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A little history of a fairy tales...

'The fairy tale is a universe in miniature' (Lüthi, 1976:25)

I'll start this with a disclaimer; I am not a fairy tale scholar I am just a reader and lover of fairy tales. The history of fairy tales is a vast subject to which many people have devoted a lifetime of study. It is a story that crosses recorded history and continents. Here, I am just dipping the tip of my little toe into what Marina Warner has called the 'seas of story'...

Entwined with the history of fairy tales is the unavoidable question 'what is a fairy tale?' It seems to be easier to say what one isn't—firstly, it isn't often a story about fairies. The term derives from the English translation of 'conte de fées', the name that the French writer Madame d'Aulnoy gave to the tales she and her contemporaries wrote in 17th century Paris. These fairy tales, mostly written by women, have all but vanished from view so the credit for starting the literary fairy tale movement usually (and incorrectly) goes to one of the men in their midst, Charles Perrault. Some scholars prefer to use the German term 'wundermärchen' which can be translated as 'wonder tales'.

Fairy tales are rooted in the everyday world, but they aren't realistic; animals talk, the wind gives advice, and the dead spring back to life. The tales aren't usually set in the here and now; or in any identifiable time or place—they exist in the realm of 'once upon a time'*. Their characters are often nameless, or have generic names, as if to remind us that wonderful things can happen to anyone. And that strange and wondrous things can happen is never questioned: anything is possible. A child can become a bird, a man a monster, a girl in rags a Queen. Things can change for the better and justice will prevail. There are some fairy tales without a happily ever after—but there are no fairy tales in which no one is transformed. As Warner has said 'metamorphosis defines the fairy tale' (1995:XVI).

So where do fairy tales come from? We feel sure that people must have told stories for as long as they've had the voices to tell them. Fairy tales were originally part of the vast oral tradition of storytelling, which also encompasses myth, legend, and folklore. As such their history is difficult to pin down until they were captured and committed to the page. Once a fairy tale is preserved in print it becomes known as a literary fairy tale and of the familiar Western fairy tales we know today several first came into print in Charles Perrault's Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose) in 1697, including 'Cinderella', 'The Sleeping Beauty' and 'Little Red Riding Hood'.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were the first writers who aimed to collect and preserve the oral tales in their Kinder und Hausmarchen (Childhood and Household Tales), first published in 1812, but in later editions they edited them to make them more suitable for children, and for Christian sensibilities. The Grimms' tales include 'Rapunzel', 'Hansel and Gretel', and 'Rumpelstiltskin'.

Hans Christian Andersen was a master of the form and although some of his stories were based on traditional tales (such as The Princess and the Pea), most were original. He published his first fairy tales in Fairy Tales Told for Children in 1835 and many of his stories are still well known today, including 'The Little Mermaid' and 'The Ugly Duckling'.

Fairy tales have continued to influence writers and to be retold, reimagined, subverted, and invented by writers to the present day. Favourites of mine include the work of George Macdonald, Oscar Wilde, Angela Carter, and A. S. Byatt.

Fairy tales are often revised and retold—each time being given a new slant by a new writer. But there have been original tales; these have been nourished by the form and motifs of traditional tales but they have grown from the imagination of the writer rather than a previous oral or literary source. That is the tradition to which this magazine belongs.

If you want to find out more about fairy tales, online I'd recommend exploring SurLaLune, and the Journal of Mythic Arts Archives. In print, Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde, On fairy tales and their tellers, provides a beautifully written and comprehensive grounding in the subject; the numerous fairy tale studies by Jack Zipes are fascinating and informative (Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion is my favourite); and Max Lüthi's Once Upon a Time – On the nature of fairy tales is a joy to read.

Claire Massey, Editor
August 2008
revised February 2010

*There are, of course, always exceptions, and even when a tale claims to reside within the realm 'once upon a time', if you look closely enough, reflections of the world of the teller can usually be seen.

Works cited:
Lüthi, M. (1976). Translators Gottwald, P. & Chadeayne, L. Once Upon a Time – On the nature of fairy tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Warner, M. (1995). From the Beast to the Blonde, On fairy tales and their tellers. London: Vintage.