Many of us grew up watching Disney movies and their tales of fairy princesses and evil queens are undeniably a part of the modern zeitgeist. Some of t
Many of us grew up watching Disney movies and their tales of fairy princesses and evil queens are undeniably a part of the modern zeitgeist.
Some of the movies are original to Disney, but at their core most Disney movies are inspired by ancient folklore. Snow White, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid were all inspired by European fairytales, for example. But not every story has been adapted from sources like the Brothers Grimm – some of them are even based on real historical events and figures.
The stories may have been embellished, sanitized, or given a touch more magic by Disney, but they are none the less fascinating and sometimes even more incredible than their adaptations.
Perhaps the Disney film best known for being based on real history is the 1995 movie Pocahontas, a musical romance focusing on the relationship between Powhatan princess Pocahontas and English settler John Smith. The movie touches on the tensions between the Native Americans and the English who were confronting them and trying to take their land but ends with Pocahontas saving Smith’s life facilitating a truce between the two groups.
The reality is rather different. Firstly, Pocahontas – which means ‘little brat’ or ‘the naughty one’ – was only a nickname and her real name was Matoaka. She is portrayed as being a young adult in the movie, but when she met the 28 year old John Smith, she was only 10 years old. She really did save Smith’s life and she really was the daughter of Chief Powhatan . But the movie does not show the fact she was eventually kidnapped and held hostage by the colonists , converted to Christianity, married to a man literally twice her age, renamed Rebecca, and paraded around England as an example of a “civilized savage”. She eventually died in England of unknown causes at the ripe old age of 20.
Pocahontas, one of the real life people portrayed in a Disney story, here shown saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain )
And it is not only Pocahontas who is given the “Disney Treatment” in the movie – the real life John Smith was described by his contemporaries as an unattractive and thoroughly unlikeable man.
This sanitization of the truth is typical of Disney retellings and proof that it is worth seeing what the true stories are, as they can be even more interesting.
One of the most successful Disney movies in recent years, Moana, is one which hasn’t strayed too far from its historical roots. Rather than being pure fiction, the movie is based on ancient Hawaiian, Mangarevan, Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, and Polynesian mythology and in particular the figure of Maui.
In the movie, plucky princess Moana seeks out the demi-god Maui and together they embark on a daring adventure seeking to save her people from starvation. In the source mythology, there really is a demi-god Maui and he really is important for many of the reasons Moana seeks him out in the movie.
While the Disney Maui has been toned down – some of his less family friendly traits have been glossed over – they haven’t completely changed the figure the way they did in other movies. The song ‘You’re Welcome’ is particularly noteworthy as it closely follows the Polynesian myths about Maui and his trusty fish-hook is also a trait which has been kept from the original figure.
Moana goes to show that Disney are able to successfully interpret existing folklore without too many changes and the popularity of the movie may open the door to further adaptions of myths like this in the future.
Snow White is one of a handful of classical fairytales that have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Originally transcribed by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s, it is likely the story has been around since the Middle Ages.
It is the quintessential fairytale – there is a beautiful princess, a magic mirror, an evil queen, a curse, and a handsome prince. Most people know that Disney rendered it significantly more family friendly than the Brothers Grimm, but what they don’t know is the story may have had its roots in real life events.
In 1994 a German historian named Eckhard Sander posted a controversial paper claiming he had discovered evidence that the story was inspired by something which happened in the 16 th Century. The real life ‘princess’ was a German countess named Margarete von Waldeck who died mysteriously at the age of 21 after being poisoned. She had been forced away by her step-mother at the age of 16 where she fell in love with a prince who she was not allowed to marry, which may have been the cause of her demise. The dwarfs in the story may have been inspired by the stunted growth of people who worked in the mines owned by her father.
