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The Origins of Fairytales

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Natalie Ellingson

on 5 April 2014

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Transcript of The Origins of Fairytales

Fair.y tale (noun)
1: a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins) —called also fairy story
b : a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending
2: a made-up story usually designed to mislead
Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs:
1812, Germany
The Origins of Fairy Tales
This original version of the Snow White tale may seem strange at first to those of us in the modern era, but it was a huge hit for those who heard it first hand. In fact, the Snow White tale was not confined to Germanic lands. In Italy, the tales of Bella Venezia and The Young Slave contain many parallels, as does the Greek story of Myrsina and the Scottish tale Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree However, the non-German tales usually depict the dwarfs as rough thugs who steal, murder, plunder, etc. but are eventually cured of their evil deeds upon seeing Snow White's beauty. What is important to remember about these versions of the Snow White tale is that they provide an interesting glimpse into the late Middle Ages. With the rise of the Renaissance and Reformation, the role of women faced a strict dichotomy: on the one hand, you had the beauty, purity and ignorance of Snow White; on the other, you had the conspiring, vindictive and hateful nature of the evil stepmother. Such was the case for women of this era. Women were seen as unpredictable creatures who were in great need of "control" and "stability" that only a male partner (the "handsome prince" and dwarfs) could provide. Women were to be as Snow White: pure, innocent and helpless. All of this could, of course, be achieved by her acceptance of her new role in society. Without such a system, women were sure to become like the evil stepmother.
The brothers Grimm were the first to artfully combine the elements of blossoming youth, fading beauty, and female rivalry into an enduring fairy tale. But theirs was not the first published version of such a story. The
Pentamerone
contains a tale of a beautiful seven-year-old girl named Lisa who falls unconscious when a comb sticks in her hair. Placed in a glass coffin, Lisa continues to mature, growing more and more lovely. A female relative, envious of Lisa's beauty, vows to destroy her. The woman opens the coffin, and while dragging Lisa out by the hair, dislodges the comb, restoring the beauty to life. It was the Grimm version that Walt Disney brought to the screen in 1938 in the first feature-length cartoon.
Many early translators of the Grimm story omitted a gory fact: The queen not only orders Snow White killed but also, as proof of the death, demands that her heart be brought to the palace. Disney reinstated this original detail, but he chose to leave out a more gruesome one. In the German story, the queen, believing the heart returned by the huntsman is Snow White's, salts and actually eats the organ. And the original fairy tale ends with the defeated queen being forced to don slippers made of iron, which are heated red in a fire. In an agonized frenzy, she dances herself to death.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears:
1837, England
A fascinating early version of the Goldilocks story was written in 1837 by British poet laureate Robert Southey, under the title "Story of the Three Bears." Southey's Goldilocks was neither young nor beautiful; rather, she was an angry, hungry, homeless grey-haired, perhaps in her mid-sixties, who broke into the bears' well-appointed home for food and lodging. The character's evolution from an ill-tempered wiry-haired maiden occurred over many years and at the hands of several writers.
Walt Disney’s decision to make Snow White, which was the first animated feature to be produced in English and in Technicolor, flew in the face of the popular wisdom at the time. Naysayers, including his wife Lillian, warned him that audiences, especially adults, would not sit through a feature-length cartoon fantasy about dwarfs. But Disney put his future on the line, borrowing most of the $1.5 million that he used to make the film. Snow White premiered in Hollywood on December 21, 1937, earning a standing ovation from the star-studded crowd. When it was released to the public the following February, the film quickly grossed $8 million, a staggering sum during the Great Depression and the most made by any film up to that time.
Disney won an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering achievement, while the music for the film, featuring Snow White’s famous ballad, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and other songs by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline, was also nominated for an Oscar. The studio re-released Snow White for the first time in 1944, during World War II; thereafter, it was released repeatedly every decade or so, a pattern that became a tradition for Disney’s animated films. For its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White was restored, but cropped into a wide-screen format, a choice that irked some critics. Disney released a more complete digital restoration of the film in 1993. Its power continues to endure: In June 2008, more than 60 years after its U.S. release, the American Film Institute chose Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the No. 1 animated film of all time in its listing of “America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres.”
Chapter One
Beautiful princesses in sparkling, elegant gowns dancing with the love of their life, Prince Charming. This is what most people think of when they hear the words “fairy tale genre”. Though this is what we automatically think, the genre itself is far more complicated than that.
