Fairy tales and folktales are so much more than entertainment. They reflect our history and culture, our fears and our dreams. When did we start to write them down and how have they changed over time?
For thousands of years stories were told by storytellers, or acted, danced and sung, handed down from one generation to the next. Today fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends have a different place in our lives, but they are still shared between us. Even if these are ‘just’ wonderful made-up stories, do they tell us anything more about people from the past – or about us? I believe they do. Come, let me show you.
‘Do you believe in fairies?’… ‘Do you believe in Father Christmas?’… Have you ever been asked these questions?
The first question opens a door that leads into the dark hollows, mysterious forests and deserts of the world. It also takes us into some of the best-loved children’s books: Peter Pan begs all the children in the world to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, and save the dying Tinker Bell.
The second question takes us into history, myth and legend. St Nicholas, otherwise known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, was a real 4th-century bishop from Asia Minor, who delivered gifts to poor children. And what about King Arthur: did he exist? Or Merlin?
Signs and omens
What seems to separate humankind from beast, fish and fowl, is imagination, curiosity and our impulse to ask questions. The writer, Rudyard Kipling, said that his six best friends were the questions ‘What and Why and When and How and Where and Who’. What fun he must have had writing his origin stories about ‘How the Elephant Got his Trunk’, or ‘How the Camel Got his Hump’.
In the past, people might ask: Why was there thunder and lightning last night? What was the meaning of that flight of birds, or the eagle sitting on the plough? What caused the milk to curdle, or the sick child to die? To set off on a journey or go into battle would depend on how the sage, or priests, or even the wise old woman in a village interpreted the signs: the bird that settled in a tree, or the markings left by chickens, or the arrangement of tea leaves in a cup.
Humans looked for signs in nature and from living creatures to explain their own lives, and they created stories. Myths, legends, fairy stories and folk tales show us what people have believed in, and why they behaved the way they did.
Take trickster tales, for instance. These tales amuse their listeners, as well as teach them about human behaviour and the values held by a community. Tricksters often take the form of an anthropomorphised animal. They are both cunning and foolish, have magical powers, break social rules, question authority and play tricks on humans and gods. There are the stories of Anansi from West Africa and the Caribbean, or the fox from Aesop’s Fables.
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From India, there is a Rajasthani tale about a cunning jackal who tricks animals into his stomach, until he becomes so full that it bursts open (adapted by Gita Wolf and Sunita in Gobble You Up!, 2013). What do you think is the message of this story?
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History and gods
History and religious stories are often intertwined with mythology, a mixture of magic and reality.
There are the stories of the ancient gods, the creators and destroyers, like Odin in Scandinavia, Zeus in Ancient Greece, or Shiva in India, who dwelt in mountains as high as the heavens or, like Poseidon, in the deepest oceans. People believed that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions meant that the gods were angry and needed placating. From West, Central and Southern Africa are tales of the water spirit Mamy Wata, who can bring both fortune and misfortune.
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Many of these stories have similar themes even though created across the globe from each other. Flood stories like Noah’s Ark, or the Hindu flood story about Manu, are different yet crucially the same. Noah and Manu are warned by God to build a boat. Both are chosen to escape a flood that He is going to send. Both stories say that God wanted them to save the earth’s creatures and start the world all over again. In the ancient stories of Gilgamesh, a king who ruled Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern-day southern Iraq), our hero reaches the edge of the ocean created by the Flood.
Today, with our 24 hours news, we see a constant stream of updates, charts and satellite images. Knowledge is delivered to us, not by guesswork, soothsayers and priests, not by angry or jealous gods, but by scientific knowledge which has mostly replaced the interpretations found in stories of the past. The stories, however, continue to be told…
Fairy tales, global tales
Fairy tales are about families, siblings and stepchildren. There is nearly always magic. They tell us captivating stories of jealousy, betrayal, love, hate, quest, sacrifice and transformation. They are a type of folklore and the name ‘fairy tale’ was first used in the 17th century, though many are rooted in older folk tales.
Tales would have been carried by people travelling along the trade routes: the silk roads and spice routes, across oceans and continents. These stories were interpreted and re-interpreted to suit the culture in which they found themselves. As Jack Zipes says in his book, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1983), you can follow the process of civilisation in fairy tales. They show us how society used them to establish its own gender and racial stereotypes, and manipulate its own social values.
