The Story of a Fairy Tale

The Story of the Fairy Tale

The German word for fairy tale is Märchen. More accurately it translates to “wonder tale.” And a fairy tale is most definitely filled with wonder. Most think of this wonder as enchanted forests, magical objects, and mythical creatures-as literal wonders. But the wonder I’m referring to is much different. As characters journey through a story, they change, as a person. Even more so, as a fairy tale journeys through time, it too changes. And that, my friend, is the story of the fairy tale. It’s a story of change.

Dictionary entry for fairy tale

Defining a Fairy Tale

When defining fairy tales we should first note the distinction between a fairy tale and fairy-tale. Here’s how the dictionary defines them:

fairy tale (noun):

a: a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins) — called also fairy story

b: a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending

The story of “Cinderella” is a fairy tale.

fairy-tale (adjective):

Characteristic of or suitable to a fairy tale; especially: marked by seemingly unreal beauty, perfection, luck, or happiness

The wedding was a fairy-tale day.

The version I’ll be discussing are fairy tales-the stories.

Brief History of the Fairy Tale

Most of us are familiar with fairy tales through children’s books by the Brother’s Grimm and Disney’s animated feature films. But fairy tales are much older than the tales told by Jacob and Wilhelm in the 19th century and even those stories have changed over the last 200 years.

Most, but not all, fairy tales originated as oral stories that were passed down from generation to generation before being written down by one of the now “fairy tale masters.” There were even short tales published during the Middle Ages which helped pave the way for fairy tales, the most well-known being Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But it wasn’t until Giovanni Franscesco Straparola wrote the The Nights of Staparola (published from 1550-1553) that the fairy tale as we know it came to be.

Kinder-und Hausmärchen, published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm
Kinder-und Hausmärchen, published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm

The term fairy tale wasn’t even created until the late 17th century. French salon writer, and fairy tale master in her own right, Baroness Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy referred to these tales as conte de fées (that’s ‘fairy tale’ in French) thereby establishing an entirely new genre of literature.

But those tales weren’t meant for children, that shift didn’t happen until 1812-15. It was then that two now famous brothers, the Brothers Grimm, entered into the fairy tale scene with their Kinder-und Hausmärchen or Children’s and Household Tales. With the publication of their tales, which they heavily altered for their new audience, they made fairy tales accessible to children of all ages.

The Evolution of a Fairy Tale

For many, the fairy tale is a children’s bedtime story or a tale of silly nonsense and nothing more. But for those who take the time to look a little deeper, there’s something special to be found. Some say that fairy tales teach morals, and that those morals are outdated-relics from a bygone era. Depending on the version you’re reading, you might be right. Early versions of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” are not okay for today’s children. Even Disney’s early films are now argued as inappropriate for today’s children because of how they cast women. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937.

That was eighty years ago. A lot has happened over the course of nearly a century. And in my opinion, a fairy tale loves nothing more than change. Snow White in the times of the Brothers Grimm may have had her wicked moments (making the queen dance in red-hot iron slippers) but the brothers couldn’t have foreseen a world where Snow White became a warrior queen who led an army.

Snow White from 1937 and 2012
Disney’s 1937 animated Snow White was a very different character from the heroine of Universal Pictures’ 2012 Snow White and the Huntsman

I believe fairy tales offer us the opportunity to explore “change,” and how people handle that change. Through the protagonist a reader is able to explore personal and emotional changes, but also social and economical changes, changes in customs and moral beliefs, as well as falls and rises in social class. It’s because of this that I feel fairy tales have survived, and thrived, around the world for hundreds of years, even those with roots dating back to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs. Because fairy tales are about change and have the ability to change.

Types of Fairy Tales

As the number of fairy tales has grown over time, so has the types of tales. Most people are familiar with the European fairy tales, that’s the geographic region that gave us what we know think of as the classics like “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and of course “Beauty and the Beast.” But if we step back and look at fairy tales from an individual, then regional, and then global perspective, you’ll see similarities. And over the centuries there have been attempts to define the various types of fairy tales.

In the last 150 years more thorough attempts have been made to catalog fairy tales. As the genre of the literary fairy tale spread out into Europe, and flooded into Europe from the farthest corners of the globe, so did the desire to claim stories for one’s own native culture.

One of the first attempts to create a geographical catalog of tales was done by the Grimm Brothers. They solicited stories from all across Germany in an attempt to create an encyclopedia if you will of German fairy tales. But as they quickly discovered, many of the most well known tales didn’t originate in Germany and sadly, many of the oral tales were already becoming lost to time.

The first person to create a true cataloging system of fairy tales was Antti Aarne. His Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, which was published in 1910, created a tale type index of Indo-European tales. It was later expanded by Stith Thompson in 1928 and revised again in 1961. This system, known as the Aarne-Thompson (AT) classification system grouped tales by theme.

It was expanded again in 2004 by Hans-Jörg Uther in his book The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. As the title states, it added international tales to the system. Today the system, known as the Arame-Thompson-Uther system (AT-number system, AaTh system, or ATU-system), is used by academic folklorist. We’ll dig further into the specifics of the catalog in a future post.

More recently, folklorist and author Ruth B. Bottigheimer created a system based on fairy tale story structure for her 2002 book Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice and the Fairy Tale Tradition. It’s a simple system, one many will recognize and understand simply by their names (we’ll dig into each of these in later posts):

  • Restoration Tales
  • Rags-to-Riches Tales
  • Rise Tales

Neither of these systems is perfect, or close to complete. They don’t account for every type of fairy tale but they do provide a basic framework for a vast majority of the tales Western readers are familiar with. So it’s a starting place. The truth is we’ll probably never be able to accurately trace and catalog all fairy tales, because there are simply too many crossovers. There are too many commonalities to be 100% sure where all ideas originated. Though there are some we know of for sure, others have simply been lost to time.

Adapting with the Times

Many people have analyzed fairy tales over the years, including both Segmund Freud and Carl Jung. But all have ended up with different interpretations of what each story means, and over time those interpretations have changed. They’d changed because the stories have changed.

Remember, it wasn’t until the Brothers Grimm that the fairy tale was even written with children in mind. The fairy tale as a literary genre had been around for hundreds of years by the time the shift to children’s literature happened. At that point the Europeans had already been introduced to Straparola’s “Puss in Boots”, Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” Antoine Galland’s The Thousand and One Nights, and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

By editing the stories that came before them, the Grimm’s gave the fairy tale genre their greatest transformation yet. They made them accessible to everyone. They made fairy tales timeless. The fairy tale became a story any one could enjoy no matter their age. Another 125 years later, Walt Disney changed the genre again. He took the words on the page and brought them to life in moving pictures in a way that truly captured our imaginations, and our hearts. And while the Disney animated feature films are a great way to introduce younger audiences to the world of fairy tales, we have to remember that they aren’t the original stories. Once again, the stories were adapted for modern audiences, just as the Grimm’s did back in 1812. And Disney is still doing it today.

Disney's Frozen
Disney’s Frozen is a re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”

But it’s not just Disney. Everyone’s doing it. Major film companies and authors (including myself) are all reimagining the classic (and not so classic) fairy tales. Why? Because there’s something about these stories that soldiers on even today, which is exactly how this genre works. It’s all about retelling over time and updating the stories along the way so they resonate with new readers.

I believe we all take from fairy tales what we want, what connects with us. And it’s because of this ability to change that fairy tales are everlasting. Or as Mrs. Potts from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast would say, this ability to change is what makes fairy tales, “tales as old a time.”

So the question is, what do fairy tales mean to you?

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