Fairy Tales De-Bunked #What’s In a Fairy Tale?

Dette er et både indlæg i forbindelse med The Daily Prophecy som afholder en Fairy Tale Retelling Reading Challenge. Jeg håber derfor også at I bærer over med mig i og med at indlægget vil blive på engelsk. Men det er til dels også det første i en række indlæg hvor jeg har i sinde at pille nogle af de klassiske eventyr vi kender, fra hinanden for at undersøge deres historie og hvorfor vi bliver ved med at elske dem.

Your first memory and why you love fairy tale retellings?

I don’t really think I have an actual first memory of fairy tales, I just know that I love them and have grown to love them even more over the years. I don’t think my parents read that much to me, at least not that I remember, which is definitely something I intend to do differently, when I eventually have kids. It wasn’t until my last year at Uni that I really began to love fairy tales and their retellings when I wrote my Master thesis about modernization of fairy tales.

It was during those months that my eyes were opened to the many wonderful retellings of fairy tale we can find in literature and everywhere else. Ever since I have loved nearly every retelling I could get my hands on, mostly because they are still the heart of the original stories we know and love, but also because they prove that the original stories can and will live on, albeit in various shapes and sizes.

Instead of rambling on and on about my work on my Master thesis I have chosen to share some of my work with you (in edited form, to shorten it for your pleasure), to inform and enlighten about some beginning love for fairy tales and their many renditions. It is a beginning new feature I have been thinking about posting on my blog for a while now, trying to decide when to do so, and with this challenge I thought it was a perfect opportunity. I call it;

Fairy Tales De-Bunked #What’s In a Fairy Tale?

We all know the opening line ‘Once Upon a Time’ and what we are in store for when a story begins this way, but then with the multiple renditions we are exposed to on a daily basis, how many can really say that they know the true fairy tales? My guess is not so many. Yet, we all know the basis of a good fairy tale with a hero setting out on the quest to free the princess and possibly rise to fame and glory, and in the process of doing so he defeats the evil villain; it is the premise that has been told across generations and has crossed borders. As a result it is difficult to come across any one person who does not own a form of fairy tale in his or her book collection, be it small or big. However, despite having the original sources at the ready on a nearby bookshelf, we are more frequent to turn to the easier adaptable version – most often or not those are predominantly re-told by Walt Disney and his animators. Even so, we are still able to distinguish the original fairy tale, in most cases that is. Unfortunately, some times the original fairy tale has been disguised behind too much glam and glitter to update the timeless story to befit a specific audience, which has a very specific taste – and sadly, this does not always go hand in hand.

To be able to say ‘This is a fairy tale’ is something most people think they are capable to say without the source of doubt, yet what most people do not know is that the genre of fairy tales is much older than we think and is impossible to set a time-stamped date to. Unlike the Gutenberg Bible which we can trace specifically to the 1450s we cannot do the same with fairy tales. This is because the genre started out orally as a means of entertainment between – and this is perhaps the most interesting part – adults. Yes, I must disappoint you to say that fairy tales were not meant for children. This did not happen until much later and for many different reasons, but I will get back to that.

Let’s return to the supposed beginning of fairy tales though, just for a time. As they started out orally it’s difficult to say if the literary originals we have are actually the real originals. However, this is the belief we have worked with for so long, so for the sake of argument let’s just stick with it. It is because of this we say the first fairy tales originated in Italy with the fathers of the fairy tale genre; Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile. What started as a publication in Latin soon became available to the masses and suddenly fairy tales were everywhere. The genre then progressed in France where the highly educated French aristocratic women took them to their bosom and soon perfected many of the stories we know to this day. They did this through entertaining parlour games, which meant all the tales were once again changed on a number of times. Because of their increased popularity they became available in cheap copies so soon every household had at least one copy of some sort of fairy tale.

The very name of the genre itself – fairy tale – originated during this time, for the French writers coined the term conte de fée during the seventeenth century, and it has stuck to the genre in Europe and North America ever since (When Dreams Come True, Jack Zipes).

The reason why many of us think of children when we think of fairy tales is because of the change they underwent during the following years. It took some years of revision for the original fairy tales to be appropriate for children. They were revised accordingly to gender roles and specific class codes to not only were the entertainment, they would also function as educational. Those who are perhaps the strongest editors in this sense are the Brothers Grimm.

