The Tale Behind Fairy Tales

We’ve all heard and read fairy tales, and enjoyed them. But wouldn’t it be exciting to peek beneath the surface of these stories and see what lies there?

Published: 25th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2014 01:40 AM   |  A+A-


Where do fairy tales come from?

They come from books or from the mouths of imaginative storytellers, right? Well yes, in a way. But a more interesting and thorough answer to that question can tell you much more about stories and about people.

Fairy tales are simple, well-known stories that nearly every child grows up hearing. Like the story of Cinderella, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, or of Sleeping Beauty. Simple, straightforward fantasy stories of good versus evil and a “happily ever after” ending, right?

On one level, yes. On another, well, not really.

Let’s take a look at Cinderella, for instance. Versions of this story have been around for a very long time. And in many different cultures too — which is interesting because it tells us that this is a story that appeals to many different people. Of course, that’s something we already know because people retell this story even today.

Books.jpgThe earliest version of this story that we have is the Tale of Yeh Hsien  from China. Just like Cinderella, Yeh Hsien is made to do arduous household chores by a wicked stepmother. When the Spring Festival comes by, Yeh Hsien decides to attend, although she is forbidden to. She goes to the Festival in finery that she acquires magically, is forced to flee and loses a slipper in the process. Not before catching the eye of the king though, who tracks down the wearer of the left-behind slipper and marries her. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Similar stories have been told all over the world, including ancient Greece and Egypt. The versions we know best and from which Disney created his own retelling, are threefold. Cenerentola is part of a 17th century book of fairy tales for children written by Giambattista Basile. The Frenchman Charles Perrault wrote a version called Cendrillon towards the end of 17th century. The Brothers Grimm collected a version of the story called Aschenputtel in the 19th century.

Brothers-Grimm.jpgBetween them, these stories contain most of the details that are familiar to us today. Perrault’s version contains virtually all the elements including the mice that help Cinderella, something that Disney latched on to and expanded quite a bit. Perrault was writing to entertain and to create a magical world. So he added a wonderful detail — the glass slipper.

He also wrote to comment in a wry manner on these tales. So he offered two morals — the first said that beauty was important, but graciousness even more so. This implied that Cinderella’s patience and courtesy were what worked in her favour towards the end. Then Perrault added his own moral — intelligence, courage, etc were all good things to have, but you can only succeed if you have a fairy godmother or godfather helping you. This ties in to a common fault raised about this story — Cinderella doesn’t actually do anything positive to win her good fortune!

Basile’s story is more straightforward, more obviously written ‘down’ to an audience of children, although it is written in an elaborate style.

Perrault on the other hand, intended his version for grown ups who would understand his ironic humour. So the intention of the writer can make so much difference to the exact same story!

Which brings us to the Brothers Grimm and their intentions, which were primarily scholarly. They wanted to capture the oral traditions around them, as these traditions had begun to fade with the onset of the industrial era and increased urbanisation. So their version is an attempt at a purely ‘authentic’ rendition, itself a complex idea to introduce an oral tradition that has always been accustomed to variations by each teller.

Similarly, I could write an essay telling you how the story of Rumpelstiltskin reflects racial phobias. Or how, in a reversal of the usual evolution of fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty, even though it was collected as part of the oral tradition by Brothers Grimm, was actually a story invented by Perrault!

But you get the general idea here, don’t you? Fairy tales have a complex history despite their simple surfaces. Understanding who told them, who retold them, why they chose to tell it the way they did and decipher the many meanings the story holds can be a long and fascinating journey. And I hope that it is one that you will enjoy!

And here is a great place to start —

Happy exploring!


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