The Origins of Pantomime Stories

In this new millennium, fairy tales are flourishing. The children’s sections of libraries and bookshops are bursting with beautiful editions of well-known fairy tales, with exotic, vivid illustrations. Their collections are worldwide: Russian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Persian, Scandinavian, African, North American, British, and more.

To have survived over the ages, the traditional fairy tales must have had very strong and special meanings. And this would explain their longevity.

The secret of this longevity has been transferred to Pantomime, which draws its stories from well-known fairy-tales, and folktales.

English Pantomimes usually contain stock characters such as the principal boy, (generally played by a young girl with shapely legs). The heroine (also played by a young girl). And a dame (almost always played by a man) who is an exaggeration of a lewd middle-aged lady.

One of the strengths of pantomime, is that is constantly evolving and updating to reflect the changing times.

Pantomime, or ‘panto’ as it is affectionately called in Britain, contains four strands of humour. Visual; topical; corny; and the downright rude. The same type of humour that is also found on British saucy seaside postcards.

The name of Mother Goose has been strongly associated with nursery rhymes. And although the title is as English as plum pudding, the origin of the name remains a matter of dispute.

Some trace it to a French collection of tales by Charles Perrault (1697). That had the subtitle ‘Contes de ma mère L’Oye’ (tales of mother goose) The name has also been traced to Queen Goosefoot, the mother of King Charlemagne (anno 742). He was a German-speaking King who was also a patron of children.

Others claim an American origin in ‘Mother Goose’s Melodie.’ This was published in 1719 in Boston by Thomas Fleet, whose mother-in-law was said to be Elizabeth Vergoose.

John Newbery published a collection of Mother Goose rhymes in London in 1765. The subject matter of the rhymes has been linked by some scholars to actual events in English political history.

The legend of Robin Hood has been handed down from the many ballads and stories about the legendary hero. Embellished and added to down the centuries, to become the myth (or is it) that has fuelled countless Hollywood versions.

The existence of Maid Marian is much more doubtful than Robin Hood himself. But it gives the all-important love interest that all good hero stories seem to need.

In pantomime terms, Robin Hood is more traditionally found in the story of Babes In The Wood. According to folklore the tale of the Babes In The Wood is said to be based on two Norfolk children. The legend suggests that their cruel uncle did away with them in a nearby wood. Although it doesn’t say why.

The wood in question is Wayland Wood or as it is known by its old name ‘Wailing Wood.’ The story was first presented in the form of an English ballad published in Norwich in 1595 by Thomas Millington. The pantomime version went on to feature Robin Hood as the Babes rescuer.

Cinderella is probably the most famous fairy tale of them all. And embodies the classic folk tale myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward, which received literally hundreds of retellings before modern times.

The earliest version of the story originated in China around AD 860. It appeared in The Miscel Record of Yu Yang by Tuan Ch’ing-Shih, a book which dates from the Tang dynasty.

The best-known version was written by the French author, Charles Perrault in 1697, based on a common folk tale earlier recorded by Giambattista Basile as ‘La Gatta Cennerentola’ in 1634.

Limelight Scripts’ version casts Buttons as the inventor of a high-tech beauty measuring machine, which he uses to measure the ugly sisters charms, or lack of thereof.

Jack and the Beanstalk is associated with the fairy tale of ‘Jack the Giant Killer.’ The origin of Jack and the Beanstalk is unknown, although the author was most likely British.

The earliest printed edition is the 1807 book ‘The history of Jack and the beanstalk. Printed from the original manuscript, but never before published. Although the story was already in existence before this.

A burlesque of the story entitled ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, was included in the 1734 second edition of Round about our Coal-Fire.

Limelight Scripts’ version follows the traditional story but adds a modern twist. This comes in the form of a lift installed on the beanstalk.

The story of Dick Whittington is based on a real person who was Lord Mayor of London three times. 1397, 1406 and 1419. However, that’s where the real story becomes mired in folklore. He was not a poor orphan, who against all the odds managed to work his way up to the top.

He did in fact come from a very wealthy family and was a successful businessman before becoming Lord Mayor. And the “cat” with which Dick made his fortune in the Dick Whittington tale, was a type of merchant ship. And not as a feline cat as portrayed in pantomimes.

