There is a certain quality in fairy tales that enthrals us as children, and inspires us as adults. Although fairy tales do not necessarily contain fairies, they all weave a tapestry of a magical world where fairies, and other supernatural beings, are possible. The term “fairy tale” was coined in 17th century France. The French saying, “conte de fi??e” was translated into the English “fairy tale”. To define what fairy tale itself is, is not easy, for often the line between fairy tale, myth, folk tale, and legend blurs.
Many have tried, but the task of setting the parameters for genres is as untidy and subjective as the knowledge of classification. However, it is generally accepted that most fairy tales have an undefined setting, “once upon a time” and “in a land far away”, as well as characters with archetypical, static personalities. The study of fairy tales is, nowadays, usually associated with study of children’s literature, and it is understandable. However, for the first thousand years or more of their existence, fairy tales were part of an oral tradition that was told by adults, to adults.
Stories descended through generations by being told and passed from one person to another, as part of a communal bonding process. This made a tale subject to change, dependent on the teller’s culture, values, and the desired moral lesson to be taken away by the listener. However, it was only when oral folklore was transcribed on paper that fairy tales solidified into a genre. The reader of modern fairy tales brings to the experience a mind already well populated by stock character types. As in the tabloid press, the doings of the royals are featured, princesses are beautiful, and princes are handsome.
When people have children, they usually have either one, who is long-awaited and therefore special, or three, one of whom, usually the youngest, is differentiated sharply from the other two. Adult female types are shaped by the primordial images of the good and bad mother. The mortality rate of natural mothers is high, especially in childbirth, as is their rate of prompt replacement by evil counterparts. Old women, hags and witches, have supernatural knowledge and power. The human characters of the fairy-tale world are supplemented by creatures from another world: giants, elves, fairies.
The landscapes are familiar: the castle, the humble home, the fearful wilderness outside both. To a child all of these features seem magical and fantastic, however to an adult who has experienced the “real world” these fairytales can seem superficial. Fairy tales are magical. They may provide a window to another world, a chance to look beyond the mundane. They may provide a means of relief from some of this world’s troubles simply in their otherworldliness. This otherworldliness is one of the many questioned virtues of fairy tales. Some people worry that fairy tales do not give a truthful rendition of life.
They fear such stories are therefore unhealthy for children. Bruno Bettelheim, an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children, confronts this misconception. Speaking of the people that fear that fairy tales are untruthful, he says, “That ‘truth’ in the life of a child might be different from that of adults does not occur to these people”. He goes on to say that, “no sane child ever believes that these tales describe the world realistically”. Children understand that fairy tales are not real. Some parents worry that telling such stories to their children constitutes lying to them.
These parents’ concerns are spurned on by the child asking, “Is it true? ” A parent that is already convinced of the value of fairy tales has little trouble answering the child. “Such a parent is assured of the story’s worth beyond its factual truth, and thus is confident that the story will still have meaning regardless”. There have been many different fairytales, since they originated, and there have been many different versions of them. Charles Perrault wrote many fairytales, the most famous being “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood”.
His elegant and simple style made these tales extremely popular, and they quickly became the accepted version of the stories. These tales, as we have them today, owe their form and beauty to Perrault’s magical retelling. J. R. R. Tolkien has said that Perrault’s influence is “so pervasive that most people, when asked for the name of a fairy tale, will cite one of the eight stories in his collection”. On the other hand, Roger Sale claims that today most people only know fairy tales through severely altered versions, for example Disney, rather than tracing them to primary sources like Perrault.
The “Contes” were instantly successful on their first publication, in 1697, and have remained enormously popular ever since. The style of the tales in the original French text suggests the sophistication of the courtly audience, however by the time the tales were translated into English, by Robert Samber in 1729, they were clearly directed toward a child audience. The moral of Perrault’s stories, clearly spelled out at the end of the story, inevitably rewards honesty, industriousness, obedience, and virtuous behaviour, and gives children ideals to aspire to.
Cinderella is arguably one of the best-known fairytales in world, with over 700 variants reported; these include several significant groupings, only one of which corresponds to the popularly known fairy tale. The oldest version is “Yeh-hsien” from China, over 1000 years old. The most influential version is that by Charles Perrault, which was directed primarily to a courtly audience. Perrault introduced the elements of the fairy godmother, the glass slipper, and the pumpkin coach. This version, the most familiar, seems to be a fairly recent development in the evolution of the tale.
Phillip notes that the Perrrault version is in many ways atypical, because of its level of sophistication and social detail, and certain “whimsical embellishments” – e. g. , the pumpkin coach. However, because of modern society’s privileging of the written over the oral, it has come to be seen by many people as the “correct” or archetypal story. And today, because of the dominance of the culture industry, the Disney version, based on Perrault, has in turn become the standard story. “Aschenputtel” is another version of “Cinderella”, which has clear Grimm elements to it.
This version of the tale is more likely to appeal to an adult audience because of the retribution visited upon the stepsisters at the end and the cruelty she experiences is identified more specifically. Unlike Perrault’s version, Cinderella is punished at the end. “Little Red Riding Hood” is another one of the world’s most famous fairytales. Perrault was the first to write down “Little Red Riding Hood,” but the tragic ending of this version has caused some to question whether it has a genuine folk origin.
