Fairy Tales: A History

Meet today’s guest blogger – Renee Frey! 

Renee has been published in two anthologies and is currently working on two standalone novels with two series in pre-development. She enjoys reading and writing fantasy for both adults and young adults. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Mike, and their two dogs: a puggle named Ziggy and a chihuahua named Megatron. When she is not writing, she makes her living in instructional design, technical writing, and teaching dance. Renee Frey is Chief Operating Officer at Authors 4 Authors Publishing – a publishing company run by authors, for authors, blending the best of traditional and independent publishing.

Fairy Tales: A History

OK, so I ripped the title off of Harry Potter…but I think that really sets the tone for exploring the history behind fairy tales. Where do they come from? Why do we have them? How are they still relevant?

Like Harry Potter, fairy tales are FILLED with all sorts of references, folklore, and educational themes. Like mythology, they were used to create and align a culture, and perpetuate those cultural values across a nation or generation. While there is WAY too much information to cover everything in a simple blog post, let’s try to hit a few key highlights and look at some popular fairy tales as “case studies” in how fairy tales were used and are used in our culture.

Where do they come from?

Most fairy tales originated as oral traditional stories. Some were (loosely) based off historical events, while others were based on a simple adage that expanded with retelling. We have many of our fairy tales today thanks to scholars, like the Brothers Grimm, who took efforts to record oral stories that “everyone knew” and publish them, thus preserving the stories for generations.

There are many cultural stories of this type, but when we think of fairy tales we tend to associate them with Western European folk tales. However, with globalization, we now have remakes of many different societies and ethnic groups’ traditional stories.

Why do we have them?

Storytelling has been a cornerstone of culture since the dawn of civilization. Stories, such as parables or myths, create a unified culture and worldview–something that was very important in building and establishing a community or even a nation. Consider America–the patriotic songs and stories we learn about our Independence unite us in support of certain ideals (or at least try to). For this reason, many fairy tales have similar tropes, characters, and themes, because they are all variations of the same core principles. Let’s take a closer look at a few fairy tales to see how this works.

Case Study 1: Sleeping Beauty

A princess is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning needle on her 16th birthday, and sleep until her prince awakens her with Love’s True Kiss.

This fairy tale has many versions: a ballet by Tchaikovsky, a Disney movie (using music from the aforementioned ballet), and other musical and literary references. While some names and situations change, the sleeping girl, pricked by a spindle, awakened by a prince remains constant. The original version of the story was much more explicit than Charles’ Perrault’s tamer version, including rape, attempted cannibalism, and murder. In this version, Talia (not Aurora) was the original trophy wife, supplanting a king’s older wife after said king impregnates her during her cursed sleep. Why would such a gruesome tale persist through years?

The answer lies in comparing the characters to the morals of the world they lived in. Western Europe was predominantly Catholic, with specific attitudes towards marriage that required conceiving and bearing children for a marriage to be complete. In this story, Talia is more wife to the king than his previous one solely for providing the necessary children. Imagine the rounds this story must have made during the reign of Henry VIII! In this version, the “kiss” (or uninvited sexual contact, take your pick) does not waken the princess–instead, one of her twin infants sucks the splinter out of her finger. Therefore, it is only as a mother that she becomes whole and healthy again, emerging from death as a complete woman.

Even in Perrault’s tamer version, there is an undertone of instruction for young women. When Aurora seeks suitors at the ball, her finger is pricked, and she is cursed. The symbolism of pricking has lasted through literature (looking at you, Dracula) as a suggestion of sexual intercourse. A pointy object entering female flesh and drawing blood is a known metaphor for taking virginity. So while Perrault removes an actual rape from the story, Aurora is still “pricked,” and this time suffers for it since she sought out the attention. It is only when she is rendered unconscious that she can fully accept adult female sexuality, which according to Western European mores must be, for women at least, submissive to men.

Lest you think that Sleeping Beauty is an isolated example, there are similar undertones in Rapunzel, where the princess’s femininity is forcibly removed from her via chopping off her hair, and in the Frog Prince, where after allowing the ugly frog to sleep with her the princess recognizes his beauty and charm (or, after she concedes to her husband).

Case Study 2: The Little Mermaid

A mermaid rescues a human prince and falls in love with him. She barters her voice for legs and a chance to win his heart–and if she does, she can attain a mortal soul. But if she fails, she dies instantly.

The Little Mermaid is interesting because it does not follow usual fairy tale traditions. While some parts of the story are based in folklore, such as the sirens who sing and lure sailors to the depths–and death–most of the story comes from later. Hans Christian Anderson rewrote a folktale that was initially about making a just decision to obtain eternal life via a Christian soul. Anderson’s retelling is rife with Victorian morals and standards, and subverts many of the traditional roles of fairy tales.

