The History of the Fairy Tale

So I’m choosing to write about fairy tales for my dissertation – and no I don’t mean Disney – I mean the true fairy tales, the ancient stories improvised as a part of after-dinner entertainment in the royal courts, and later written down by the likes of Giambattista Basile, Charles Perrault and, even later, the Grimm brothers.

The earliest European anthology of fairy tales was written by Basile and published posthumously in two volumes in 1634 and 1636. However, they were written in a Neapolitan dialect, which takes a two-step translation (from Neapolitan to Italian and Italian to English), hence why no-one has really heard of them – until recently there wasn’t really a good translation. However, although he receives none of the credit, this was the first text to include stories such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, Snow-White and Sleeping Beauty. Perrault then retold and adapted these stories at the end of the Seventeenth Century for a French audience. The Grimm brothers did likewise, although with the aim of gathering stories that were purely German in origin – hence them dropping some of Perrault’s stories such as Bluebeard in later editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) for not being German enough. In total the Grimm brothers collected more than 200 stories.

We think we know what all these tales are about – the castles, the fairies, the magic and the witches, the girls who prick their fingers and the pumpkins that turn into coaches – but do we really?

Fairy tale, castle

What I’m beginning to learn is how much is implied, the in-between-the-lines messages and symbolic references. These are not tales for children – in fact children were not the intended readers until the time of the Grimms (1812 onwards). There is so much more substance to them that can be overlooked. For instance:

When you read a tale from a gender point of view you realise that the women are often the oppressed characters – Cinderella spends her days sweeping ashes, Snow-White is in hiding from the evil Queen and Rapunzel is locked in a tower. Yes it’s exaggerated but this is showing how oppressed women were in society.

When you read a story from a psychoanalytic point of view it becomes obvious what morals are being construed – the good are rewarded and the bad are punished – take Cinderella as an example – she’s hard-working, good, and pious, and gets to go to the ball and marry the Prince at the end of the story, whereas her ‘ugly stepsisters’ get their eyes pecked out by birds.

And finally, there’s the historical contexts. As distant from reality as they seem, set in deep, dark forests and fabulous castles, fairy tales are rooted in the everyday. A girl wants to go to a ball but is too poor to afford a dress. Hansel and Gretel’s mother and father are having monetary issues and worry about the cost of feeding their children. A pretty girl wants to marry well and live prosperously. Is all of that really so far-fetched? So unbelievable? So fantastical?

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9 thoughts on “The History of the Fairy Tale

  1. Interesting blog! I never knew there were different viewpoints. I always thought they were stories for kids to teach them about life, with fables being the same as fairy tales but the humans swopped with animals. And obviously, as the stories teach you about life, the stories are still valid.
    I thought your comment about the female oppression in the stories was extremely insightfull. Again, I never thought about it in that way. Females are just more interesting to read about. Men supposedly deal with their problems in a more covered way, not expressing their feelings. In a way I feel sorry for them, that they have to crop everything up and deal with problems on their own, usually with violence. Some men don’t want to be swashbuckling princes saving damsels in distress, they just want to have a good talk. It’s a two-way problem, I guess.

    • Animal tales are a very close relation to the fairy tale so you weren’t far wrong. And, well you say that, about men in fairy tales, and though I largely agree with you – it’s always mass murderer Bluebeard this and evil ghoul that – but women are also very violent. Take Snow-White for example with the evil Queen attempting murder three times. Another way to look at it is with Beauty and the Beast. Although this tale (written by a woman) was created more to make a point that ‘your arranged marriage might not be so bad after all’ it says something interesting about the male species. The kind-natured Beast was only evil-looking and scary on the outside. He never intended Beauty any harm and in the end, when she realises all his good qualities, he turns into his handsome-Prince-self again.

      Fairy tales really are fascinating, aren’t they?

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