Given that the fairy tale genre is defined by characters and story, the significance of the setting can often be overlooked. However, the setting adds to the atmosphere of the stories, and gives characters an environment in which their adventures can take place. Authors of fairy tales can take two different approaches to the setting, often dependant on the medium of story (novels, films, TV series, etc.) in which they are working. Some prefer to use deliberately vague locations, primarily defined by their place in the distant past, whilst others try to depict their location in enough detail to make it feel like a genuinely realistic environment. The demands of audiences can have a significant impact upon the portrayal of fairy tale kingdoms. In recent years, authors have become increasingly aware of importance of representing foreign areas (particularly those outside the traditional European setting) properly without resorting to problematic Orientalist stereotypes, and the need to avoid simplistic clichés means that they have to portray their settings with more depth and complexity, genuinely examining their inner workings.
In fairy tales, the main priority is telling an engaging story packed full of incidents. This means that the setting is merely described in the most basic fashion. Even fairy tales which aim to showcase a national culture take this simple approach, invoking images of a particular location without fully identifying it. When they published their collection of Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, the Brothers Grimm aimed to promote a unified German culture by highlighting the stories told by ordinary citizens in German-speaking lands, and emphasising the similar interests and values which linked these people. The “purely German” nature of the Brothers Grimm tales is made clear by the fact that these stories all take place in forests and castles similar to those which can be found throughout central Germany. However, the nationalist overtones of the Brothers Grimm’s collection are somewhat concealed by the fact that their location is almost never made explicit. Although some tales have a concrete setting (The Bremen Town Musicians is set on the road to Bremen, but the animal protagonists never actually reach the titular town) most are just set in unnamed and interchangeable kingdoms from “once upon a time”. This deliberately vague approach gives the stories a mysterious atmosphere, and enhances their sense of fantasy. Although the various storytellers whose works were collected by the Brothers Grimm based the locations of their stories on their home countries, they recognised that specifying a clear location would slow down their tales and make them too complicated, thus reducing their magic and universal appeal.
Early Disney films tried to capture the sense of mystery provided by the Brothers Grimm, with Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty giving us locations which invoke the look and feel of the source material without providing many specific details about them. This deliberately vague approach even applies to some of Disney's more modern films. For fans of The Little Mermaid, trying to place Prince Eric’s kingdom in a firm location is nearly impossible. Judging by the sunny climate, proximity to the sea, and the presence of birds such as Flamingos in the nearby area, Eric’s kingdom is seemingly inspired by Mediterranean areas such as Greece, Italy and Monaco. However, Eric’s castle is based on Chillon Castle in Switzerland, and the basic look of the nearest beach is closer to Scandinavian beaches than Mediterranean ones. Overall, it seems like writers and animators were primarily aiming to capture the look and feel of a generic sea-based Kingdom, with little regard for its internal geography. After The Little Mermaid, Disney films began using more clearly defined locations, whether real (Beauty and the Beast is set in France, The Princess and the Frog in New Orleans) or fictional (Rapunzel’s kingdom of Corona, Anna and Elsa’s Kingdom of Arendelle). The need to provide more sophisticated stories and more complex characters has led to the basic approach of earlier Disney films falling out of fashion, and they are now set within more realistic and detailed environments.
The magic and mystery represented by these faraway lands have often inspired fairy tale authors. A number of Hans Christian Andersen stories are set in exotic locations, most notably The Nightingale, which takes place in ancient China. During the 18th Century, translations of Arabian Nights became popular in Europe, and in 1805 (The year of Andersen’s birth) the Danish poet and playwright Adam Oehlenschlager created a stage version of Aladdin. This was highly popular in Denmark and Oehlenschlager’s romanticism inspired a lot of Andersen’s finest work. Andersen’s fascination with Asia often bled into his tales in more subtle ways. Though his version of The Little Mermaid is regarded as one of the definitive Danish fairy tales, it is actually set in a kingdom with palm trees and orange trees on the beaches, buildings made from white and yellow materials and characters wearing silk and gold. These descriptions invoke images of the Mediterranean, in particular Asian areas such as Turkey, rather than the less colourful environment of Scandinavia. Incorporating the bright colours and distinctive architecture of the Middle East and Far East into his works allowed Andersen to show off his ability at creating beautiful and evocative descriptions and gave his work the magical atmosphere which has allowed it to remain so iconic today.
