Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending with Butterflies, Flames, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things.
She is young and blonde (or raven-haired) and beautiful – always beautiful. That is unless she’s old and grey and stout. She sleeps or runs or tiptoes through the wood and loves a child, demon, beast or frog. He is starving or overfed, her brother, a tailor, the handsome prince. They are threatened by a dwarf, thief, goblin or witch – that is, unless he is an evil king. Nonetheless, most are rescued in the end – by fishes, birds, gnomes or jinns – and wind up doing very well. I am telling fairy tales, of course.
The word “fairy” comes from the Latin fatum, meaning fate – an often challenging force the dwells above and beyond nature. “Fay” refers to fairies as a group. The term evolved from fée or faie, a 14th century French word for people who possess the power to enchant. Thus, fate and magic figure largely in these tales. To qualify as fairy tale, a plot need not include the fay. Yet it must involve enchantment. The story typically runs short and almost always ends in peace.
Such tales are not to be confused with myth, fables or legend. Myth is concerned with how things got to be the way they are, while fables involve animals and morals. Legends are based in reality. But fairy tales – ah! They require magic, protagonists who grow and change, and conclude with “happily ever after.”
Though most stories end in pleasure, pain occurs along the way. The Grimm brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm) included many examples of such suffering in their first collection, Children’s and Household Tales. Published in 1812, those stories derive from an oral tradition dating to the Dark Ages. The Handless Maiden is one example. In the tale, a young girl’s father bargains for wealth with the devil by offering everything in his backyard. Nothing grows there, thinks the father, but an apple tree. What he doesn’t know is that his daughter is currently sweeping there. Upon learning her fate the maiden weeps, wipes her eyes, then weeps some more. The purity of her tears repels the Devil, and he insists the father chop off her hands. Afraid for his own life, the father does.
This theme of adults harming children (on purpose or by accident) permeates the genre – from Hansel and Gretel through Rapunzel. Such stories are not limited to Western Europe, but turn up almost everywhere – for instance The Jackal or Tiger (India) in which a king dismisses his pregnant wife for misidentifying an animal and The Pretty Little Calf (China) where two of a merchant’s wives beat a third (and her offspring) for bearing him a son.
Many have speculated on the origins of such violence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argues that dark imagery enlivens a tale – pounds its message home. Say you are too busy with hunting or gathering to supervise your child, and you want her to avoid the creek. More than a generic warning, she might remember to elude an evil water spirit – one who kidnaps little kids in compensation for the son who drowned.
Jack Zipes (modern translator of the Grimms) claims that fairy tales were originally invented for adult enjoyment. In 17th century France the gathering and telling of such stories became a parlor game. Guests competed to see who could add the most subversive, political and/or vivid detail. One of the earliest fairy tale collections dates back to that time – Le Cabinet des Fées. Contributors were mostly women – like Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette – with a feminist agenda.
Another 17th century French collector/author is Charles Perrault. His Tales and Stories of the Past With Morals also goes by the more familiar name of Mother Goose. Perrault liked to conclude his stories with a moral. For instance, the original Little Red Riding Hood ends with a warning to young women against socializing with strange men. (Note – this version does not have a happy ending: Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf. Period.)
In the 19th century, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen employed much violence in his tales. For instance The Little Mermaid falls in love with a prince, trading her tail and tongue for legs and searing pain. Though she sacrifices much to pursue the Prince, she ultimately fails. The story ends “happily” upon her death, when she is swept into heaven – a privilege denied most mermaids.
Love and marriage comprise another theme. Beginning with fairy tales from Ancient Greece (Cupid and Psyche) and continuing through Disney (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White), the topic persists. Sometimes it’s a maiden, sometimes it’s a youth who does the pursuing. Even Puss in Boots wins a princess for his low-born master. In a patriarchal world, this near-obsession with romance seems rather odd. When the goal is to conquer other countries, steal their wealth and destroy their cultural accomplishments, what makes love and marriage so important?