“[T]he Grimms, in particular Wilhelm, began in 1819 to revise their collected tales, targeting them more for children than they had done in the beginning and cleansing their narratives of erotic, cruel, or bawdy passages” (When Dreams Come True, Jack Zipes).

It was through this revision that most of the morals we know today were incorporated, hence the educational part. New fairy tales came that were written with the sole purpose to educate children and the known fairy tales were edited, and edited, and edited. There was even a set of unspoken rules according to fairy tale researcher Jack Zipes, that these fairy tales had to follow;

(1) a didactic lesson that corresponds to society’s ways of behaviour, (2) short of length for children to be able to memorise and repeat it to friends, (3) it should pass adults’ approval to be broader circulated, (4) it should address contemporary social issues to appeal to potential publishers, (5) it must be suitable to be used with children in a school environment and (6) it should encourage a level of power among the upper classes and how to maintain this (Fairy Tale as Myth – Myth as Fairy Tale, Jack Zipes).

Thus the fairy tale genre expanded from a private collection among storytellers for personal amusement to a tool in education of children, and it was referred back to its original roots of being read out loud, as it had started. Despite this change it continued to be adults who paid the largest interest to the genre. Through centuries we can say with quite certainty that had it not been for the adults, the fairy tale genre would not have expanded as it has. I very much doubt any children coming up with adaptations for an Opera of Thumbelina or any of the sorts. Yet, the themes of each and every fairy tale is still universal and one we can all relate to. This can be related once again to the expansion of the genre to various other media.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the fairy tale as institution had expanded to include drama, poetry, ballet, music, and opera (When Dreams Come True, Jack Zipes).

Given these new outlets the fairy tale had new means of survival and new means to attract different audiences, and to grow further. As we know today the fairy tale is universal and can – and will – stretch across border and generations mainly because of their supposed innocence.

Today, the media we most often look to for fairy tales is the feature films. The list seems to go on and on for who know how long with continued adaptations of countless of the original fairy tales. The feature films have that special feature that they are able to show us exactly what our minds are not fully capable of. Suddenly the story is transported from the written page to the visual big screen and we see the fairy tale we thought we knew in a completely new light. It seems incredible that we never tire of these adaptations, yet it appears that every take on the same fairy tale creates a different story for us to enjoy. Another, perhaps less original, addition with all these feature films is all the merchandise that follows. Suddenly the fairy tale is no longer just a story to entertain; no it has turned into a profitable business with capital B. It has become an object of commodity for the masses. The biggest culprit is, and here I must point, Disney. Each fairy tale film they produce is followed by several lines of merchandise in various categories to reach various audience groups.

As the original fairy tale was adapted and revised to be appropriate for children, in our modern 20th and 21st century, Disney has done almost the opposite. They have taken the genre and changed it to their parameters and to the likes of the masses.

Arguably, this constant change is the price the fairy tale has to pay to survive. Fewer and fewer people actually read the original tales and many actually rely on the versions told by Disney as the real versions. It is precisely this notion that I hope to change. To make people see that there is more to a fairy tale than a pretty Disney princess.

(Just to clarify and don’t get me wrong, I still love Disney and the stories they tell. It is just nothing like the original fairy tales, and I think it is a shame that many people think so, when there is so much more to the original fairy tales.)

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  1. Sikke et fint indlæg.
    Jeg kan godt li’ evnetyr, men ligesom så mange andre har jeg faktisk ikke rigtigt læst ret mange af originalerne.
    Jeg glæder mig til at læse flere af de her indlæg og blive lidt klogere på eventyrene.

    1. Det var nemlig præcis sådan jeg havde det, inden jeg gik i gang, men så var det jeg fandt ud af netop hvor meget bare Grimm selv redigerede i deres eventyr, og hvorfor, det er super spændende at læse om.

  2. Great post! You must have had so much fun writing your Masters thesis. 😀

    As much as I love Disney (in fact I’m wearing a Mickey Mouse top right now!) I do agree with you that it’s a shame so many people think of the Disney versions whenever you mention a fairy tale – the originals are so much fun, and deliciously dark.

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