Many fairy tale works find inspiration closer to home. In Shrek 2, the fairy tale kingdom of Far Far Away is heavily based on modern-day Los Angeles, complete with a version of the Hollywood sign, red carpet events, shops such as Abercrombie and Witch, and even TV shows. The casually anachronistic nature of Far Far Away generates comedy which keeps with the modern and irreverent tone of the Shrek series. However, the decision to model this a fantasy environment on such a prominent real-life location also serves a more serious purpose. LA is famous for being one of the most glamourous cities in the world, due to its association with the stars of Hollywood. By using this location as their inspiration, the makers of Shrek 2 manage to draw parallels between the aspirational fantasies represented by life in LA and the fantasies which define fairy tales, suggesting that the rich and famous of today are the modern equivalent of the kings, princesses and other major fairy tale characters. This gives them the opportunity to create a clearly-defined and colourful world for our characters to inhabit, whilst also satirising the quirks of life which define not just LA, but in the whole of America. The combination of the magical and mundane allowed Shrek 2 to appeal to both children and adults, generating plenty of comedy about modern life without losing the creativity and imagination which make fairy tales so timeless.
The Problems with Creating Distant Kingdoms
Sometimes, there are instances where decision to set a story in a fictitious kingdom can lead to controversy. This can often happen when creating locations based on regions which are often underrepresented or depicted in an overly stereotypical fashion by Western filmmakers. One film which been particularly criticised for the way in which it creates a fictitious kingdom is Disney’s 1992 hit Aladdin. The kingdom of Agrabah, where Aladdin and the other characters live, is based in the Middle East, but there are also a number of elements from Indian culture, with the Sultan’s palace being modelled on the Taj Mahal. This casual blending of a diverse range of complex cultures into a single entity is made even more problematic by the shallow portrayal of Agrabah’s citizens. With the exception of Aladdin, Jasmine and possibly the Sultan (who look and act more like Westerners than the rest of the cast), the human characters in Aladdin are almost all grotesque caricatures. The Westernised view of Eastern cultures as a single, stereotyped, backwards ‘other’ is known as ‘Orientalism’, and this has the toxic effect of increasing prejudice against these areas. Combining elements from Eastern cultures indiscriminately without respecting their differences and complexities reinforces the Orientalist worldview. It can also generate the deeply offensive implication that the most distinctive thing about these areas is the fact that the inhabitants are not white. In the case of Aladdin, the mishandled and lazy combination of Arabian and Indian cultures ensure that neither is represented properly, hence the controversy generated by the decision to cast the Anglo-Indian actress Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine in the forthcoming live-action remake of the movie.
Ron Clements and John Musker, the co-directors of Aladdin, also co-directed Disney’s more recent hit Moana. It’s depiction of Polynesian characters and customs is far more sensitive, and more scrupulously researched, than Aladdin’s depiction of Arabs, but there are still issues with it. One of these is the way in which Moana’s island, Motonui, features elements from various Polynesian cultures, including Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii. As a result of this, a small but vocal band of critics have accused it of perpetuating Orientalist tropes by reducing many complex cultures into a single fantasy world. However, in the case of Moana, the decision to amalgamate a diverse range of customs and cultures is more justified for two reasons. First of all, the film is inspired by the story of the Long Pause – the 2000 year gap between the arrival of settlers in Western Polynesian Islands like Fiji and Samoa and the colonization of islands in Central and Eastern Polynesia. During the second wave of exploration, Polynesian tribes discovered, and eventually came to inhabit, islands such as Hawaii and New Zealand. Hawaii and New Zealand are the two areas in the region which have the largest population, and most of the key figures involved in making the movie (including almost all of the cast, as well as co-writers Taika Waititi and Aaron and Jordan Kandell) come from Hawaii and New Zealand. For these people, the wayfinders who ended the Long Pause are a common set of ancestors, so it makes sense for Moana and the people of Motonui, who represent a fictionalised version of these wayfinders, to originate some of the traditions which would later become synonymous with their descendants. Secondly, Moana is based on a set of myths which vary between the Polynesian islands. Just as the writers had to merge several different stories about Maui into a single narrative, they had to merge numerous different and sometimes contradictory customs and beliefs, trying to represent all the regions of Polynesia instead of one specific area. Overall, the Polynesian culture which is created for the film is much more respectful than that of Aladdin, but there are still plenty of errors and missteps, and the very idea of creating a fantasy kingdom based on an area which is often overlooked and misrepresented in the real world can be problematic for some. The pressures faced when making both Aladdin and Moana illustrate the fact that creating a fantasy world for fairy tales can be a risky process which needs to be handled carefully in order to avoid problematic implications.
