concerning fairy tales – a blog response

A while ago, author, fellow blogger, chocolate lover and generally cool gal, Zen, wrote a post about fairy tales, wherein she expressed surprise that fairy tales aren’t ideal after all. This is a response to that post. So before you continue, please go  and read her post, and the comments. I’ll wait for you.



. . . (are you reading yet?)

Back? Alright, let’s get started. The following might turn out a bit long and/or scholarly, but I’m keeping it to the point as much as possible, so just bear with me, please.

Fairy tales and me

Maybe it’s because I’m German, but I grew up with the originals, the Brothers Grimm and lots of others, some more local, some from neighbouring countries. Fairy tale movies are a big thing, and on one of the best TV channels we have, there’s a special feature, the Sunday Fairy Tale, where they show a fairy tale movie each week. It’s been around for years and years and years. When we went for family walks, my siblings and I used to ask our Grandmother or our Mum to tell us fairy tales. Later, my siblings asked me and I’d tell them the Grimm ones I liked the best or I’d invent some of my own. I also told them to all the kids I used to babysit. If you don’t know, you can make most of these stories quite interactive, and that’s what I did. Of course we also saw the Disney versions, but we were aware the whole time that they did not tell the “true” story.

When I studied to be a teacher, I chose fairy tales as a focus topic for my oral (and final) exam in literature. I read all the classics, I read all the scientific stuff about how to analyze them, different approaches from psychology towards fairy tales, historical documents, books on comparative literature, … Well, I studied them. And because I think fairy tales are an integral and extremely important part of any culture, I think it’s worthwhile to get it clear what they are, what they do and what they don’t do and why they are important.

Also, just to get it off my chest before I go on: I adore Zen, and her blog is one of my favourites and this is in no way intended to be patronizing or anything like that. It just happens to be a topic that I feel strongly about and that I like talking about and her post was just a kind of trigger. 

“Fairy” tales?

So, why are these stories called “fairy” tales? There’s very few fairies present in any of them! The answer is, quite simply, that ‘fairy tales’ is the wrong word. It has become the word that is used in the English language, but that is just a matter of convenience and usage. What they really are, are folk tales. Tales that have been around for a long time, that have been passed down from generation to generation, that have a long oral tradition.

In German, the word is ‘Märchen’. In literature studies, this word is even used in English, as a technical term for these kind of stories. It’s a diminutive form of the the word ‘Mär’, a very old-fashioned word that means nothing else than ‘story’. So ‘Märchen’ just means ‘little story’. Not that most people are aware of that, as I said, it’s a very old-fashioned term.

Because I don’t want to write “fairy tales” for the rest of this post, I’ll lay off the quotation marks. After all, it is the word that is most commonly used. But let’s keep in mind that really, they are folk tales, okay?

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm, or rather, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, were not, as some people assume or as they have been portrayed, these adventure-seeking, dangerous-living, travelling guys. So who and what were they then? I’ll give it to you in one word: Geeks. Very prolific, very cool geeks. They were academics, both studying law and reading, reading, reading… They read Schiller and Goethe, were interested in the Romantics and friends with some of the most well-known German Romantics, and laid the foundations for what we now call “Germanistik” (the studies of German language, literature and culture, like for example “Amerikanistik”, the study of American language, literature and culture).

They were born in the 1780s, the eldest sons of a numerous family, the father was a civil servant of middle rank, their grandfather had been a cleric. Their research went into finding the roots and charting the development of German literature and culture, because they thought that the present social and political circumstances could be explained and charted and hopefully changed by this. For their research they studied documents and records and literature from England, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Finland, Serbia, Netherlands, Spain… large parts of Europe.

Together with a number of other academics and writers, all loosely connected to Romanticism (I’m talking about the literary epoch here, guys!), started collecting folk tales. They did not want only the written-down documents, because those only gave the view of the literate and the rich. Together, they went out to ask old people to tell their stories. However, they did not go very far out. They didn’t travel all the lands or anything like that. After all, they worked for their living as well. They went to the surrounding villages on weekends and a large portion of the stories actually comes from one source, an old lady that lived in a village near the town where they lived. They did work scientifically, in that they tried to find at least two different sources for each story, but they did not work scientifically in that they were picking and choosing which versions to include.