The fairy tale genre is very famous. A fairy tale is a completely fictional story that is meant to entertain. This story may have originally been passed down through the generations of a family by word; meaning it gets slightly changed through each telling of the story. Fairy tales are usually thought of as stories for young children. This is not necessarily true. Many companies (like Disney and Hans Christian Anderson) have watered down these stories to make them more child friendly. The original stories are usually quite gruesome and dark.
In this heart warming tale, we hear of pretty little Goldilocks who finds the house of the three bears. She sneaks inside and eats their food, sits in their chairs, and finally falls asleep on the bed of the littlest bear. When the bears return home they find her asleep – she awakens and escapes out the window in terror. The original tale has two possible variations. In the first, the bears find Goldilocks and rip her apart and eat her. In the second, Goldilocks is actually an old hag who (like the sanitized version) jumps out of a window
when the bears wake her
up. The story ends by
telling us that she either
broke her neck in the fall,
or was arrested for
vagrancy and sent to the
“House of Correction”.
The tale as recounted to children today is due to Charles Perrault. Were it not for his skilled retelling, the western world might instead know only the trials of "Rashin Coatie," the lovely, impoverished daughter in a popular Scottish version. According to that tale, the girl's three ugly stepsisters force her to wear garments of rushes (hence her name). Instead of a fairy godmother to grant wishes, Rashin Coatie has a magic calf, which her wicked stepmother vindictively slaughters and cooks. The grief-stricken Rashin Coatie, desiring to attend the ball, wishes for a new dress upon the dead calf's bones. Attired in the "grandest" gown, she wins the heart of the prince, and hurrying home, loses a beautiful satin slipper.
Cinderella; 9th Century
The 1989 version of the Little Mermaid might be better known as “The big whopper!” In the Disney version, the film ends with Ariel the mermaid being changed into a human so she can marry Eric. They marry in a wonderful wedding attended by humans and merpeople. But, in the very first version by Hans Christian Andersen, the mermaid sees the Prince marry a princess and she despairs. She is offered a knife with which to stab the prince to death, but rather than do that she jumps into the sea and dies by turning to froth. Hans Christian Andersen modified the ending slightly to make it more pleasant. In his new ending, instead of dying when turned to froth, she becomes a “daughter of the air” waiting to go to heaven – so, frankly, she is still dead for all intents and purposes.
In the tale of the Pied Piper, we have a village overrun with rats. A man arrives dressed in clothes of pied (a patchwork of colors) and offers to rid the town of the vermin. The villagers agree to pay a vast sum of money if the piper can do it – and he does. He plays music on his pipe which draws all the rats out of the town. When he returns for payment – the villagers won’t cough up so the Pied Piper decides to rid the town of children too! In most modern variants, the piper draws the children to a cave out of the town and when the townsfolk finally agree to pay up, he sends them back. In the darker original, the piper leads the children to a river where they all drown (except a lame boy who couldn’t keep up).
According to Disney: After her widowed father remarries and then dies, Cinderella is left at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters. They force her to do manual labor and wear rags, but she’s so sweet, kind, and beautiful that even wild animals love her and help her out. When the prince throws a ball, Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears and creates a dress, coach, and footmen for her, so she can go to the party. The prince falls in love with her, but the magic ends at midnight – so she has to run away, leaving behind only her glass slipper. The prince travels the country looking for the girl who fits the shoe, but her stepsisters sabotage her by smashing it. Happily, she’s still got the other one, so she gets to live happily
ever after, too.
Since the prince will marry whoever first into the slipper, the stepmother cuts off the toe of her eldest daughter; the foot still too large, so she hacks off the heel. The prince is alerted to the trickery by two pigeons who peck out the step sister’s eyes. They end up spending the rest of their lives as blind beggars while Cinderella gets to lounge about in luxury at the prince’s castle.
In the original version of the tale, it's not the kiss of a handsome prince that wakes Sleeping Beauty, but the nudging of her newborn twins. That's right. While unconscious, the princess is impregnated by a monarch and wakes up to find out she's a mom twice over. Then Sleeping Beauty's "baby's daddy", triumphantly returns and promises to send for her and the kids later, conveniently forgetting to mention that he's married. When the trio is eventually brought to the palace, his wife tries to kill them all, but is thwarted by the king. In the end, Sleeping Beauty gets to marry the guy who violated her, and they all live happily ever after.
Sleeping Beauty;
1636, Italy
According to Disney: A king and queen throw a huge party to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Aurora. But though they invite three good fairies, who each give her blessings, they didn’t invite the evil fairy Maleficent. Angry about being snubbed, she gatecrashes the party and gives the girl a curse: before she turns 16, she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. One of the good fairies manages to modify the curse, so that Aurora won’t die – she’ll just sleep until she’s awoken by true love’s kiss. (Yup, that again.) The fairies try to hide the girl, and she even meets and sings to the prince in the forest, but curses can’t be hidden from, so she eventually does prick her finger and fall asleep. Maleficent locks the prince in her dungeon so he can’t break the curse, but the good fairies rescue him. Maleficient turns into a dragon, because that’s awesome, but the prince pushes her off a cliff and wakes Aurora with a kiss. Cue the happily ever after bit.