In the world of fairy tales, life as a ruler is often depicted in an overly idealised fashion. Male heroes are rewarded for their bravery by winning the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage, and the fantasy of being a princess remains popular amongst girls today. The portrayal of medieval kingdoms as worlds where characters enjoy power and prestige, as well as pretty castles and elegant clothes, can clash with our knowledge that the pre-enlightenment period in which most fairy tales are set was one defined by prejudice, plague and superstition. This contrast between the dream and the far less glamorous reality has inspired works such as Amy Schumer’s Princess Amy sketch, Rachel Bloom’s Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song, and David Henry Wilson’s 1989 novel The Coachman Rat, which aim to show that the optimistic fantasies of fairy tales cannot survive in the cruel historical world in which they are set. These works have a number of differences (Schumer and Bloom use their signature styles of edgy comedy to make their points, whilst Wilson’s novel is crushingly bleak) but they share a focus on deconstructing the belief that becoming a member of the royal family in a fairy tale world is a dream come true. In recent years, people have become increasingly aware of the violence and tension underpinning daily life, and this has fuelled the demand for darker and edgier stories. The comforting picture of becoming a popular and successful monarch leading a happy medieval kingdom has become less credible, and this has encouraged some particularly brutal fictional subversions of it.
However, showing more of the real world surrounding the fairy tale protagonists does not necessarily mean focusing on the most negative aspects of the human experience. Some of Disney’s most successful properties, such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Tangled, have been spun off into animated TV series, and the increased amount of time spent with the protagonists in this new medium means we need to explore their world in more detail. In films, the kingdoms of our protagonists are depicted in a superficial fashion, as they tend to be a mere backdrop for events, but TV series need to give us a greater understanding of the environment which our protagonists inhabit. The rise of fanfiction has also fuelled increased interest in exploring the inner workings of fairy tale worlds. Frozen has lended itself particularly well to fanfics about royal affairs. Elsa is the first Disney protagonist to be shown becoming a queen, but her responsibilities are barely explored in the film itself. In a family-friendly fantasy musical such as Frozen, examinations of the political intricacies of Arendelle would be an unnecessary and tedious distraction, but in the world of fanfic, authors can discuss the pressures of running a kingdom as much as they wish. Going beyond the basic depiction of a fairy tale kingdom is hard to do in films, but longer and more complex forms of entertainment recognise that building a more developed and realistic world allows increased opportunities for our protagonists to go on adventures.
In the fairy tale genre, memorable characters and an engaging story are generally more important than the setting, which tends to be a mere backdrop. However, a memorable setting can enhance a fairy tale by giving it a distinctive atmosphere, or providing a variety of interesting places where the protagonists and antagonists can interact. The amount of detail which should go into depicting a location depends on the amount of the length of the story and its focus. In a three-page, fast-paced Brothers Grimm story, the settings do not need to be described in any great detail, but in a film like Moana, we want to get a sense of the daily lives of our characters and the world they live in. In recent years, writers and filmmakers have tried to satisfy the demand for settings which reflect the diversity and complexity of the modern world, sometimes creating controversy in the process. Ultimately, a distinctive location can make a fairy tale film stand out, but we should not forget that it also needs to provide a story and characters which audiences all over the world can enjoy and relate to.