A Short History of Fairytales (2010)

Bronwyn Lloyd & Karl Chitham: One Brown Box (2010)]

A Short History of Fairy Tales

... memory once interrupted, is not be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has passed away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

- Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775)

[Margaret Tarrant: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1915)]

I - What Do We Know?

What do we actually know about fairy stories (or folktales, or märchen, or skazki, or Mother Goose Tales, or any of the other terms that have been used to describe these strange folk narratives)? Very little, to be honest.

That's not to say that huge amounts of data haven't been gathered about them. Collectors have scoured every corner of the globe in the relentless quest for new stories and for variations on old ones; the publication history of the three major canonical collections (Perrault, Grimm, Andersen), not to mention their various national analogues, has been charted in great - even obsessive - detail; the repetitive motifs and structures that characterise them (stepmothers, youngest children, magic wishes, helpful animals, the number three, the number seven, princes and princesses, 'happy ending' formulae) have been analysed exhaustively in the multi-volumed Aarne-Thompson motif index and its various offshoots. At the end of all this work, after more than two centuries of concentrated scholarly endeavour, what can we really feel sure about?

First of all, we know very little about their origins and history. One of the unfortunate facts about oral transmission is that it's virtually impossible to pin it down to particular times and places. There's no concensus, to this day, on the crucial question of whether major narrative story-clusters such as "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty" spread out originally from one centre - Diffusionism - or whether Relativism would be a better model. That is to say, similar stories being generated in different places by common cultural conditions: widespread hunger and poverty, rigid systems of social caste, relics of ancient shamanistic or animist belief systems, and so on.

Oceans of ink were spilt over this controversy during the Nineteenth century. Modern scholars tend to sidestep the whole argument by saying "a bit of both". The straight answer is we just don't know.

To make matters worse, virtually all the major folktale collection efforts began long after the publication of the two most influential canonical compilations: Perrault's collection of French fairy tales in 1697, and the Brothers Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children's and Household Tales] in 1812. No matter how remote the region, how illiterate and "traditional" the informant, no set of traditional stories gathered subsequently can be regarded as free of the influence of these instantly infectious sets of stories, translated into virtually every language on the globe, and available through oral transmission almost everywhere else.

So, to put it simply, when a folklorist speaks of an 'early' (ie pre-Perrault or Grimm) variant on one of the canonical stories, the claim must be regarded as purely conjectural. There are no sources of 'pure' folktales, uncontaminated by the written record. None that we can feel confident of, at any rate. Which is not to say that these variants are not intrinsically fascinating, and therefore well worth collecting: both on their own merits, and because they offer invaluable clues about how a common set of story motifs can take on the colouring of a particular region or culture and yet retain a common core identity with its original.

Folklorists, then, like to see themselves as a little like Epidemiologists. They aspire to trace particular stories and traditions out from a centre (like infectious diseases), and then to evaluate their collision with other, local cultural patterns in each new country or landscape they encounter. The trouble is that (to date) no narrative "patient zero" has ever been identified. We don't know where any of the story-clusters that so fascinate us began, so it's therefore impossible to identify the precise mixture of exotic, borrowed material and local colour in any particular story.

Perhaps chaos theory provides us with a better model. The folklorist's task could be seen as more like attempting to measure the impact of the waves of the sea on one another. Nineteenth-century physicists assumed that, however complicated the task might be, the precise effects of each of these different forces could eventually be disentangled. In our post-Heisenberg universe of quantum uncertainty, we know that this to be a fallacy: beyond a certain level of complexity, some equations remain intrinsically insoluble.

Bearing in mind, then, that we will probably never be able to answer most of our questions about these intrinsically fascinating products of the human mind, these apparently 'spontaneous' cultural phenomena which nevertheless encapsulate the efforts of countless self-conscious individual storytellers and creators, I'd like to devote the rest of this piece to talking about we can know: the fascinating saga of our quest to find out about this hidden world of the folk-memory over the past three centuries. Far from being of interest only to children and their parents and guardians, over most of this period it's been taken for granted that they are of immense significance to our understanding of any of the processes of cultural transmission and (especially) cultural transformation.

