The fairy tale as such emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth century as a literary genre after a long incubation period that goes back long before the origin of books—probably as far as Mesolithic period and perhaps as early as the Paleolithic, between 10,00 and 40,000 years ago. The traditional oral cultures that created the oral antecedent of the fairy tale used them for ritualistic purposes. The emphasis we find in certain tails upon the magical efficacy of repetition suggests the worldview described by Mircea Eliade in his discourse on traditional society.
About repetition, writes Eliade, traditional humanity “acknowledges no act which has not been previously posited and lived by someone else, some other being who was not a man. What he does has been done before. His life is the ceaseless repetition of gestures initiated by others. . . . The gesture acquires meaning, reality, solely to the extent to which it repeats a primordial act.”
The unrivaled importance of repetition is seared into the fairy tale, where in tales like The Talking Eggs, The Drum, The Flute, or Diamonds and Toads, the ability to follow a meaningless set of directions confers magical power upon the initiate, or lends the ritual object magical properties the protagonist is able to control.
Intervening between the archaic words or mantra we can never recover and the fairy tale was something folklorists call “the wonder folktale,” or “magic tale.” Jack Zipes claims that the “wonder tale” existed for thousands of years, but perhaps this is a bit murky, since we have no records of wonder tales dating from the Neolithic or Bronze Age cultures, in whose great Mid-Eastern cities writing first developed, not as a means of persevering stories, but to keep business accounts. Perhaps “the wonder tale” was a late decay product of the breakdown in traditional societies, in which the rituals of ceaseless repetition that were originally meant to abolish the continual flow of profane time became in some sense nostalgic narratives; and the gods, ancestors or other exemplary models whose acts had established the world, slowly became the oppressed, suffering, or merely disadvantaged protagonists.
Nevertheless, whenever it emerged, under whatever political circumstances and for whatever purpose, “the wonder tale” generally focused on miraculous transformations that overcame the disadvantages of the hero and enabled him or her to prevail over perilous circumstances and/or menacing superhuman adversaries and succeed in life.
The crucial factor that midwived the fairy tale from “the wonder folktale” was writing: “as more and more wonder tales were written down in the 14th-17th centuries, they constituted the genre of the fairy tale—or a term Jack Zipes uses interchangeably with fairy tale, the “literary fairy tale.” The literary fairy tale laced the old wonder tale with new elements yet it retained the salient emphasis upon the cursed, disadvantaged, ostracized or marginalized individual—a character whose condition we might consider in relationship to the scapegoat—and, more significantly, it retain an emphasis upon magical transformation and a sense of wonder—the same sense which we associate with children—and have since the late eighteenth century.. That magic can overcome all forms of adversity remains a distinguishing mark of the fairy tale today—although sometimes it is the failure of magic, and the hopelessness of our expectations, with which we are confronted.
If it was possible in the 17th century to say that there are as many fairy tales as there are tellers, we may now say there are as many definitions of the fairy tale as there are fairy tale scholars. However, the definition that seems most to have acquired near consensus among folklorists is the one posited by none other than Jack Zipes, which synthesizes the work of an earlier 20th century folklorists, including Jens Tismar.
"In his first short monograph, [Jens] Tismar set down the principles for a definition of the literary fairy as genre:
- it distinguishes itself from the oral folk tale in so far as it is written by a single identifiable author;
- it is thus synthetic, artificial, and elaborate in comparison to the indigenous formation of the folk tale that emanates from communities and tends to be simple and anonymous; the differences between the literary fairy tale and the oral folk tale do not imply that one genre is better than the other; in fact, the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author."
The redirection of a traditional story by a single writer is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the fairy tale definition, because we are used to conceiving of them as ancient and traditional works: our cultural patrimony. Who wrote Cinderella? Who wrote Little Red Riding Hood?
Well, studying the collections of fairy tales transcribed from the folk, we can see how they are authored, even if the collector-transcriber could not. The fairy tales of Grimm, for instance, represent the work of individuals rather than a community, culture or nation-state. Jacob Grimm was persuaded that the tales were remnants of an ancient German culture; but, in order to ‘restore’ the contemporary tale to its ‘original state,’ he communicated anthropological data to his brother, Wilhelm, who then smoothed the language of the tales he collected. He artificially created a self-consciously archaic prose, one that, while it came to seem the uninflected oracular language of the ancient tale, really represented the best guess of an educated German citizen of the 19th century.