Yes, you heard right, versions. You don’t think that a story stays the same if it’s told and re-told and re-told by a number of people? It changed from village to village, from family to family, from generation to generation. And that’s just as it should be, since a story is a living, breathing thing. What the Grimm brothers and their friends and colleagues did, was to pick the ones they thought were most representative. They brought out the first part of their collection in 1812, entitled “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (“Children and House tales”, literally).

Time went by and they worked on a large number of things, publishing essays and books and studies analysing or translation or commenting things like myths, epics, legends, … They were scholars, and they did what scholars do. In 1815 they published the second part of their collection and 1819 they brought out a second edition of the first part. This had to be heavily edited. A lot of stories were struck out, other included and most of the stories were toned down to exclude all the too obvious erotic allusions. They also published their notes and study references and later brought out a ‘small edition’ in only one book – that one brought them most of their publicity. Their collection was translated into English and became even more popular.

Although their work was largely scholarly and had to do with language and culture, they also were active in politics, publishing political arguments to the purpose of unifying all the splintered little states to form a republic. Both helped to formulate the first German version of human rights (following the example of the French revolution and other similar influences). Jacob was a representative of the first National Congress of Germany, something for which he was later exiled by the king.

I could go on about those two for a long time, because, as I said, they were cool guys and they did a lot with their lives and their talents, a lot of which is not enough acknowledged. But since this is supposed to be about fairy tales, and not about the lives of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, I’ll quickly inflict one more topic on you.

What’s the point of fairy tales?

Good question. What is the point of stories? Well, entertainment for one thing. Imagine you’re a farmer somewhere in 1700-something, or earlier, or later, any time before electricity and modern infrastructure. What do you do for relaxation and entertainment? Sure, you get together with neighbours and gossip. Or tell tales. Invent histories, lie about your achievements, exaggerate your woes. All those things that we do as humans. Stories are entertainment.

But more than that, stories are how we make sense of the world. They explain human behaviour. No, they don’t tell us of ideal behaviour of a hero, a demi-god (these stories exist as well, but they are myths – dealing with superhuman beings). Fairy tales talk about humans. Humans lie. They cheat. They seek their own advantage. But they also believe in rules of good and bad behaviour and fairy tales are pretty clear on that: good guys become happy and rich. Bad guys get punished. It’s all very black and white. No shades of grey in a fairy story.  There are no complex emotional dramas. That does not mean that you cannot imagine them to be there! I’m pretty sure that if there were a father who would abandoned his two children in the woods, would probably suffer intense emotional drama (unless he was a heartless, a-social freak, of course). But detailing that drama is not what fairy tales are about.

Incidentially, anybody who argues, that what some people nowadays perceive as “gruesome”, is a reflection of a harsher life in the past, is guilty of depriving people of the past of their humanity. No sane person would under any circumstances, as harsh as these circumstances may be, suffer a child of theirs to be lost or killed. It’s got nothing to do with that. Again, fairy tales are “only” stories. To instruct (and entertain) children. To help and make sense of the world to people. To entertain adults. Yes, I did say adults. They are not children’s stories, although the Grimms named them that, in a rather savy marketing strategy. If you read the originals, and I mean the original originals, not the edited ones, it’s perfectly obvious that these stories are full to bursting of sex and crime. Although it’s still perceptible in the edited version. Folk tales, not “fairy” tales.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

If you’re interested in getting answers to why fairy tales are important, what other fairy tales there are, where they come from, and what psychology has to say about them (a lot, believe me! and also this: you’ll be surprised!), check back here in a day or so. I’ll answer these questions in a second post.

In the meantime, go and read some of the Grimms’ tales, they are all online, since they are part of the public domain. Amazon features them as free downloads for Kindle, or you can either download them or read them online at Project Gutenberg.