[Margaret Hunt, trans. Grimm's Fairy Tales (1948)]

II - Creators & Collectors

To begin at the beginning. In 1697, the French aristocrat Charles Perrault published the book Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé [Stories or Tales of Times Past], with the subtitle Contes de ma Mère l'Oie, or "Tales of Mother Goose."

Or, rather, he didn't, since the book's title-page actually attributes it to his nineteen-year-old son Pierre (Perrault himself, a respected historian, was 69 at the time). So who was the actual author? Nobody knows. It's assumed that Charles was the author and his son was credited instead simply because the tales had been told to him and his other siblings over the years, but that's pure speculation.

And who was Mother Goose, for that matter? Again, nobody knows. Since that time, of course, she's been enshrined as a kind of folktale and nursery-rhyme-reciting Scheherazade, but whatever traditions Perrault was drawing on in his subtitle are now long lost.

Whoever its author was, Perrault's collection, written (for the most part) in impeccable classical French prose, included the following eight stories:

La belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty)
Le petit chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood)
La Barbe bleue (Bluebeard)
Le Maître Chat ou le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots)
Les Fées (Diamonds and Toads)
Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella)
Riquet à la houppe (Ricky of the Tuft)
Le petit Poucet (Hop o' My Thumb)

as well as three told more formally in verse:

Griselidis (Patient Griselda)
Peau d'Âne (Donkeyskin)
Les souhaits ridicules (The Ridiculous Wishes)

Perrault's book had an immediate and lasting success, and helped to establish the vogue for fairy stories, oriental tales and other types of fantasy literature among the European public. Hot on its heels came the first translation of the Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland, which appeared in 12 volumes between 1704 and 1717. A century of sequels, imitations, supplements and continuations to both Galland and Perrault culminated in Charles-Joseph de Mayer's immense 41-volume Cabinet des Fées, which appeared just before the French revolution, in 1785-89.

But actually (of course) that wasn't really the beginning at all. One of the consequences of the French revolution and the Romantic movement that coincided with it was a renewed interest in the submerged oral and folk literature of Europe. Particularly strong in Germany, this led to the compilation of Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano's collection of folksongs Des Knaben Wunderhorn between 1805 and 1808, and then, in 1812, to the first edition of the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or "Children's and Household Tales", now known more commonly as Grimm's Fairy Tales.

The Brothers Grimm were scholars whose principal interest was in the historical roots of German culture and language (their other works included dictionaries, grammars and technical works on German mythology and tradition). It would have greatly surprised them to find that they are now generally thought of as children's authors, and that the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, in its various editions, would go on to dwarf all their other achievements.

The first edition of their collection contained a mere 156 stories; the seventh, in 1857, included 211, together with an immense mass of notes and variant versions (generally omitted from even the most "complete" English translations). In between these two dates the two brothers did a good deal of work on polishing and toning down the rawness of some of the versions they had initially included.

By modern standards, their fieldwork could be criticized for a lack of specificity. All of their materials were sent to them from elsewhere. The Grimm brothers themselves never collected a single tale. Luckily a fair amount of information about when and where and how a particular tale was transcribed can be reconstructed from their files of correspondence. And since they were the first collectors of folk-stories even to realize the desirability of including dialectal and individual peculiarities in the stories they printed, it's perhaps more appropriate to concentrate on the strengths than the weaknesses of their work.

It certainly opened up a floodgate of similar collecting efforts throughout Europe, resulting in classic collections of folktales in Russia, Norway, Ireland and many other countries. The Grimms' own collection has remained the benchmark by which all other collections are measured, though, and their book has been translated and read in virtually every corner of the world - thus, paradoxically, entering the oral record and destroying the integrity of many ancient cultural traditions - those that had escaped the prior influence of Perrault and his numerous successors, at any rate. The Grimms themselves found themselves re-collecting certain of his stories, which had long since entered the oral record in Germany.

The fascination with all things "folk" did, however, inspire Nineteenth-century scholars to attempt to go back past Perrault, to medieval and classical collections of stories. Leaving to one side the fable tradition, which can be traced from Ancient India and Persia, through Aesop's Fables, to the Thousand and One Nights and the wisdom literature of the middle ages, we can see clear echoes of the traditional fairy tale, with its patterns of "Once upon a time" and "They all lived happily ever after" in such Renaissance compilations as Giovanni Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti [Pleasant Nights] (1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634-36).