Zipes describes this kind of authorship with scholarly finesse: “the definition . . . of the fairy tale,” he writes, “depends on the manner in which a narrator/author arranges known functions of a tale aesthetically and ideologically to induce wonder and then transmits the tale as a whole.”
Vladimir Propp, another scholar whose work is foundational in 20th century fairy tale studies, provides a list of other defining characteristics which the fairy tale derived from the wonder tale, in his The Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928). While these elements are not all present in every fairy tale, the represent a pattern or grammar that can help us to recognize the fairy tale and discuss distinctions among tales.
“Most plots will follow a basic pattern which begins as the protagonist is confronted by a taboo which he or she violates in some way; which leads to banishment or to the assignment of a task or tasks.” In the story of Cupid and Psyche, for example, first recorded in the second century, after violating the interdiction against gazing at Cupid, her immortal lover, Psyche is assigned a set of tasks by Cupid’s vengeful mother, Aphrodite: this includes dividing a pile of mixed grains into tidy piles (in which, having heard Le Guin’s fairy tale you will be interested to learn, Psyche is assisted by friendly ants), gathering wool from a flock of golden sheep (which she is again luckily assisted in accomplishing), filling a bucket of water from the River Styx, and, ultimately, fetching a box of beauty from Queen Persephone, the dark mistress of the Underworld.
Psyche has help with all of the tasks—in fact, she is strikingly different from the heroic youngest daughter of Gifts, and with each task her thoughts tend immediately to despair and suicide: Psyche’s responses are uncharacteristic of protagonists in fairy tales, but the divine or supernatural assistance she receives is very typical. Zipes notes that protagonists will have “encounters with all sorts of characters: a deceitful villain; a mysterious individual or creature, who gives the protagonist gifts; three different animals or creatures who are helped by the protagonist and promise to repay him or her; or three different animals or creatures who offer gifts to help the protagonist, who is in trouble. The gifts are often magical agents, which bring about miraculous change.” Eventually, and you can read this in Zipes’s introduction on page roman numeral seventeen, “The inimical forces are vanquished [and] the success of the protagonist usually leads to marriage and wealth,” as, indeed, it does in the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as well as the tale of the four daughters.
The conclusion in marriage is typical of Greek comedy as it is of Old and New Roman and all comedy through Shakespeare, so we can say that the fairy tale suggests affinities with the conventions of Comedy rather than Tragedy.
Again, while these elements tend to be present in fairy tales, they are not always so, but the one ‘constant’ in the structure is that of “transformation” or “miraculous transformation.”
The transitioning of wonder tale to fairy tale truly seems to gain momentum in the early modern period: While “the growth of towns, religious conflicts, and peasant uprisings [against Feudalism] affected both the subject matter and the use of the [wonder] tales,” the introduction of printing from movable type,” was the single most important factor.” As more and more [tales] were printed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, they began to constitute . . . the literary fairy tale, which gradually took on its own conventions (rooted in its oral antecedents) that appealed to a smaller and more aristocratic reading public. It was first in Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Piacevoli notti (translated as The Facetious Nights and The Delectable Nights, 1550-1553) and then in Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti (better known as The Pentamerone, 1634-36) and Pompeo Sarnelli’s Posilecheata (1684) that wonder tales were fully adapted and transcribed to amuse educated readers. . . . “ (JZ)
Despite the ingenuity of Italian authors, because they formed no social network to support the spread of this new literature, it was in France that the literary fairy tale truly took form. “By the mid-seventeenth century, aristocratic women had established literary salons and were promoting a type of parlor game that incorporated the use of folk motifs and narrative conventions. The participants were expected to show their wit and expressiveness by inventing wondrous tales (contes de fees) that dealt with such subjects as tender love, courtship, proper comportment, and the use of power. As these games grew increasingly popular in Paris, players often wrote down or rehearsed the fairy tales at home so that they might appear précieux (unique) or as natural as possible when asked to recite. By 1690, authors such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Catherine Bernard began first to incorporate fairy tales into their novels and then to publish entire collections of fairy tales. The most famous writer from that era is Charles Perrault, who in 1697 published his collection Histoire ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Times Past),” subtitled and thence translated into English in 1729 as Tales from Mother Goose.” (JZ) Perrault designates the tales as having been told “by governesses and grandmothers to their children” (MT).