Back in the early 1800s, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were working as librarians. Born into a well-off family, their lives took a turn for the worse when their father died, and the brothers struggled through school and university in poverty. Librarians weren’t particularly well paid, either, but the Grimms were both keen scholars, and their work gave them both time and opportunity for their own research. And their research led them to put together a collection of folk tales.
It sounds like a kind of whimsical project, but actually the Grimms’ work was part of a wider political movement in Germany at the time. The country was split into 200 principalities, and many people – including the Grimms’ law professor, Friedrich von Savigny – wanted to see them united as a single nation. To that end, many writers and thinkers were turning to traditional folk tales to explore (or maybe define) a kind of German national identity. The theory was that these stories, passed down from one generation to the next, contained the collective hopes, fears, and morals of the German people. The Grimms weren’t the only ones putting together collections of folklore, but it’s their work that became the best known.

Charles Perrault was a French author who laid the foundations for a new literary genre, the fairy tale, with his works derived from pre-existing folk tales. If it were not for writers like Charles Perrault, many of these stories would have been lost to us. What’s even better is that he wrote them with such style and wit.The best known of his tales include Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard. Many of Perrault's stories, which were rewritten by the Brothers Grimm, continue to be printed and have been adapted to opera, ballet, theater, and film.
According to Disney: Disney’s adaptation of Rapunzel, Tangled, is very recent, and not very traditional. Rapunzel gets a lot more agency than most other Disney princesses, and her prince is not a prince at all. But the elements of a sanitized Rapunzel story are there: a beautiful princess is kept captive by a witch, who uses the girl’s long hair to climb in and out of a tower prison, and it’s only when she meets a man that she gets to escape.
Rapunzel
But originally: According to the Grimms, the reason the wicked witch gets to make off with baby Rapunzel is that her dad stole herbs from the witch’s garden to meet his wife’s cravings, and when he got caught, he agreed to hand over his first-born. Rapunzel gets stuck in the tower, letting down her hair for the witch, but when a passing prince hears her singing, he decides to pay Rapunzel a visit himself. He visits her, secretly, several times, and the witch only finds out because Rapunzel gets pregnant, and innocently asks why her belly’s getting so big. In a rage, the witch cuts off the girl’s hair, uses it to lure the prince back into the tower, then chucks him off the top, letting him fall into a thorn bush that plucks out his eyes. Eventually, though, there is a happy ending where the couple get back together, and Rapunzel’s tears heal the prince’s eyes.
Disturbed enough yet? There’s more. In some of the Grimms’ stories, there’s an unpleasant seam of anti-semitism. For example, in one story, the hero tortures a Jewish man by making him dance on thorns until he’s torn and bleeding, as punishment for some imagined sins. When the man cries for help, the judge sides with his torturer, and the Jew is hanged as a thief. The racism, combined with German patriotism, might explain why the Nazis saw the Grimm fairy tales as such a great match for their propaganda: in films aimed at kids, Little Red Riding Hood gets rescued by a man in an SS uniform, while Puss in Boots morphs into a kind of Hitler figure at the end. Scary stuff.
That’s jumping a long way into the future, though. Back in the 1800s, after the first edition of the collection was published, the Grimms were criticized for writing stories that were unsuitable for kids. In response, they re-edited some of the stories to soften their rough edges, and later editions were split: ‘Large’ editions contained all the stories, with academic annotations by the brothers, while ‘Small’ editions contained selected re-edited stories deemed suitable for kids. Those edits created a wider audience for the Grimms’ books, and probably ensured that their stories endured.
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