Further back even than that, though, we can see vestiges of the European folktale tradition beginning to appear in the written record in the 12th-century Breton Lais of Marie de France and the 13th-century Latin Gesta Romanorum.

Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm will never lost their primacy in discussions of the origins of the European folktale, but it's clear that the oral traditions they drew on long predated them, and may reach back deep into the dark ages between the fall of classical antiquity and the growth of modern nation states.

There's little prospect that we'll ever be able to do much more than speculate about the details of this process of cultural transmission, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, and that the ways in which it happened haven't left strong traces on the stories we read today. They are, after all, so very peculiar in so many ways, so full of curious fossils from a now almost irrecoverable past.

Linguistic scholars such as the Grimms hoped to reconstruct some of this process by appropriating the methodologies of Indo-European philology - exemplified by Grimm's law of consonantal shift, which enables us to chart fairly precisely the evolution of Latin pater to German vater to English father and so on - but their efforts were hampered by a lack of reliable written material for the period of most interest to us, the (so-called) "Barbarian" invasions which accompanied the fall of the Roman empire.

What's more, the excesses of this method, which resulted in Max Müller's bizarre attempts to derive all European folktale and mythological lore from the alleged relics of Aryan solar myths, were thoroughly debunked by pioneering Anthropologists such as Andrew Lang (in Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887), among others).

We're on somewhat surer ground when we come to the next great name in our history of the fairytale. Hans Christian Andersen always described himself as the author, rather than the mere collector, of the stories he published and collected in a variety of forms over three decades.

Though he never made any attempt to deny that a number of them are based on Danish folktales he heard in his youth, the strong impress of his somewhat masochistic personality lay increasingly over his collections as a whole, and has led perhaps to a slight eclipse of their popularity beside the Grimm and Perrault fairytales.

Andersen was a very great writer, though, and while he clearly drew on the inspiration of earlier authors of "art-stories", such as the Germans Tieck and Novalis, one should never forget that his own collection includes such classics as "The Little Mermaid", "The Ugly Duckling", "The Snow Queen", "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "The Princess and the Pea".

More didactic and Victorian than the Grimms (or even Perrault), there's nevertheless a vein of pure fantasy in his stories which inspired such influential writers as George MacDonald and William Morris, and which might be said to have culminated in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

[Tolkien On Fairy Stories (2004)]

III - Theorists & Revolutionaries

Mention of J. R. R. Tolkien brings me to his classic essay "On Fairy-stories", first delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews University in 1939, it was expanded for publication in a festschrift collection in 1947, and then again for the book Tree and Leaf in 1966. Tolkien's argument might be said to apply more accurately to his own practice in works such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than to more traditional fantasy literature, but along the way he makes some very perceptive comments about previous critics and theorists in the field.

There are, to be sure, as many ways of understanding and interpreting fairytales and folk literature as there are readers of them. It would be hard, however, to take seriously any discussion of this field which did not include the Aarne-Thompson motif classification system. First published by the Finn Anti Aarne in 1910, it was greatly expanded by the American Stith Thompson into the six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932–37). The idea of this system is to group stories according to their central motifs, each of which has an “AT” classification number, now (after successive revisions) numbering in the thousands. While this has certainly become the standard method of classification of these stories and the motifs within them, of course it largely begs the question of why these recurrent features have arisen in so many independent cultures at so many different times.

The Russian Formalist critic Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Folktale (1928) has become a classic, attempted to reduce the complex yet intensely repetitive plots of Russian fairytales (or skazki) to a series of essential narrative elements. The thirty-one narrative functions and eight basic character types identified by him greatly influenced the rise of structuralist narratology, but have been criticised since for their lack of social and historical context. Nevertheless, his work is more interpretive than Aarne and Thompson's, and it's doubtful whether the critiques of it by Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular, have stood the test of time any better.

Joseph Campbell's Jungian syncretism has, at times, incurred the similar criticism that it tends to block out the social and historical specificities of particular cultures. His analyses of the Arabian Nights and Grimm's fairytales, as well as the roots of mythology and folk literature in general, remain suggestive attempts to go beyond mere motif-counting, however.

