Fairy Tales Unveiled: Tracing Their Origins

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If asked to tell a fairy tale to a child, most people would be able to recite one like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Cinderella’ from memory. Fairy tales have played a major role in children’s upbringing for centuries and classic stories are still narrated unchanged to this day. The truth is, however, that many of the most popular stories were not even meant for children at first. So let’s dive into how fairy tales came to be as we know them today.

Theories about the Origins of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are short stories typically with fantasy and/or magical characters that don’t take place in reality or in a specified time period, hence ‘once upon a time’. They first originated from oral folklore and were spread through word of mouth, preserving cultural and customary features. Because many stories from different cultures were similar, linguists developed two theories about the origins of fairy tales. The first one states that there is one original story that was spread across different parts of the world, whereas the second supports the idea that the same story can be developed in multiple civilizations because of common human experiences around the globe regardless of culture.

Fairy Tales as Stories for Adults

Due to their oral origin, there is great difficulty in tracing the history of fairy tales before the start of their transcription a little more than 400 years ago. The earliest collections were written in Italy by Gianfrancesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile in the 1550s and 1636 respectively and include stories such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Snow White’. Later on, French writer Charles Perrault released ‘Tales of Mother Goose’ which contained ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and other well-known stories. 

What is interesting about this collection is that it was meant to be read by adult aristocrats, so the stories were a lot darker and more explicit than the children’s versions we know today. For example, in the original version, Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten at the end of the tale, as a result of her foolishness in trusting the wolf. Specialists believe that the inclusion of such gruesome scenes reflected the brutality found in societies in medieval times, where these fairy tales originated.

At the same time period, there was a rise of female story-tellers like Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Henriette-Julie de Murat, whose stories were meant for fellow aristocratic and educated women. Their stories contained explicit references and were often love stories with animal metamorphosis, like ‘The Green Serpent’ by d’Aulnoy. 

“Some men are born to good luck: all they do or try to do comes right—all that falls to them is so much gain—all their geese are swans—all their cards are trumps—toss them which way you will, they will always, like poor puss, alight upon their legs, and only move on so much the faster. The world may very likely not always think of them as they think of themselves, but what care they for the world? what can it know about the matter?”

– Jacob And Wilhelm Grimm, The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

18th Century: The First Children’s Stories

Towards the end of the 18th century, the nature of the tales started to change and they began to get modified in order to target children. Thus, sexual, explicit and violent references were edited out and many stories were restricted. The first shortened and revisited tale was that of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which was originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villaneuve in 1740, but was published as a kids’ story in 1757 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont who was a school teacher.

In Germany, the Grimm Brothers collected stories from locals in the countryside, wanting to preserve and study their cultural significance. In 1812, they published their first anthology of oral folk tales called ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ or ‘Grimm’s Tales’ with fairy tales such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, aimed at children. The Grimm Brothers inspired other writers to also collect folk stories and tales of their countries and study folklore.

Contrary to transcribing already existing stories, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen drew on old tales or fairy tale motifs and wrote new and original stories, with autobiographical details and satirical comments on society. His most popular tales include ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

Role of the Villains: Are They Misunderstood?

While original fairy tales before the Grimm Brothers were meant for the moral teaching of adults, the children’s versions aim both to entertain the youth, but also provide lessons about real-life problems under the guise of mythical and magical characters and symbolisms. In most stories, in order to emphasize the difference between good and bad, the main character’s actions shine because they are challenged by a villain. Many go as far as to say that the villain’s role is just as important as the hero’s. Without an antagonist, there is no obstacle for the hero and the good does not have the bad to triumph over.

However, villains don’t always serve only as a counterpart to the main characters. They are often captivating and fascinating characters, heroes of their own stories. They possess confidence, power and other qualities that people secretly yearn for, while breaking the rules and doubting the societal norms. Their backstories are dark, resulting in a feeling of sympathy by the audience and making their character more relatable and human. This also makes people understand their motives and question their evil nature, proving the complexity of the villains’ inner cosmos. 

“I’ve got friends on the other side.” 

-Dr. Facilier, The Princess and The Frog (2009)

Villains in the Spotlight and Conclusion

Villains urge us to self-reflect and question our own moral code, challenging the line between good and evil. Their psychology has become of great interest in recent years, with their stories taking the spotlight in film adaptations like Maleficent, Joker or Cruella. In these films, the narrative is told from the point of view of the villains of well-known tales, exploring their past and shedding light on how their psyche was shaped. They provide a new angle in already known characters and stories, often causing controversy. Then again, don’t they deserve their stories told too?

It is easy to see that fairy tales have a long and surprising journey through history. They continue to be narrated to this day, whether it is the classic tales or new ones written by modern storytellers. They help build a moral compass for young children, while simultaneously entertaining them. The villains of the stories play their part in representing the evil and chaotic, but are sometimes misunderstood, as they have their own past and traumas that lead them where they are. The truth is that each tale has more than one story to tell, as long as we are open to listen to them.

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