Which would explain why the shipwreck scene is such an integral part of the pantomime version. And it is certainly used to great effect in our full-length version of the Dick Whittington story.

The story of Aladdin comes from the Thousand-And-One Nights fable. (or stories from The Arabian Nights) which also includes Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor.

The original story is set in China, but a strangely Arabian China (populated with genies and magicians) But in the case of panto, it is a very English China – hence it is centred around a Chinese laundry.

Limelight Scripts’ version sticks to the traditional storyline. But like all good panto’s it also incorporates up to date themes, reflecting current popular shows. 

Sleeping Beauty (“La Belle aux bois dormant”) is a fairy tale classic, the first in the set published in 1697 by Charles Perrault. Elements of the story are contained in Giambattista Basile’s ‘Pentamerone ‘ (published in 1634) in the tale ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’

J. R. R. Tolkien noted that Perrault’s cultural presence is so pervasive. That when asked to name a fairy tale, most people will cite one of the eight stories in Perrault’s collection.

More modern additions to pantomime have titles such as Pinocchio, Beauty And The Beast, Panto on the Prairie, Scrooge, and The Grinch. Limelight Scripts’ version The Grinch ‘The Panto’ is a parody of the Grinch who stole Christmas by Dr Suess, and offers great scope for magical Christmas based scenes, such as the Snow Queen’s palace, and Santa’s workshop.

The Real Fairy Stories

The following is a collection of horrifying details, that Disney chose to leave out of its adaptations of these fairy tales.
In the Brothers Grimm version, one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cuts off her toes, and the other her heel. They take this drastic action in order to fit their foot into the glass slipper.

The prince is notified by doves that there’s blood on the shoe and discovers that the true owner is Cinderella.

Once the stepsisters realise that they should try to win favour with Cinderella, who will become their queen. They attend her wedding, only to have their eyes pecked out by birds.

By the way: Cinderella doesn’t have a cuddly fairy godmother. Rather, she plants a tree by her mother’s grave and prays under it every day. And she finds her dresses to wear to each ball under the tree. There are actually three in the story, not one like in the movie. She is still helped by animals, though specifically birds, and not mice.

Also, she doesn’t just lose her shoe because she is in a rush. The prince covers the steps in pitch to make her stick to them, but she only loses one shoe.

Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale is a 180 from the Disney film, although some parts align.

She does see the prince from afar in his ship, rescues him from drowning and falls in love with him. Although he doesn’t see her. She does visit the sea witch who takes her tongue in exchange for legs. The witch offers this because the little mermaid has an amazing voice.

The deal’s the same: The mermaid can only remain human if she finds true love and the prince falls for her and marries her.

However, the penalty in the movie is only that Ariel will turn back into a mermaid if she fails. In the story, she will die if she fails. Although love remains a motivator, the mermaid in the story is also motivated because humans have eternal souls, unlike mermaids.

The Disney movie also leaves out that the penalty the mermaid pays for having legs. Which is that every single step she takes will feel like she is walking on sharp shards of glass.

At first, it seems like the plan is working. But then the prince ends up marrying another, a woman he thinks is the person who saved him. And the mermaid can’t exactly tell him the truth since she can’t talk.

She is told that if she kills the prince, then she can turn back into a mermaid and won’t die. However, she just can’t do it.

The mermaid throws herself into the sea and turns into sea foam. Although it should be mentioned that she then becomes a ‘daughter of the air,’ entering a kind of purgatory. There she must do good deeds until she earns a soul, which will take about three hundred years to happen.

In Giambattista Basile’s tale (which is the actual origin of the Sleeping Beauty story). A king happens to walk by Sleeping Beauty’s castle and knock on the door.

When no one answers, he climbs up a ladder through a window. He finds the princess, and calls to her, but as she is unconscious, she does not wake up. Well, dear reader, he carries her to the bed and rapes her. Then he just leaves.

She awakens after giving birth because one of her twins sucks the flax (from the spindle) out of her finger. The king comes back, and despite him having raped her, they end up falling in love?

However, the king is still married to someone else. His wife finds out and not only tries to have the twins killed, cooked, and fed to the king. She also tries to burn the princess at the stake.

Luckily, she is unsuccessful. The king and the princess get married and live happily ever after (despite the fact that he raped her).