“These aristocratic and bourgeois women and men performed their tales in the salons and published them so that they might demonstrate their individuality, their eloquence, and their wit or espirit. The tales were intended not just to amuse the listeners but also to establish the conventions of a discourse on manners and civilité, with an implicit code that corresponded to the standards of propriety. The resulting tales differed radically in content and style from their originals, whether those had been heard from nurses, governesses, or servants or had been read in books such as those by Straparola, Basile, and other Italian writers. When these tales were adapted from the salon to the page they were adapted even more, for the author could employ even more florid language and invent even more extraordinary events. In addition, the literary fairy tales had a serious undertone. Many, particularly those by women, criticize the policies of Louis XIV, whose wars and conversion to orthodox Catholicism had ended France’s dominance as the ruling power in Europe. The utopian projections of magnificent courtly life, where a just ruler guarantees peace and happiness for his subjects, reveal the discontent of the writers and their desire to change French society during the latter days of the Sun King’s rule . . ..” (JZ)
It is useful to keep in mind the subversive aspect of seventeenth century fairy tales because we see it again and again in later tales, as we know from our reading in Block and McKinley, among others.
It is important to remember, also, that “these fairy tales were written explicitly for adults, even those by Perrault”—a point Zipes stresses so that we do not suppose Charles Perrault was in any sense a children’s author. However, while he may not have intended his tales to appeal to children, we know that they were read by children—or at least young adults.
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, “fairy tales were printed in a series of chapbooks called the Bibliothèque bleue that were sold by peddlers (colporteurs) throughout France, central Europe and England—[where the sellers were called chapmen.] In this format the tales were often translated and shortened, and their language simplified.” (JZ) It was through these chapbooks that an increasingly educated population of children became familiar with fairy tales and the tales, themselves, could begin to claim a nostalgia appeal and the authority of tradition. (MJ)
Beginning in the mid eighteenth century, “despite the hostility of puritan censors,” English authors “began to incorporate some fairy tales in volumes intended for children. The most notable examples are found in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess: or, Little Female Academy (1749) and in Magasin des enfans (translated in 1757 as The Young Misses’ Magazine) by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Both Fielding and Leprince de Beaumont use a larger frame tale of schooling to hold stories that illustrate lessons of morals and manners. Often such embedded tales were later published separately.” (JZ)
“During the eighteenth century, the notion that fairy tales could be written and published for children emerged against the usual hidebound conservative resistance. Although a specific children’s culture was developing, in North America and much of Europe, fairy tales were generally considered to be” inappropriate for children, and dangerous for “promoting a sense of wonder based in superstitions, magic, and fantasy.” (JZ) A class division began to act upon children’s literature: “while most poor children—the modern peasantry—continued to hear oral wonder tales, children of the upper and educated classes were urged toward reading material that would [help] them live rationally, in accordance with Christian ideas and foster proper manners. The fairy tales of Fénelon, Sarah Fielding, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, and other traditional writers of the eighteenth century gradually wrested approval from the censorious only because they were overly didactic and moralistic, and sustained patriarchal notions of power. Though pleasurable to read, the literary fairy tale for children was clearly intended to instruct. Amusement was secondary,” (JZ). although this would change dramatically within a relatively brief period of time.
The nineteenth century saw several major changes to the nature, orientation and reception of the fairy tale. E.T.A. Hoffman and other German Romantics utilized the adult fairy tale to contain “sophisticated dialogues about social and political issues,” broadening the critical component developed by the French salon authors. Fairy tales were published for children during the early years of the century in inexpensive illustrated toybook form, much like the chapbook form of previous decades, although these were regarded with mixed feelings; some adults continued to regard them as not “healthy for the development of children’s minds.” (JZ)
The cultural struggle over the fairy tale in Europe is nicely exemplified by the efforts of Wilhelm Grimm, who, “began in 1819 to revise their collected tales, Kinderun Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household tales, first published in 1812 and 1815), to make them more suitable for children:” he added “Christian sentiments and removed erotic, cruel, or bawdy passages.” But, withal the sanitizing of the tales, “the fantastic and wondrous elements remained;” (JZ) and, therefore the publication in England of Edgar Taylor’s translation of the Grimms’ tales under the title German Popular Stories (1832) signaled the determination of those who perceived underlying affinities between the wonder of childhood and the magic of the fairy tale.
This new liberalism or progressivism can be traced in part to the ideas of “philosophers and educators, such as the Swiss-born French philosopher and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and the German educator Friedrich Froebel,” the inventor of the “Kinder-Garten,” which “emphasized liberty and play in learning.” The playful elements of the fairy tale were thus accorded a pedagogical and conceptual value they had previously lacked. Amusement was crucial for the well being of the mind of the child as a child.