Once Upon A Time…
How many times have you heard that phrase? Followed not too long after by and they lived happily ever after.
The prince and princess are happily married, the evil witch/stepmother/dragon (or all three) has been defeated, and the children who listened to the story leave with a firm belief that good always conquers and bad is defeated – possibly with the bonus motivation of scaring them into behaving. All in all, it’s just another, typical, run of the mill fairy tale.
Or is it?
Today I would like to address some very common – and often very wrong – ideas most people have about fairy tales.
Ready? Settle into your chair by the fire, and get ready… for a tale you’ve very likely never heard before.
Once Upon A Time…
All fairy tales have a moral tacked on to the end.
While there are certainly exceptions, and certainly tales or fables where the message is rather heavy-handidly portrayed in the story, the majority of fairy tales never have “and the moral of the story is…” at the end. Aesop’s Fables and a handful of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales do employ this though, which may be where this thought comes from.
(And then there are *gasp* fairy tales that either a) don’t have a moral to the story at all or b) feature characters that get away with or are even praised for negative morals!)
All fairy tales are for children.
It seems to me that it was during the Victorian era, when it was becoming more popular and common to write down and publish traditionally oral tales, that fairy tales started to be labeled as children’s stories, though adults certainly still enjoyed them too. I don’t know exactly why people started to push fairy tales as for children. Perhaps I will look into this more and write another blog post about it. 😉
But prior to whenever this push for fairy tales = children’s stories started, fairy and folk tales were told and enjoyed by everyone. No matter their age, gender, race, social class, anything. Fairy and folk tales surpass all those self-imposed barriers.
All fairy tales were to scare children into good behavior.
I honestly don’t understand this one.
Who here remembers being a kid?
When you watched a movie or read a book, and the bad guy was defeated and the good guy won, did you ever think “oh I had better not steal/lie/cheat/eat someone else’s food/etc or I’ll end up getting punished”?
No. Of course you didn’t. You thought, “Yay, the good guys won! Let’s go defeat some more bad guys!”
Are there fairy and folk tales that were perhaps specifically created to get a certain message across? Of course. Y’know what, maybe Great Aunt Lucinda told little Tommy and Sally a story with the express reason of making them behave. But that is not what fairy or folk tales are about, and assuming that it is creates a much more simplistic view of them than is accurate.
All fairy tales are for girls – and they’re sexist/all about passive damsels in distress.
This I would assume is also because of the Victorians. I have a very strong suspicion that many of our filters actually come from the Victorian era, where everything was prim and proper and in its place. So of course the fairy tales where the little girls are passive heroines would be more popularized then.
Additionally, some where in history, for some reason, when oral story telling started to fade away and the writing down of them began, passing stories on became regarded as a women’s art. So it seems natural that in an era where they were very much looked down upon, women would focus more on stories where they were the protagonists rather than the men.
All of that aside however, fairy tales have no gender. There a stories where boys, girls, men, women, animals, gods, goddesses, and even ungendered inanimate objects becoming animate are the heroes or featured characters. There’s something here for everyone.
All fairy tales have happy endings.
I don’t really even know where to start with this… Just to say this is very not accurate. Some fairy tales end very badly for the heroes.
No “original” fairy tales have happy endings.
Reversely, I’ve heard this said by a lot of people. But again, this is very inaccurate. Disney did not invent the happy ending. The majority of the most popular fairy tales do have happy endings, as do many of the more uncommon ones.
All fairy tales are from Europe.
To be fair, most of the most popular fairy tales people have heard of are from Europe. That’s because we live in a Western civilization that’s a bit self-absorbed. But EVERY culture has fairy and folk tales. Literally every culture. I am not exaggerating here. And it’s a bit silly to assume that only one area has stories with magic and wonder in them.
All fairy tales are sexist/racist/noninclusive.
Are there sexist/racist/noninclusive fairy tales? Absoverypositivelylutely.
Here’s the thing. Fairy and folk tales were created for people, by people. Are there sexist/racist/noninclusive people in the world? Yes. Then of course there will be stories that those people tell. Are there people who are NOT sexist/racist/noninclusive? Yes. Then of course there will be stories that are not sexist/racist/noninclusive.
The Disney adaptions of fairy tales are the “real” versions.
Ahahaha…. No. The Disney versions of fairy tales are fairy tale retellings. In the nature of fairy and folk tales, they have been added to and changed, just like the stories have been countless numbers of times by countless oral story tellers. Disney has told excellent versions of these stories. I love Disney. But the Disney stories are often times vastly different from their source materials. (I plan on writing future posts comparing Disney films to the original stories in the future, actually, which I’m looking forward to a lot)
All fairy tales are simplistic in nature.
Oftentimes people think that fairy tales “simple”. This goes back to thinking they are children’s stories (and that in itself is based on another misconception, that children’s stories have to be “simple”). The knight rescues the princess from the dragon, they get married, and live happily ever after. That is a pretty simple story. And if you are comparing a tale that was traditionally told orally to a thirteen book long series of 1,000 pages each, fairy tales are “simple” compared to “high fantasy”. (and sometimes when “simple” means “concise”, fairy tales have an advantage over an overly drawn-out bajillion page series)
But fairy tales hold more depth than people think. Fairy and folk tales are a reflection of humanity, just like any and every kind of story. By reading a tale that has survived for hundreds or thousands of years, you can get a picture into what values humanity has held on to. You can see the core hopes, the dreams, the passions, the faults. Beneath a “simple” tale with a straightforward plot (and not all fairy and folk tales are straightforward by any means), is a mirror into how we see ourselves.
Fairy tales are not “sophisticated” enough for scholars.
Because of the conception that fairy tales are “simplistic”, some people (scholars among them) think that fairy and folk tales are not a “real” type of literature, and thus the study of them is a waste of time. I do not understand this method of thinking. If we are going to study books written fifty or a hundred years ago, why would we not also study stories passed down for hundreds and thousands of years? Why would a tale that has literally survived from since before Christ not be worthy of study? (The tale in question here is Cinderella, in case you were wondering) In some ways, the study of fairy and folk tales is a little like literary anthropology! Modern literature has been shaped by these tales, whether we know it or not.
Fairy tales are about roles or stereotypes rather than characters.
Again, like the morals, this is one where yes, there are tales like that. And there are also not. Some tales are about “the princess” or “the poor person”. (I for one, am not inherently bothered by that.) Some tales, the characters do not have names. And some do. Most of the most popular fairy tales though, the characters all do have distinct personalities and names. For instance, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, while she is not given a name, most certainly has her own personality. Cinderella and Snow White both handle things differently. Fairy tales are not so commonly populated with the cardboard stock characters people seem to think.
The Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen retellings or things reference a fairy tale like this: “Based off Cinderella, written by the Brothers Grimm”. (It’s even worse when it says that for a fairy tale like The Little Mermaid which was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm had nothing to do with it) The Brothers Grimm collected traditional German fairy and folk tales in an effort to preserve Germanic tradition and heritage . They did make changes to some tales, adding their own spins, or cleaning them up to make them more family friendly. Of course they would make changes in taking stories that were told orally and transcribing them in written form. But the stories they wrote down were not of their own creation.
In the end, the moral of this tale is this: Fairy tales are not merely one thing. Like any other kind of story, they are complex. They vary between people and culture and time, and the values held by the people telling them. And thus, they appeal to a wider audience than one might think if they limit what they believe fairy tales to be.
What misconceptions have you seen about fairy and folk tales that bother you the most? Sound off in the comments below!
And may we all live happily ever after…