Fairytales: they are beloved by almost everyone. Well, everyone but me. See, I did my thesis on Cinderella, and after a few years of research and a lot of rewrites, you could call me a bit of an amateur folklorist. What that means is that people often end up repeating some really common myths and misconceptions about fairytales to me, that I will inevitably correct like the whiny self-serving intellectual that I am. Now, dear reader, I would like to pass that burden on to you and correct some really common misconceptions about fairytales, that you may now go forth and ruin parties (1). Here are some fun facts about fairytales.
You Know It When You See It
A folk tale, a fairytale, a fable. These seem interchangeable, and in reality largely are. “But fables are supposed to have a moral to the story!” You say. Yes, but it also became in vogue to tack on miscellaneous morals at the end of fairytales around the 17th century, therefore making that standard largely moot.
Anyway, the “genre” of fairytale or folk tale is a very varied genre. Some have happy endings, some do not. Some have magic, some do not. In general, for “classic” fairytales, we expect them to have begun in an oral tradition, but that’s also not set in stone. Many of our favorite works were in print first. In large part, we know a fairytale, a folk tale, when we see it.
The way I like to conceptualize what a fairytale is, honestly, is by its replication. These stories are really a type of meme, a meme that gets remade, remixed, remodeled as it is disseminated. In a lot of ways, a fairytale isn’t a genre, it’s a cultural tradition.
The Only Things The Grimms Originated Was Poor Translation
Let’s get something straight, the Grimms are not the creators, documenters or originators of fairytales. They did some cool stuff, granted, republishing and translating popular versions. But folklore was already an academic study in Europe, and documenting fairytales had been a thing for well over a hundred years before the Grimms got at it. And many, like the Grimms, took creative liberties. There were also many people publishing their own versions of fairytales as well, long before the Grimms. Many of these writers were women. Speaking of which…
The Term “Fairytale” Was Made By A Woman
Yes, Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, or Madame d’Aulnoy if you’re nasty, coined the term Contes de Fées in the late 1600s. She was a writer, possible spy, and love of fairytales who threw her own fairytale cosplay parties. She used to host and befriend lots of other fairytale writers. She’s worth reading about.
What’s In A Tale Type?
When you first begin getting into folk tale or folklore research, you will inevitably come across references to the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type. These tale types help to categorize like-type tales. A common misconception is that these will help locate the “original” version. Tale Types don’t actually do that. It doesn’t necessarily tell you about which is more “original” than the other, or even if the tales were developed in the same region or have a common ancestral tale. What it does allow us to do is look at similarities in how stories are made and to create comparisons of different stories.
Psychoanalysis Was A Thing, Proceed with Caution
Folklorists cover a lot of fields, and different folklorists will focus on different aspects. Some are linguists looking for the roots of stories in language. Some are looking to document “original” versions. Others look to see how stories are shaped by their cultures or how those cultures shape stories.
Some, however, are psychoanalysts. There are a number of really popular psychoanalysts that have written about fairytales as indicators of cultural values and anxieties. Some of these are pretty good with intriguing investigations, like Women Who Run With The Wolves. A number of these are very, very bad, in part because they aren’t necessarily written by people who have any experience in folklore as a study and therefore they may grasp on some symbolism without considering context or the amount of study in the field (3).
Yeah, They Weren’t Made For Kids, But That’s Because Nothing Was
The largest misconception I hear about folklore, especially European folklore, is “they weren’t made for kids” as an indication of the levels of violence, sex, or horror that were in some older versions of stories. Well, yes…but also no. Having separate media or forms of entertainment between children and adults is a fairly new development. “Children’s stories” is actually very, very new in early modern history. A lot of stories, especially stories rooted in oral traditions were composed by adults for their audiences.
It’s also worth noting that the things we find violent or scandalous today weren’t considered something to censor in other places or times. For instance, there are a lot of children’s stories where a character gets their head cut off in the first few stanzas, but what is that in a society that had public hangings or beheadings?
You Can Do It Too
Like I said before, when we stop trying to think of fairytales as a genre, and more like a meme, it means we can all partake in that tradition. The only validity required is that it is worth retelling or remaking. The religions, novels, comics, movies, wikipedia articles of today could very well be the fairytales of tomorrow.
What I’m saying is: yes, your Killing Eve fanfic counts.
(1) I’m not bitter! Do I sound bitter?
(2) Oh…I sound bitter don’t I?
(3) Beware lobsters.