As we just saw with Sleeping Beauty, women pursuing men was a big no-no. However, in the Little Mermaid she must pursue the man to gain an immortal soul. Although the mermaid must still gain a soul through marriage, the beginnings of feminism are evident in this retelling in that it gives her agency and doesn’t punish her for pursuing a man.

Losing her siren’s voice effectively neuters the mermaid–she is unable to voice her story, and explain to the prince that she rescued him, just as she is unable to fulfil her function as a siren, seducing men with her voice. The voice in this story is her femininity, making the Victorian case for a love that transcends sexuality, instead of being based on it as we saw in the first case.

Symbols of femininity are explored even more: when the mermaid fails, on the eve of the prince’s wedding night, her mersisters come to her with a dagger and cut hair, another symbol of lost femininity. They sacrifice their ability to be seen as beautiful and desirable to save their sister. The method of saving? The mermaid must completely abandon her gender ties, and stab the prince with a dagger and kill him, where his blood will return her tail allowing her the full 300 years of life she would have as a mermaid. As we saw in the last case study, this is akin to asking her to become completely masculine at the very least, and it could even be argued she sexually accosts him.

Her refusal in this case is her salvation. Anderson keeps the idea of women knowing their role in the world, and the mermaid is granted that immortal soul she so desperately wanted, but it is a hollow victory, as she does not have love. This allows Anderson to “update” the fairy tale script to reflect the newer morals and expectations of society while turning the structure of the fairy tale over and exploring new ways of sharing the same story.

Other examples of this are in the many retellings of Cinderella, and how they’ve changed over the years, and other stories punishing overeager women, such as the Red Shoes, Snow White, and Bluebeard.

Case Study 3: Hansel and Gretel

The woodcutter’s wife convinced her husband that, since they ran out of food, he should abandon his children in the woods. The children overheard, and left a trail of breadcrumbs to follow home. They still became lost, because the birds of the forest ate those breadcrumbs. They were captured by a witch, escaped, and managed to return home to their loving father.

Just as a reminder, fairy tales aren’t ALL about princesses, which is why I wanted to look at Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel is basically a coming of age story: the children have to become independent to save themselves, and ultimately take part in civilized society.

As we have already seen, the female character is most frequently cast as evil (thanks Eve). In the case of Hansel and Gretel, a persistent theme of civilized versus primitive sustains the narrative events. The stepmother pushes for abandoning the children, the evil witch tries to eat them, and after the children kill the witch and return home, the stepmother is strangely absent… To understand this, we have to look at the symbolism behind the story.

First, note that the stepmother has no children of her own. Remember back in Sleeping Beauty how bearing children was not an option, it was a requirement? By not having children of her own, the stepmother is not participating in this society. She is married and enjoying sexual activities, but without the responsibility of bearing children. This classifies her in the “primitive” category of our ongoing theme.

The story takes it one step further with the cannibalistic witch. This woman is so evil and primitive that it consumes rather than creates, hence the cannibalism. The fact that the story implies that the witch and stepmother are one and the same makes it even more abhorrent. This woman is so far beyond the strictures of society that she may as well be an animal.

Her death really cements the relationship between civilization and primitive. The children push her into the burning oven: an oven which can give “birth” to sustenance and morality in the form of bread (yes, in a Christian society, bread always equals morality), but refusal to leave the womb and grow must result in death. The children have to set aside being children and grow up, lest they suffer the fate they extracted from their stepmother/witch.

We could go into more of the symbolism (birds, stones) but the basic gist is that the children confront animalistic instinct and instead choose civilized control, and are thus grown and able to return to society. You can find similar themes in Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White.

How are they still relevant?

So what? These case studies of the oldest versions of stories told to groups with morals and codes of behavior decidedly different from our own couldn’t have any meaning for us–or do they?

The function of the fairy tale–teaching audiences what it means to belong to a group, and what the requirements of belonging in that group are–is still here, and you can see it in the remakes of fairy tales we enjoy today. Disney’s more recent retellings focus on the idea of inner beauty being more important than outer appearance, putting family before self, and taking risks and challenges (even as a woman).

We are compelled to rewrite fairy tales because the narrative structure, while simple, works. The persistence of these stories across generations means we know the characters, who they are, and what they represent. We can then explore and find new ways to use the plot and characters to make the underlying story meaningful for us. Don’t believe me? Compare the original Snow Queen to Disney’s Frozen.


Interested in modern fairy tale retellings? Check out the latest JL Anthology: Of Legend and Lore.



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