Where do Fairy Tales come from?
Fairy tales started off like all other tales thousands of years ago: as a way of passing on wisdom and knowledge from one generation to another. The original focus of the tales was to try to explain the unanswerable questions that people had about the world. Why does the sun set and rise instead of shining all day? Why do the seasons change? What causes thunder and lightning? These tales invented Gods to explain the inexplicable thereby making the world a less scary and randomly unpredictable place.
Gods are essentially little more than human-like forces that can intervene in the world and change it in understandable ways. Hence, for the Greeks, the sun was pulled across the sky by the god Apollo in a horse drawn chariot: all things that the Ancient Greeks would have comfortably understood. Winter is explained as the sadness the Goddess Hera feels upon her daughter Persephone’s annual visit to hell whereas Spring is joy at her return. Lightning, most famously, is caused by the wrath of Zeus.
As time passed Science explained why the sun sets and rises but fairy tales did not become redundant: they were simply used to pass on a different kind of wisdom and knowledge. Folk tales in Feudal England often showed all members of a family being cunning and quick witted as these were the skills required to survive in a harsh world where food and money were scarce. To fit the harshness of the world the punishments meted out for failure were far more severe – the ugly stepsisters in the original German version of Cinderella have their eyes picked out by birds at the end of the tale.
However, from about the mid 1600’s onwards, when the quality of life started to rise gradually for even the very poor, fairy tales were used as instructional stories for young children. They stressed the attributes that children were supposed to need when they grew up in order to live successful moral lives as adults. These attributes were different for boys and girls but a typical list would involve the following things that I’m sure you will recognise from many fairy tales that are still current today:
Boys: Intelligence, Bravery, Courage
Girls: Obedience, Patience, Silence, Honesty, Chastity, Gentility, Humility, Cleanliness, Being Hard Working, Not talking to strangers, Not being too curious, Not arguing back and, most importantly, being beautiful,
No doubt it will not be long before fairytale heroes are those who remember to cautiously back up their data on DVDs in case their computer crashes.
Charles Perrault (1628-1703) – Cinderella
The Brothers Grimm (1785 – 1853) – Collected almost every major fairy tale we have today
Hans Christian Anderson (1805 – 1875) The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid
Walt Disney (1901 – 1966) Began his animation of fairytales with Snow White in 1937