Some answers are obvious, and some are not: In the obvious column, we have women-as-chattel – trophies, spoils of war. Not only might a beautiful princess provide a young man with his livelihood, but marriage could seal an alliance between their two countries. Then, there is sex – the power of which cannot be underestimated. In the original story, Rapunzel’s prince quickly gets her pregnant. We learn this when she asks the witch why her clothes have become so snug.
Psychologist Erich Neumann claims that marriage may also be a symbol for integration. Where all the characters in a story represent parts of the psyche, such a union stands for wholeness, maturity and balance. This is the case, he claims, with Cupid and Psyche. Due to her extraordinary beauty, Psyche attracts the god of love himself. When she loses him, the only way to win him back is through a series of quests. As the tasks near completion, Pysche gives birth to a little girl (as if to underscore her accomplishment) and gets promoted to the status of demi-god.
Enough about the mushy stuff. Let’s move on to villains. I’ve always found them much more interesting. In Part Two of this essay we’ll explore enemies, allies and their relationships to fairy tale heroes.
QUERY: Right now, Dear Reader, let us hear from you: As a child, what was your favorite fairy tale?
Not the question you asked, but I really like the adult versions of fairy tales, such as the new book by Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan, or Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
I recently compared two books from my “library” as a child. One was the original Grimm versions–very grim, while the other was a sort of “Disneyfied” version. How bland to have Cinderella forgive her wicked step-sisters and invite them to move to the castle with her.
Yes, adult fairy tales are back in fashion. Will mention some next time. Meanwhile, thanks for making us aware of M. Cunningham’s “The Snow Queen.”
Hmmm—would have to be Grimm’s The Wolf and the Seven Kids. I remember loving it because of the spiraling cleverness of the kids and their mother throughout, as the complications intensified—and that it was cleverness that got them out of the worst fix of all in the end, just when you thought it was the final dooming—never once questioned the impossibility of it all—
Eager to read about the villains next week—
Thanks for describing my favorite type of fairy tale – where cleverness (vs. beauty and/or brawn) helps protagonist succeed. In this case, we know the kids tried hard to obey their mother’s instructions. It’s really dreadful when they don’t succeed. Though she employs brutality to save them, we are rooting hard for her to win. Interesting how we are willing to suspend our disbelief when the story feels emotionally true.
Exactly! You’ve pinpointed the appeal of this story for my childhood self—and even now for my adult self—- the emotional truth of it—that despite all their best intentions, things still went horribly wrong. I do remember being shocked yet relieved by the brutality — that the mother would go to such extreme lengths to save her kids—-somehow it made me feel safer in the world—interesting indeed—
Sleeping Beauty had always been a favorite. I suppose I imagined myself as the handsome prince rescuing the fair maiden. However after learning that the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales were rather… well different… than what we have today, I am intrigued by those. I guess that means I grew up a little.
Wonder if sleep stands for more than merely sleep in this tale. Perhaps it takes a loss of innocence to make us grow.
Perhaps you are right. However my enjoyment of this tale is anchored in fantasy with no deep or hidden meaning.
Hansel and Gretel. Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of telling the story to an 84-year-old friend who had never heard it.
Amazing that someone (in the Western Hemisphere) can go their whole life without hearing this tale. It is so rich with meaning. You have performed a very good deed!
Great article! Thanks for teaching me some new things with the research – now I like the word Fey even more.
I’ve always like the Pied Piper, and found myself telling spinoff stories to my kids at night.
Having read all the red,green,blue and yellow fairy tale books in my
elementary school library you would think I would have a favorite
from them but my favorite is a Disney version of Cinderella. I love
the singing mice and birds. How does Alice and Wonderland fit in?
Most Interesting. Cinderella has always been my personal favorite, probably because it has less violence and horror than many other fairy tales. I love that Cinderella tales can be found in many cultures. Three of my favorites are Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe, The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, and Tattercoats: An Old English Tale by Flora Annie Steel.