Shavit argues that it is a satire about “the city gentleman who does not hesitate to take advantage of the poor village girl” and she notes an eroticism in the description of the little girl as “a specific element encouraging the satiric reading”, and the moral at the end tends to reinforce it. Shavit’s criticism on “Little Red Riding Hood” is leaning towards the support of an adult audience. The Grimms’ version, “Little Red Cap”, is less satiric, more naive, and directed to the child alone, for educational purposes.
This shift in focus more to the child authorises the restoration of the happy ending. Maria Tatar calls this “possibly the most famous cautionary tale of all times” but notes that “there is no clear cause-and-effect relation between violating the mother’s injunction and being eaten by the wolf. ” In the Perrault version, there is no prohibition at all, but Perrault also eliminates the resurrection of the wolf’s victims, which was added by the brothers Grimm, and Tatar suggests this was “in relation to the conversion of fairy tales to instruction of children.
Although the tale is strong in moral for children it appears to be more adult orientated in terms of content. In the early 1800’s Jacob Ludwig Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm published a collection of fairy tales they had gathered as part of their effort to project a particular “German culture” as represented in the oral folktale tradition. This would explain why so many of the French tales of the oral and literary tradition found their way into the Grimms’ collection, including a Cinderella story called “Aschenputtel,” which in contrast to Perrault’s version, invokes severe punishment on the step-sisters.
This punishment on the step-sisters indicates that the audience was primarily adult, as this would fill their expectations of bad characters being punished. Children, however, may or may not know about the conventions of right and wrong, and therefore might not understand the step-sisters’ punishment. On the other hand, this could be seen as a positive part of the fairytale genre, where children can learn morals that may not be shown as clearly as in Perrault’s versions. Another major contributor to the fairy tale tradition is Hans Christian Anderson.
Where Perrault and the Brothers Grimm primarily appropriated and reworked existing tales, Anderson created new tales using the traditional fairy tale form. Anderson wrote these stories ‘exactly as I would tell them to a child’. However, critics complained of his rough colloquial style, and at the lack of lessons to be learnt from these tales, given that they were meant for children. These critics, however, did not consider the fact that these stories may have been more for adults who were able to identify with his stories, most of which were based around Anderson’s life.
Anderson continued writing his stories, and by the end of ten years was recognised as a master of this form of story. All of Andersen’s tales – whether based on folk themes or of his own invention – had a personal touch to them: ‘Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself. Every character is from life. ‘ Today when people discuss fairytales a “Disney classic” will always appear in the conversation. Children are more familiar with the Disney versions of the original fairytales, whereas adults may be more familiar with the original or other written versions.
This introduces the topic of the rise of technology in today’s society. For example children today watch far more television than adults did when they were children, and don’t read as much as they should, therefore they are less likely to enjoy the written tales that adults may appreciate as part of their own childhood, as Jack Zipes discusses in “Breaking the Disney Spell. ” He says that “In a domineering and controlling fashion, Disney created a new venue for fairy tales, but one that glorified him as the technologically astute animator rather than another storyteller.
His goal was to immerse the audiences in seamless images more-so than the story, which was most often reinforcing of the patriarchal view, bland female protagonists, and a cleaned up world. ” He goes on to say that “Where the oral folktales built community, and the literary tales built complex narrative to be read and re-read in solitude, his films tend to be generally non-reflective, impersonal, and one-dimensional. ” However, it is through Disney’s films, and the associated marketing, that children will be most familiar with fairy tales
Adults may well enjoy the idea of fairytales, and the tales themselves, however if these adults are parents it is quite possible that they may interpret the stories differently to when they read them as a child, or if they had no children of their own. Some adults could see that fairy tales have become outdated, for example the princess waiting at home for her “Prince Charming” to rescue her could be seen as degrading, or that fairy tales encourage stereotypes that no longer exist within our society, this is not just sexist stereotypes but possibly racist or against the working class.
Furthermore they could see some tales as too violent, for example when the wolf eats little red riding hood. Fairy tales deal with elemental human experiences: love and loss; kindness and cruelty; the power of wishes; fear of the darkness, both without and within. In these tales as in the originals, the great revelations, for good or ill, most often take place in the house, within the family – the only setting considered worthy of tragedy by the ancient Greek dramatists. Like their great predecessors, these modern fairy tales dramatize the darker side of childhood, the end of innocence.
Yet some questions must be asked. Fairy tales have been an important part of cultures all over the world. They have been passed down through generations and read and reread to countless children. But do they really have any place as children’s stories? This is one of the questions that has recently been pressed against them and one which is well worth asking. If children are to be presented with fairy tales, it is quite reasonable to question the effect of these stories on them.
This is reasonable to ask, but the answer may not come as naturally. Children are people too. They and their reactions can be just as varied as their grown-up counterparts. Through these shades of doubt, a general statement can be made. Fairy tales can make good children stories. Whether or not adults read them, they should read and learn to understand fairy tales so that they can better comprehend the structures of literature as well as for the sake of the wonder, pleasure, and human understanding these stories can provide in their own right.