On a related note, if you’re interested in things like fairy tales, myths, legends, mythical or fantasy beings and creatures and fantasy in popular culture, please go and check out this website and blog: Twilight Wanders. It’s a side project on which I’m collaborating. We’re only just starting, so there is not that much to see yet, but it’s growing every day and we’re very open for suggestions, ideas and guest posts!

Also, any comments, contradictions, questions? Need me to clarify something? Want to correct me on something? Please comment!


About wordsurfer

writer, ex-teacher, human rights believer & fighter, traveller, adventure-seeker, freedom lover, global citizen. big on daydreams, less so on reality.

Posted on October 22, 2012, in day-to-day, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Brilliant post.
    Folk tales indeed. Back when stories were told to educate and explain. A non-Biblical parable, if you like. Fables even.
    Stories were not meant to be just entertainment.
    Hollywood and our own leisure time have hijacked the story to mean anything that keeps us amused for a while. But it wasn’t always like that. People didn’t believe they were put on this earth for amusement, they were here to learn and stories were one way to do that.
    And I’ll repeat here, if you don’t mind a bit of what I just wrote on Zen’s post.
    Think children actually cope better with that sort of stuff than adults. They’re not entirely civilised, have a very definite idea of right and wrong and what should happen to people if they do wrong things. They also quite like having their toes curled.
    Punishment is OK with kids, even horrible punishment, if they think it is fair.
    Just look at modern children’s fiction. It delivers some fairly horrible endings for the baddies.
    And sometimes for the goodies too, if they don’t get things right.

    • (Well, I’m not sure about people believe they weren’t here for amusement… I’m pretty sure that everybody is looking for amusement, in whatever format. They just didn’t have as much time to indulge in seeking amusement, except if they were wealthy.)

      But thank you so much for the compliment and I’m very glad you found it interesting!
      And I totally agree with you on the question of what is gruesome to children as opposed to what is gruesome to adults. I’ll be addressing that in the next post, because you’re totally right!

  2. I think it is quite possible that the reason you know the fairy tales so well is that because you are german. Since moving to Berlin at the end of July I have finally gotto here the real stories without disney’s shiny influence. What chanel is the sunday fairytale on?

  3. Well this was certainly enlightening! I had no idea that these stories went through such a process, and I don’t think I even want to imagine how they must be like in their first original form, haha. And thank you for that bit of info about the Grimm brothers. They do seem like cool people! (though you know I still like the version of them in The Brothers Grimm movie 😉 ). Thank you for this post! =D

    • I liked them in that movie as well, and I’m looking forward to watching that series about the Grimms, just because it features them. 🙂
      But in reality they were mainly academics.
      You know, I totally like re-tellings of fairy tales. I also like the Disney fairy tales and modern adaptations as well (as long as they aren’t too cute-sy), but I think it’s important to know the foundations as well.

      • I’m going to try to find that show or watch it on YT, because I doubt I’ll find it on my cable TV here.
        And I agree! I like the modern adaptations too. They’re going to release cool versions of Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk soon, and I’m looking forward to them. =D

  4. I think it’s interesting how Disney keeps going back to extend the copyright on Disney movies when basically they are ripped off from the Brothers Grimm in the first place. I used to love reading the Brothers Grimm, I got the entire collection for Christmas one year and just loved it.

    • Well, those stories are so old, they are most definitely in the public domain, so no harm done there. 🙂
      I love the Disney movies and I love the original tales… There’s no competition in my head, because they are so very different. And I love the Grimms’ tales as well! I mean, if you are so evil that you try to kill your stepdaughter three times, it’s only fair and just that you have to dance to death in hot iron slippers at her wedding! I understand why some people think it’s harmful for kids, but that is from a grown-up perspective. Kids just see that the bad guys get punished and that’s alright with them and it certainly doesn’t give them nightmares.

  5. I very much like your page “Twilight Wanders”, great thing. 🙂 I’ll put a link on my blog.

  6. I totally am loving this website!!! gonna have to remember to put
    this on the list.

  1. Pingback: Super Hero or Happily Ever After? « theinnerwildkat

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