In Europe, Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were among the first to collect folk and fairy tales and publish books of them, each with their own reworking. In the 19th century Hans Christian Andersen wove a profound moral message into his stories. ‘The Red Shoes’ shows how deceit brings punishment, and remorse brings redemption. ‘The Little Mermaid’ story is about sacrifice: she gives up her voice and exchanges her fish tail for legs to be a human, though it’s like walking on knives. She bears the pain to be near the prince whose life she saved, though he will never know, and marries another. The 17th-century collections of fairy tales by Charles Perrault portray how he sees the perfect girl, and the perfect young man.
Stories from Hans Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac ('The Nightingale', 'The Real Princess' and 'The Emperor's New Clothes')
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Cinderella stories, meanwhile, are found in widely different cultures. There is the story of Nastai from the Sami people of Finland, or ‘Cap-o’-Rushes’ from Britain, or the Egyptian Cinderella – not forgetting that one of the earliest known versions of Cinderella was found scratched on a cave wall in southern China and may well be over 2000 years old.
Shared threads and beginnings are found again and again. Even Shakespeare’s King Lear opens like a fairy tale. A king who has three daughters asks them how much they love him (‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’). It is the same question that the father asks his three daughters in the English fairy story ‘Cap-o’-Rushes’:
A rich man asked his three daughters, ‘How much do you love me?’
‘I love you as much as life itself,’ replied the first daughter, which pleased him very much.
‘I love you more than all the world,’ replied the second, her reply giving him great delight.
He then turned to his youngest and most beloved child, ‘And how much do you love me, my little one,” to which she replied, “I love you as much as meat loves salt.’
The rich man was furious. ‘Why, you obviously don’t love me at all. Get out!’ and banished her.
Elsewhere, a story about St Nicholas begins ‘There was a poor man who had three daughters’. In ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a merchant asks what gifts his three daughters would like him to bring back from his trip.
Stories of abandonment
As well as stories of love, there are also many terrifying tales of parents abandoning their children.
‘Hansel and Gretel’, originating in Germany, tells of a stepmother who persuades her husband to abandon the two children in the forest, where they are imprisoned by a witch who likes to eat children. But did the parents of Hansel and Gretel really abandon them in the forest because they hated them? Or could it be that they were suffering the kind of dreadful poverty of which most of us have no inkling, and that rather than simply lie down and die of starvation, they thought it better to leave them to the mercies of the forest? After all, they would have believed that there were good spirits in the forest, as well as bad, which might take pity on them. Perhaps having a wicked stepmother simply makes a better story. Many Russian tales are about wicked stepmothers abandoning their children – especially girls – to the forests and the witches, like Baba Yaga in ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’.
Hansel and Gretel and other stories, illustrated by Kay Nielsen ('Hansel and Gretel', 'The Juniper Tree' and 'Rumpelstiltskin')
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Not all of these stories are dark and terrible, however. In a legend from ancient Persia (retold in The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif, 2019), the king’s child is banished to the forest when he is born with white hair. There he is adopted by a wise, kind phoenix. As time goes by the king regrets his actions and the story ends happily, with Zal reunited with his family.
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Other tales bring comfort in times of despair and reveal the power of our imaginations. In the Romani folk tale Yokki and the Parno Gry (told by Richard O'Neill, Katharine Quarmby, illustrated by Marieke Nelisse, 2017), Yokki and his family are travellers, moving with the seasons to find work and sell their wares. As they face setbacks, Yokki tells stories about a magical white horse. Grandfather Elijah grows angry at Yokki’s fantastic stories, until one night the Parno Gry appears, transporting the family to a faraway, abundant land and showing them a hopeful future.
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Creating new tales
Fables, fairy tales, myths and legends continue to be fabulous reading. These stories still inspire writers to re-interpret them and reflect our changing world: celebrating feminism, challenging racism and keeping up with the changing nature of our society. Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (1955) is a feminist take on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, where Polly easily outwits the wolf. From China, I am Hua Mulan (Qin Wenjun, illustrated by Yu Rong, 2017) retells the ancient tale of the legendary female warrior Hua Mulan through the dream of a young girl.
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In King & King (Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, 2000), two princes fall in love and live happily ever after. Other writers have reworked fairy tales with playful parody and humour – from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1982) to The Jolly Postman (1986) by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
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The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen have inspired me all my life, as well as the many wonderful illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and W Heath Robinson. But as many of us are now ‘European’, even though we have come from different parts of the world, I was inspired to write my own collection of fairy stories, Blackberry Blue (2013). Written in the European tradition, I hope they reflect how the European image has changed and that more diverse children could say, ‘that could be me’.
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These stories were always about more than a prince who meets a princess, slays a few dragons, and everyone lives happily ever after. Remember, that these ancient stories contain deep truths about ourselves, our dark imaginings and our humanity.
I hope you are clapping your hands.
Article text © 2020 Jamila Gavin.
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