The final "classical" critic of the fairytale I'd like to mention here is Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales revolutionised understanding of the influence of storytelling on early childhood development.

Bettelheim, a Freudian child psychologist who specialised in treating the child survivors of the holocaust, published this intensely controversial book towards the end of his long and distinguished career. Rejecting contemporary condemnation of Grimm's fairytales for their violence and lack of social conscience, he argued for their precise and carefully ordered role in formulating a child's view of the realities of the culture he or she will grow up to inhabit. Bettelheim’s Freudianism can sound a little doctrinaire and reductionist at times, but the central argument of his book remains perhaps the most considered defence of the value of traditional storytelling ever mounted.

Among the many, many critics, folklorists and literary historians who have worked in this area, the approaches represented by these four would have to be said to be inescapably relevant and cogent even today, despite everything that's happened in the years since they were put forward.

The beginning of the Women’s Movement and the growth of Feminist literary criticism in the 1970s opened the door to some startlingly original new readings of the fairytale canon. A. S. Byatt, Joanna Russ, Marina Warner and Ursula K. Le Guin are just a few of the authors who have published interesting collections of modern fairytales, placing new emphases on traditional society’s ingrained assumptions about gender and politics.

Some of the highlights from the past forty years of reading against the grain include English novelist Angela Carter’s anthologies and rewritings of classic fairytales, as well as the attempts of scholars such as Marina Warner, Jack Zipes, and Maria Tatar to re-evaluate the entire history of the folktale in Europe.

Taking them in order, Angela Carter's 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber (which also inspired Neil Jordan's 1987 film The Company of Wolves), is probably the most influential revisionist retelling of classic fairytales to date. Carter had previously published a complete translation of Perrault (1977), and went on to edit two volumes of Fairy Tales (modern and traditional) for British Feminist publisher Virago, but the stories in The Bloody Chamber retain their bite after thirty years.

Marina Warner's blend of wide reading and infectious enthusiasm has inspired her to write a number of books on folklore and popular culture. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994), together with its sequel No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998), attempts to cram the whole gamut of oral folk culture into one breathless ride.

For German scholar Jack Zipes, by contrast, nothing about fairytales is ever simple and straightforward. His Marxist analyses of the societies that produced these tales, together with his constant sniping at the patriarchal values of late modernity, make books such as The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context (1983) and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North American and England (1986) a minefield of provocations against the traditional pieties.

Harvard Professor Maria Tatar has edited a number of volumes of illustrated fairytales (The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (2002), The Annotated Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (2004) and The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (2008)) alongside more serious works of biography and history. Her approach is somewhat gentler than Zipes', but retains his revisionist focus - she was, after all, one of the principal contributors to his 2000 Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.

[Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith: The Stinky Cheese Man (1992)]

IV - Conclusion

So, in conclusion, what do we know about fairytales, homegrown or traditional? We know that they're very old, that they've been passed on by word of mouth for many generations. We know that they're a way of passing on worldly wisdom from generation to generation - it's no accident that storytellers are often grandmothers or grandfathers, using this method to communicate with their children's children. We know that they tend to use violent and subversive motifs: death, abandonment, devouring by wild animals. We know that they tend to promote cunning above strength, trusting simplicity above arrogant pride, practicality above inherited wealth.

We also know how infinitely adaptable they are. Polish-American writer Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) is just one example of the new, postmodern versions of traditional fairytales which now appear on a fairly regular basis. Scieszka is a tireless campaigner for children’s literacy, and is concerned to provide modern kids with the kinds of books that break down rather than reinforcing cultural and socio-economic divisions.

Fairytales can be turned into feminist parables, revolutionary slogans, multicultural sermons. Finally, though, they work because children want to hear them. That familiar phrase "Once upon a time" can triumph over the shortest attention span: but there has to be something pretty impressive coming right after it.

[One Brown Box (2010)]


One Brown Box: A Storybook Exhibition for Children, by Bronwyn Lloyd & Karl Chitham (6 November – 18 December 2010). ISBN-13: 978-0-9582811-8-8 (Auckland: Objectspace, 2010): 27-37.

[3538 wds]

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