The Evolution of a Fairy Tale Essay
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In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, and the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance. But a closer look at the stories reveals much more than a simple formula. Behind the seemingly innocent tales of old lie undeniable truths about women—how they were treated in society, and how they wanted to break free from the mold their surroundings had built around them. To fully understand this, I will be examining “fairy tales” where women were not weak and vapid, where they became the heroes, and where a reversal of roles that was ahead of its time, arose.
But first, a brief look at its history. The Origin of Fairy Tales Once Upon a Time, fairy tales weren’t written for children. According to Bob Huang’s essay, in spite of their name, the popular fairy tales usually have very little to do with fairies. We took the name from the French “contes des fee”, and the French literary fairy tales of the 17th century do feature far more fairies than the tales which are best-known today.
The Grimm brothers collected the folk tales of the German people to make up their volume, but fairy tales are more than just folk tales.
The German term for them is “Marchen”, a word for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent – it is the diminutive of Mar, a story or a tale, and has come to mean a story of wonder and enchantment, as the fairy tale is. Although large numbers of literary fairy tales were written in 17th century France, most of the tales which are still told and retold now are far older in origin. Many of the stories were edited and changed as they were written down, removing the darker and more gruesome elements of the stories.
The intended audience of the stories has also changed. Perrault’s collection of tales was written to be presented at the court of Versailles, and each tale ended with a moralistic verse. At the same time, literary fairy tales of great imagination and invention, often quite cruel and gruesome, were being created by the women surreptitiously rebelling against the constraints placed on them by their restrictive society. They were not written for children.
Today, when asked to name authors of fairy tales, most people now (if they knew at all) would answer the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault, and perhaps Hans Christian Andersen. Yet throughout history, fairy tales have been women’s stories, passed down orally by the mothers and grandmothers. When the tales began to be a literary form, the number and output of female authors vastly exceeds that of the males. The Grimm Brothers collected their tales from peasants and edited them to suit their audience; most of Perrault’s stories are retellings of old tales.
Although the female authors included familiar elements, their now-forgotten tales were largely more inventive, original and fantastical than their male counterparts – and frequently nastier, too. The Authors of the “Real” Fairy Tales In 1634, a cycle of fifty tales was published by Giambattista Basile, in which can be found some of the earliest written versions of familiar stories like “Sleeping Beauty”. Basile’s tone is bawdy and comic; his narrators within the tale are old women, hags, crones and old gossips, the stereotypical tellers of the “old wives’ tale”.
The women who brought the literary fairy tale to popularity fifty years or so later were anything but “old wives”. The story which marked the beginning of the form was written by the Countess d’Aulnoy, an aristocratic woman who tried to implicate her husband in a crime of high treason, but was discovered, and managed to flee Paris. She had been married to the husband at the age of 15; he was 30 years her senior, and a gambler and libertine. The cruelty of enforced marriages is remarked on by the heroines of many of her stories, and the tales of other women of the time. 0 years after fleeing Paris (she returned in 1685), Mme d’Aulnoy is thought to have assisted a friend to kill her husband, who had abused her.
The friend was beheaded. The Countess de Murat was banished from Louis XIV’s court in Paris for publishing a political satire about him; she then shocked the people of Loches, where she had her chateau, by holding gatherings where she and her friends would dance, talk, and tell fairy tales, as in the salons of Paris. Her tales concern marriage, the power struggles of the aristocracy, and true love. They do not always have a happy ending, either.
Marie-Jeanne L’ Heritier led a less controversial life. She did not marry, choosing to dedicate herself to writing. Her father was a historian and writer, her sister was a poet. She was also the niece of Charles Perrault, and quite likely influenced his interested in fairy tales. Her “Adventures of Finette” features a heroine who wins by her wits, in spite of two lazy sisters and an evil prince. The Secret Messages In a time of political censorship, where women had few rights, fairy tales were one way that they could make their opinions known.