Perrault’s adaptation of Basile’s updated adaptation of the story is a much tamer version of the story. And is what was probably used for the Disney adaptation, as they are much more similar.

Disney’s “Pinocchio” came from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian classic “The Adventures of Pinocchio.”

You might think Pinocchio was mischievous in the movie, but he is far more so in the book. In the book, he runs away as soon as he learns to walk. He is found by the police, who imprison Geppetto because they believe Pinocchio was abused.

Pinocchio returns home, where he kills a talking cricket (sorry, Jiminy) who warns him of the dangers of hedonistic pleasures and obedience. Geppetto is released, and insists that Pinocchio goes to school.

Pinocchio sells his school books for a ticket to the Great Marionette Theatre. He encounters a fox and a cat, who steal his money and unsuccessfully try to hang him. Luckily, after saving Geppetto from the terrible dogfish (you might know it better as the gigantic, angry whale from the film), Pinocchio shapes up and eventually becomes a real boy.

And all that stuff about boys getting turned into donkeys and then sold to evil circuses, did end up making it into the movie, surprisingly.

In the Brothers Grimm version: The evil queen stepmother asks a hunter to take Snow White into the forest and kill her (this also happens in the Disney movie).

However, in the story, she asks him to also bring her back Snow White’s lungs and liver. He can’t kill Snow White, so brings back a boar’s lungs and liver instead.

The queen eats the lungs and liver, believing them to be Snow White’s. In the book, the queen tries twice (unsuccessfully) to kill Snow White.

The third time the queen gives her the apple (as in the movie), Snow White faints and can’t be revived. She is placed in a glass coffin. A prince comes and wants to take her away (even though she is still asleep, which is pretty weird). The dwarves hesitantly allow this to happen.

As Snow White is being carried, the carriers trip, causing the poisoned apple to become dislodged from her throat. Snow white is instantly revived and she and the prince, eventually get married.

The evil queen is invited. And as a punishment, she is forced to wear burning-hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.

Granted, this is a pretty loose adaptation of Rapunzel. But still, I think it’s worth mentioning.

In the Brothers Grimm version, Rapunzel gets knocked up by the prince before they escape, and the evil sorceress figures it out. The sorceress cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and throws her out into the wilderness.

When the prince shows up to see her, the sorceress dangles Rapunzel’s cut-off hair to lure him, and tells him he will never see Rapunzel again. He jumps out the window in despair and is blinded from the thorns below.

He wanders around aimlessly (he is blind). Rapunzel gives birth to twins. He is eventually guided back to her when he hears her voice. Her tears restore his sight. They return to the prince’s kingdom and live happily ever after.

So, some of these fairy tales actually do have real happy endings.

The Fox and the Hound is based on a 1967 novel by Daniel P. Mannix. In the book, the fox is raised by the dog owner’s/hunter’s family, but eventually returns to the wild.

He occasionally returns to taunt the dogs and flash his cunning fox skills. One of the dogs breaks his chain and chases him. That dog ends up getting hit by a train.

The hunter is devastated, and vows revenge on the fox. He becomes obsessed but can never catch him (although he does kill the fox’s first mate, second mate, and children).

Eventually, Tod the fox does die, but of exhaustion from being chased so much. Copper (the dog from “The Fox and the Hound”) is so old that he needs to be shot. And that is the end of the book.

Beauty and the Beast is actually pretty accurate, except for some uninteresting details. For instance, Belle’s father used to be rich but got himself into major debt.

There is one unfortunate detail that the story does leave out. In the first believed version of the tale (by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve), Belle has two wicked sisters. Fairy tales do seem to have lots of wicked family members in fairy tales, unfortunately.

The Beast allows Belle to travel home, as long as she is only gone for a week. Her sisters are extremely jealous to hear about her luxurious lifestyle and try and persuade Belle to stay longer. They hope that the Beast will be infuriated with Belle and eat her alive upon her return.

Believe it or not, ‘The Lion King’ is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Of course you knew that – right?

A jealous brother kills the king. The son finds out about it and wants revenge. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, i.e. Timon and Pumba, distract him.

But finally, the son kills the evil jealous brother. Although in Shakespeare’s, version everyone dies and not just the evil, jealous brother (formerly known as “Claudius”).