I have a soft spot for retellings of fairy tales. I might not know the original versions of Snow White or Beauty and The Beast, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying different versions of these stories, which have been told and retold hundreds of times over hundreds of years. Because these kinds of narratives draw on basic human experiences and emotions, they continue to turn up in different media, and it feels like there’s always new magic magic to be found in their characters and settings.
RWBY, the animated web series created by Rooster Teeth and the late Monty Oum, has evolved from its initial “magical girl monster hunters go to school” concept to become an action-packed, fairy tale driven adventure. The series mainly focuses on the four titular characters: Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiaolong. Together, the four girls form team RWBY as they train as huntresses to fight monsters in the fictional world of Remnant.
One of the most notable things about RWBY is that each of the main female leads is a loose interpretation of a female fairy tale character. Ruby Rose is inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, complete with a red hood, black outfit, and a giant gun-scythe—okay, that last bit wasn’t in the original. And in the first trailer featuring her character, she is shown silently fighting off wolves.
Weiss Schnee’s name is German for Snow White. Besides her name, one of her most notable fairy tale motifs is her theme music, which features the words “mirror mirror.” Meanwhile, Blake is Belle from Beauty and The Beast, with her “beast” being her toxic relationship with Adam Taurus, the leader of the corrupt organization The White Fang. The Beauty and The Beast reference could also be a nod to Blake and Adam’s complicated issues as Faunus, an oppressed race with animal characteristics.
Finally, Yang’s character design is inspired by Goldilocks from Goldilocks and The Three Bears. She has long golden hair that is part of her Semblance, the physical manifestation of her personal power. Her Semblance makes turns her hair to flames and her eyes glow red as she absorbs physical blows to make herself stronger. An awesome demonstration of this is shown in her initial character trailer, when she fights a DJ in a club that is wearing a bear mask.
In addition to the main leads, there are secondary characters loosely inspired by various legends and folklore. Jaune Arc, a budding warrior, gets his moniker from Joan of Arc. Li Ren, a stoic fighter with a soft side, is inspired by Mulan. Nora Valkyrie, a hammer wielding girl whose Semblance involves electricity, is one of the best versions of Thor in popular media.
Besides its large cast of characters, RWBY also features fairy tale references through its own world building. For example, the monsters that the Huntresses and Hunters fight are called Grimm, obviously named after the iconic fairy tale authors The Brothers Grimm. The Grimm are especially dangerous because they are drawn to negative emotions such as fear and hatred.
Perhaps the most interesting part of RWBY‘s world building besides the main leads is the story of The Four Maidens, aka The Story of The Seasons. By season 4 of RWBY, we learn that the origin of the current conflict in Remnant involves these maidens, young women gifted with the tremendous power to control the elements. Since almost everyone is after the living descendants of these maidens, the stage is been set for epic adventures and battles for good versus evil.
In the midst of these large scale battles, the most emotionally moving conflicts are internal. Each of the main leads and some of the secondary characters grow as people and warriors with each volume. For me personally, the character arc of Weiss Schnee has been one of the most powerful. From season one to four, we see her go from a haughty heiress to a kinder young woman. More importantly, she discovers her own inner strength, becoming more powerful as she learns to define herself beyond her family name while resolving to redeem it.
Weiss Schnee’s character development moves her beyond her initial beginnings as a tsundere, a Japanese anime character trope of a cold-hearted girl with a softer side. As a fully fleshed out character, she is relatable to anyone trying not to let their family or their past determine who they are.
In Volume 1 of the series, Ruby Rose states that she wants to become a huntress to be like the heroes in the stories she read. Even though she is told that the real world isn’t like a fairy tale, the optimism that Ruby gains from reading them gives her a reason to fight. No matter what, Ruby believes that a happy ending is possible, and that is consistent throughout the series. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey”.