The fairies themselves in the tales often stand for the aristocrats, having power over many but often caring little, bickering amongst themselves, concerned with their own power struggles. The heroines comment on the double-standards of the times, arranged marriages, and the false glory of war; the tales also illustrate the authors’ ideas on the standards of correct manners, justice and love. The tales were also written in opposition to the literary establishment at the time, which championed Classical literature as the standard for French writers to follow.
Fairy tales were modeled on French folklore and the courtly love of medieval literature. When Perrault joined them in writing fairy tales, he was taking a stand for the modern style and for women’s tales (although his tales did not exactly feature liberates females). The “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” was part of the society which the fairy tales rebelled against – for most women there was no choice over which side to take, as they weren’t thought worth educating in Latin and Greek anyway. Instead of being forced out, they formed their own style. A Fresh Look at the tale Donkeyskin (Feminism at work)
We begin with a dying queen, a king who is described as being the most powerful monarch in the world, and their daughter. In the queen’s final conversation with her spouse, she extracts a promise that should he wed again, he will marry no woman who does not fulfill a particular condition: to match her in beauty, to fit her wedding ring, to have hair of a hue as golden as her own, and so forth—conditions differing from culture to culture. The king remains single for a number of years, unable to meet the conditions of his promise to his wife. At least not until their only daughter matures.
It becomes apparent that she, and she alone, fulfills the necessary conditions, and he resolves to marry her, much to the horror of kingdom and princess alike. Seeking to evade her fate, the princess follows her mother’s example by attempting to set an impossible condition to prevent, or at least delay, the impending union (in some versions, through her own wiles; in others, through the advice of a substitute mother figure such as a fairy godmother; and sometimes, though more rarely than is common in other tales such as “Cinderella” or “The Goose Girl,” through the direct advice of her dead mother’s spirit).
Typically, she asks her father for a dress as shining as the sun, a dress as lucent as the moon, and a coat made from the skin of either a single precious animal, or from skins representative of all of the animals in the woods. In some variants, the princess asks directly for the source of her father’s wealth, such as the skin of the donkey. Regardless, the father is so driven by his incestuous urges that impossible condition after impossible condition is met.
It is interesting to note that in this particular story, the action which fits the mold of unassertive femininity starts the ball rolling, indirectly causing a series of harmful effects, while the more assertive, independent actions of the daughter are both required and rewarded. When her conditions are met, instead of choosing to follow her father’s path and acquiesce to immorality, our heroine chooses to take her fate into her own hands and flees, disguised by her coat of skin, her link to the natural world, carrying the precious dresses that represent her heritage and worldly position.
Once this character is away from civilization, she finds herself at something of a loss. Her only advantage in her new environment is the cloak of skins, which she has finagled away from her father. The implications of this garment are interesting. First, there is the fact that it was created, whole cloth, from the harm that her father wished to do her and the manner in which she avoided that fate. As such, it can be described as being the product of courage and cunning.
It is also a resource that allows her to tap into a deeper part of nature and thus succeed in her future attempts at happiness through craft and cunning. After a time spent wandering the forest, a place symbolic of change and transformation, the princess is discovered by a hunting party, and taken to a foreign court on the strength of her value as a curiosity. After spending some time persevering by dint of hard labor in the court kitchens, the princess develops a strategy.
She determines to catch the interest of this kingdom’s prince through traditionally “feminine gifts. ” She uses her physical appearance, her cooking skills, and her general ability to maintain his continued interest and fascination. This threefold plan succeeds. Aside from the aforementioned aspects of feminism that the princess displayed: the independent streak, the stubbornness, the unwillingness to conform, there are also the symbols that the story made use of in terms of the other central characters.
The King, for instance, whose incestuous intent, for its time (and now), extremely amoral, symbolized the power that men of that era had. It did not matter that the relationship was a no-no, nor the fact that his daughter did not want to go through with it. He wanted her as his wife, and he intended to have her—come what may. The century in which this story was written clearly had women and men in set roles. Men were the hunters, the leaders, and the autocracy. Do you not often wonder why quite a few of the mothers in tales we know, died to start the story off (Cinderella, Snow White)?
