The Tale of the Fairy Tale
|by Suzie Johnson|
Most children love fairy tales – the wonder of other worlds, the idea that wishes might be granted by some form of magic. Little girls, especially, are enamored of the Disney Princesses who found their origins in the fairy tale – Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana, and now Rapunzel. Of course, Pocahontas is a Disney Princess as well, but hers wasn’t a fairy tale. Hers was the real deal. Many girls, even if they live a happy, normal life, dream of being a fairy-tale princess, swept away from a life of drudgery by a handsome prince.
If someone asked who wrote the first fairy tale, many would say the Brothers Grimm. Others would say Hans Christian Andersen. Sadly, many might say Walt Disney and his crew. But the truth goes back further than Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. It even goes back further than Charles Perrault.
Story-telling is as old as Adam and Eve. Before the advent of the printing press, storytelling was a way to pass oral histories from generation to generation. It was also a way to charm and entertain the listener. Peasants working in the fields might tell stories to pass the time; families sitting around the fire at night would be entertained by stories their father or mother would tell them. Upper-class nobility enjoyed stories as well. If a tale that originated in one village made its way to other villages, that was considered a point of pride among villagers, so it’s no little wonder that fictional tales evolved with the desire to impress listeners.
Fairy-tales of old were called magic tales, wonder tales, or wonder folktales at one time. They focused on the disadvantaged hero or heroine who overcame terrible circumstances, often by way of magic. Many featured characters (male or female) who were banished from their homes and villages, characters who were abused, poverty-stricken or cursed in some way.
As they were often filled with magic, superstition, and pagan beliefs, magic tales were not Christian-centered. Nor were they directed at or suitable for children, even though children were often part of the listening audience. They were often filled with cruelty and violence, interpreted as warnings to listeners. Priests took it upon themselves to create new versions of the tales, which were then retold and passed down. And still, these tales were not for children.
The printing press revolutionized storytelling. The first printed fairy tales were designed to amuse educated readers, who usually were among the upper-class. In France, it became popular to incorporate fairy tales into parlor games held by aristocratic women. Acting them out, retelling and inventing new tales became popular in Paris. Thus, in the 1690s, several writers published entire collections of fairy tales.
Charles Perrault is perhaps the most famous out of this group of authors, with the 1697 printing of Tales of Times Past, known more familiarly as Tales of Mother Goose. In spite of that commonly known title and conceivably friendly title, these tales still were not aimed at children. It wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that some publishers began to publish stories for children. Still, fairy tales were considered useless, frivolous, and even dangerous for children.
In the early nineteenth century, illustrated chapbooks with stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Jack the Giant Killer were printed. These soon became popular with children even though they were still considered unhealthy for their minds.
It wasn’t until writers began to use the stories as a way of teaching moral lessons and good manners, that fairy tales were published for children. The Brothers Grimm revised their own collection of tales, first published in 1812, toning down the adult elements and adding Christian values. Still, they managed to retain the magic and wonder of the original oral tales. Eventually, parents and teachers began to accept that these stories would not damage their children’s mental well-being.
When Hans Christian Andersen published his tales, humor and Christian values combined with plot to the delight of young and old. Translations almost immediately spread across Europe and America. From that point on, many writers sought to spin versions suitable for children.
Even today, more than three hundred years after the first printed fairy tales, these stories – though often different from the original versions – live in our hearts and imaginations, and serve as a continuous source of influence on books and movie scripts.
Do you have a favorite fairy tale? Do you prefer the Disneyfied version, or some other version?
Do you enjoy retelling of fairy tales, such as the Melanie Dickerson’s The Healer’s Apprentice and The Merchant’s Daughter?
Have you watched the new television show called Once Upon A Time? If so, what do you think of it?
Suzie Johnson and her husband are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary today! Suzie writes inspirational novels, both contemporary and historical, is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is a cancer registrar at her local hospital. She lives with her husband and naughty little cat on an island in the Pacific Northwest, and is the mother of a wonderful young man who makes her proud every day. You can visit her blog, Suzie's Writing Place at http://suzieswritingplace.blogspot.com/.