms. Tatar chooses variants of six important tales to analyse and compare: "Little Red Riding Hood", "Beauty and the Beast", "Snow White", "Cinderella", "Bluebeard" and "Hansel and Gretel", as well as criticism by feminists, folklorists, psychoanalysts and historians. In contrast to Dworkin, the novelist Alison Lurie points out that fairy tales are empowering for older women, since they are often given the juiciest roles - stepmother, witch, fairy godmother. And since the 1970s, fairy tales for adults have become a subversive literary genre, favoured by writers as various as Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, Michelle Roberts, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie.

The classic tales have the capacity to shift their shapes, move in and out of fashion with readers, and change with different genres. In 1940 James Thurber was rewriting "Little Red Riding Hood" to conclude that "even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be". Yet in 1970, Susan Brownmiller interpreted the story as a classic "parable of rape". According to Bettelheim, "Beauty and the Beast" is a reassuring story that relieves the "anxious sexual fantasies" to which children are prey - "sex may at first seem beast-like, in reality love between woman and man is the most satisfying of all emotions". Anne Rice, however, uses Beauty as the heroine of her series of polymorphous pornographic novels. While Tatar and Marina Warner agree that the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" is a "beast-centred narrative devoted almost exclusively to the development of the male figure in the story", many film theorists admire it as a modernising of the tale with a feminist-intellectual heroine, and sophisticated animation influenced by Jean Cocteau's surrealist La Belle et la Bete.

Tatar believes that male Cinderellas have "disappeared from our own cultural horizon", but doesn't mention Jerry Lewis's movie Cinderfella, or the upwardly mobile disco-boys in the novels of Alan Hollinghurst. And sometimes she contradicts herself; she thinks, for example, that righteous family-valuing Americans are not very interested in "Bluebeard" because of its negative messages about marriage, but notes immediately that the story provides the archetypal plot for popular horror movies such as Silence of the Lambs.

Are fairy tales nationalistic or are they universal? In Italy, the heroine of Rumpelstiltskin has to eat seven plates of lasagne instead of spinning flax into gold; in China, Cinderella has an ugly sister named Pock Face who pushes her into a well. (Strangely, Tatar also says that "in the British Isles, Cinderella goes by the name of Catskin, Mossycat, or Rashin-Coatie", but I don't recall Mossycat in the Christmas panto.) The historian Robert Darnton argues that there are no Ur-stories, but rather that "folktales are historical documents". A historian looking carefully at the entire body of folktale variants can distinguish between folklore and fakelore, and can see the way a tale is adapted to a particular audience and society "so that the specificity of time and place shows through the universality of the topos".

As a historian of French mentalities, Darnton believes that "while the German tales maintain a note of terror and fantasy, the French strike a note of humour and domesticity", with comfortable bourgeois ogres and talking pates. The American literary critic Jack Zipes makes a lively case for Walt Disney as the American Grimm or Perrault, who used "the most up-to-date technological means and his own American grit and ingenuity to appropriate European fairy tales". Disney liked fairy tales, Zipes suggests, because they reflected his own rags-to-riches story, and "it is the repetition of Disney's infantile quest - the core of American mythology - that enabled him to strike a chord in American viewers from the 1920s to the present".

Zipes identifies the Disney turning-point in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which becomes the story of "desperate Americans who sought hope and solidarity in their fight for survival during the Depression". The hard-working, hi-ho singing dwarfs are miners with American nicknames, who can be interpreted "as the humble American workers who pull together" during times of economic hardship.

Two areas that are overlooked in this collection are British fairy-tale culture, and the gay fairy tale. In some ways, they overlap. Tatar cites many critics who attributed Oscar Wilde's fondness for the genre to his "perverse sexuality" or "sexual ambivalence". One contemporary reviewer thought they were "fleshy" and not for children; Wilde himself declared them to be written for "childlike people from 18 to 80". What Wilde (and Hans Christian Andersen) "seem to have forgotten", Tatar observes, "is that the folktale thrives on conflict and contrast, not on sentiment and pathos". To gay critics, however, the alienation and sadness of the characters in the fairy tales - the Selfish Giant, the Happy Prince, the Infanta's Dwarf - of Wilde are symptoms of the sexual pariah.

I loved these stories, along with Andersen's "The Little Match Girl", when I was a child. But I'm glad that the fairy tale doesn't always have to take itself so seriously, even in a Norton anthology. As Roald Dahl writes about the Three Little Pigs: "An animal I really dig/Above all others is the pig./Pigs are noble. Pigs are clever./Pigs are courteous. However,/Now and then to break the rule,/One meets a pig who is a fool."

Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of "Hystoires: hysterical epidemics in modern culture" (Picador, £6.99)