It was as if the women during that time wanted to relay to the readers how hard life was for them that the maternal figures for the protagonists were dead to begin with. And then the authors branch off. We’ve established the role of the man as the “obey-me” figure, now there’s the fairy godmother who always rushes in to help. What this character clearly meant was the supposition of a female as a powerful figure; A magical creature who could do anything with a flick of her wand. The author clearly wanted to show that despite the antagonist’s presence, something could be done, and it would be a woman to do it.
If you notice, a lot of other tales incorporate the “Fairy Godmother” figure (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel). Then there’s Prince Charming. He is the culmination of all the hardships that our heroine goes through. A rich, handsome, not-too-bright fellow who can’t seem to recognize the love of his life when in costume! Research has shown that women in the olden days did want rich husbands and a comfortable life. It was as if the Prince was their way of saying, “this is what I want, and what I deserve.
Now, about our Donkeyskin heroine…her femininity did come back (the cooking, the vanity), but one could see all through to the end of the story, that she was willing to assert her authority, and not play second fiddle anymore. She ran away from her situation in the hope of finding a better one, and in the process, found she really needed (in her time, a husband seemed to fit the bill). Modern Feminist Fairy Tale Authors In our modern arts, as in ages past, women storytellers have understood this best.
Margaret Atwood, Olga Broumas, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Duhamel, Sandra Gilbert, Theodora Goss, Liz Lochead, Lisel Mueller, Lisa Russ Spar, Gwen Strauss, Jane Yolen, and many other contemporary feminist poets have used fairy tale themes to powerful effect to portray the truth of women’s lives. (Anne Sexton’s collection Transformations, in particular, is an extraordinary work which no lover of fairy tales or women’s writing should miss. ) Prose writers, too, have used fairy tales themes in a variety of interesting ways, exploring tradition stories from fresh, shrewd, modern perspectives.
Some of their fairy tale novels and stories can be found on the mainstream fiction shelves, such as Angela Carter’s ground–breaking collection The Bloody Chamber, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Loranne Brown’s The Handless Maiden, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Kathryn Davis’s The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, Berlie Doherty’s The Vinegar Jar, Emma Donaghue’s Kissing the Witch, Alice Hoffman’s The Blue Diary, Susanna Moore’s Sleeping Beauty, and Gioia Timpanelli’s Sometimes the Soul.
Similarly enchanting works can be found tucked away on the fantasy shelves: Gwyneth Jones’s Seven Fairy Tales and a Fable, Peg Kerr’s Wild Swans, Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and White as Snow, Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, Robin McKinley’ Beauty and Deerskin, Rachel Pollack’s Godmother Death, Delia Sherman’s Porcelain Dove, Sheri Tepper’s Beauty, Patricia C. Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red, Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, and the stories in the Snow White, Blood Red anthology series, to name just a few.
Still more can be found on the Young Adult fiction shelves, including Francesca Lia Block’s The Beast and the Rose, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, Sophie Masson’s Serafin, Edith Patou’s East, Ursula Synge’s Swan’s Wing, and the many fairy tale novels of Donna Jo Napoli. In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, a collection of her lectures at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Von Franz discusses themes in The Girl With No Hands, equating the heroine’s flight into the wilderness with the inner journeys we make into the unconscious and the lands of the soul.
The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life,” she says, “in the deepest sense of the word. ” It is there, in solitude, that the heroine can look deep inside herself and find the space, time, and clarity to heal, symbolized by the restoration of her hands at the end of the tale. Gertrude Mueller–Nelson builds on these ideas in her book Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine in which she uses two fairy tales — The Girl With No Hands and The Sleeping Beauty — to examine the ways the ‘Feminine’ is devalued in modern culture, and in men and women’s lives. Conclusion
Such tales were passed down through the generations by word of mouth, woman to woman, mother to child — using archetypes as a mirror held to daily life, particularly the lives of those without clear avenues of social power. Why do we continue to be ensnared by fairy tales, after all these centuries? Why do we continue to tell the same old tales, over and over again? Because we all have encountered wicked wolves, faced trial by fire, and found fairy godmothers. We have all set off into unknown woods at one point in life or another. Women had found their voices through the “tales” and were set free.