Snow White, one of the Disney Stories, possibly has origins in a German folktale. (Geagea / Public Domain )
An alternative origin is Maria Sophia von Erthal who was the daughter of a German prince in the 17 th Century. Maria’s life ticks many of the boxes for inspiring Snow White – she had a stepmother who was known to dislike her stepchildren, her home had a ‘talking mirror’ which is still housed at the Spessart Museum today, and there were a number of dwarfs and people with stunted growth employed to work in the mines local to Maria. Furthermore, the glass coffin in the tale may have been related to the glassworks in the region, and the poison could have been alluding to the abundance of deadly nightshade in the region.
While no one knows for sure the origins of the fairytale, the possibility remains that Snow White may be another Disney movie based on real historical events.
Cinderella is another timeless fairytale and in 1950 it was given the ‘Disney treatment’, being turned into an animated classic. The story describes the life of a downtrodden young maiden who is enslaved by her wicked stepmother and ultimately freed by her Prince Charming after he tries her misplaced glass slipper on every single woman in the kingdom (apparently he didn’t have much of a memory for faces!)
The story was first thought to have emerged in the 17 th Century – but it may have been inspired by a much older story chronicling the tale of a woman from China living around 206 BC.
Ye Xian , the daughter of a chief, lived a prosperous life until the untimely death of her father left her in the care of her neglectful and malicious stepmother. She even had a stepsister, Jun-li who is not only ugly, but stupid and unkind to boot. She was forced to serve her mother and stepsister who were so jealous of her beauty and intellect that they wanted to humiliate her.
Ye Xian befriends a magical fish and after her stepmother kills it, she buries the bones so she can harness their magical powers.
When her stepmother and sister leave her alone while they attend a fancy ball, she wishes for a beautiful silk dress and golden slippers.
She is heralded as the most beautiful woman at the party, and when she flees to avoid being spotted by her stepmother she loses one of the golden slippers, just like Cinderella and her glass slipper.
The golden shoe ends up in the hands of the king, who becomes obsessed with finding its owner as it is so tiny that, at a time where foot binding was seen as highly desirable, he surmises the woman who it belongs to must be a great beauty. Ye Xian manages to get to the court and prove the shoe fits her, and the king falls in love, of course, and they live happily ever after.
The similarities between the stories are so striking that it seems impossible Cinderella wasn’t at least partly inspired by the much older Chinese fable, which has now found new life thanks to the Disney retelling. Disney may use creative license to edit out things like chopping off toes and slicing heels to try and get the slipper on, but Cinderella is evidence this tactic has been used by many writers over the years, as if the European tale was inspired by Ye Xian her foot binding was tactfully removed in the European retelling.
Disney’s 1998 retelling of the classical Chinese legend of Hua Mulan was a smash hit when it was released and it is still popular enough that a live action remake is slated for release next year. Chronicling the brave journey of a young woman who assumes the identity of a male to fight for her family in a battle against the invading Hun army , the movie is based on the Ballard of Hua Mulan.
Historians say it was originally based on either one or two real female warriors and it is still incredibly popular in China today. The Ballard of Hua Mulan has been a source of inspiration and when the Chinese troops needed hope the image of a heroic female warrior defying the social norms to help defend her country helped to boost morale.
Statue of Mulan being welcomed home by her Father in Xinxiang, China. (Kruuth / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Hua Mulan remains a popular figure in Chinese folklore and she appears in a number of books, plays, and other artworks. Despite the popularity of the movie in the West it was not well received in China, as people felt it strayed too far from the original story.
It is perhaps surprising how many Disney movies are inspired by real historical figures or by ancient folklore. It is undeniable that many of them have been ‘Disneyfied’ and changed to fit a modern narrative, and some people have been quick to criticize them for this. But even if there have been some changes, Disney has shared these stories with a global audience who may otherwise never have heard of them. It is now so easy to look things up and do our own research that we can enjoy the movies in their modern format while acknowledging their origins and having access to many of the source material if we want to read about heroines and demi-gods without their magical animal sidekicks.
Top image: Snow White a Disney story based on real historical events. Source: Llhedgehogll / Adobe.
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