Everyone knows them – but how do they come to be? And why are they similar all over the world? In an excerpt from her new book, academic and writer Marina Warner investigates.

Imagine the history of fairy tales as a map: unfurl this imaginary terrain in your mind’s eye, and you will first see two prominent landmarks, Charles Perrault’s Tales of Olden Times (1697) and a little nearer in the foreground, the Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). These collections dominate their surroundings so imposingly that they make it hard to pick out other features near or far.

Gradually, however, as your eyes adjust to the dazzle, several more features of the scene begin to grow in definition and give you better bearings: along a whole web of routes from points further east, The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights form deep aquifers of story running through the entire expanse, and emerging here and there in waterfalls and powerful rivers spreading through wide floodplains.

Harbours and market-places and pilgrimage sites – Venice, Naples, Genoa, Sicily, in Italy alone – begin to emerge as significant centres of talkative storytelling populations. To the north, Hans Christian Andersen’s glowing Danish homeland is emitting powerful signals from regions stretching to the Arctic Circle. And when your eyes track his large force field, you begin to discover beacons blazing in the darkness, lit by the work of Walter Scott in Scotland, Alexander Afanasyev in Russia, and other omnivores of their countries’ stories. The circumpolar regions, as well as the steppes and forests of Russia and Central Asia, are also rich in fairy tale ore.

This map of fairy tales still contains many unexplored corners and much terra incognita, and eagerness to discover new parts of it is growing among different audiences. Considered children’s literature for a dominant period of their history, fairy tales have now grown out of that Victorian and Edwardian prescription and have gained a new stature over the last 20 years, both as inspiration for literature, and for mass, lucrative entertainment. Thematic and structural similarities continue to attach contemporary fictions to popular and ancient legends and myths. Fairy tales are one of their dominant expressions, connective tissue between a mythological past and the present realities.

Queer as Volk

What are the defining characteristics of a fairy tale? First, it is a short narrative, sometimes less than a single page, sometimes running to many more, but the term no longer applies, as it once did, to a novel-length work. Secondly, fairy tales are familiar stories, either verifiably old because they have been passed on down the generations or because the listener or reader is struck by their family resemblance to another story; they can appear pieced and patched, like an identikit photo fit. The genre belongs in the general realm of folklore, and many fairy tales are called ‘folk tales’, and are attributed to oral tradition, and considered anonymous and popular in the sense of originating not among an elite, but among the unlettered, the Volk (the people in German, as in ‘Volkswagen’, the ‘People’s Car’).

The accumulated wisdom of the past has been deposited in them–at least, that is the feeling a fairy tale radiates and the claim the form has made since the first collections. Scholars of fairy tales distinguish between genuine folk tales and literary fairy tales; the first are customarily anonymous and undatable, the latter signed and dated, but the history of the stories’ transmission shows inextricable and fruitful entanglement.

Even when every effort was made to keep the two branches apart, fairy tales would insist on becoming literature. On the stage, a similar, traditional sense of an ancient, oral voice sounds in the libretto or plot: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Bartók and Balász’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Dvořák’s mermaid opera Rusalka, or a Ballets Russes production such as The Firebird, proclaim their roots in unauthored folklore, although they are in themselves unique and original works.

Cinema likewise announces its proximity to tradition while often claiming implicitly to be filling out the original in the most effective and satisfactory possible way, cinema being the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art) with the largest audience. One television series of fairy tales was simply called The Storyteller (1988). Written and directed by Anthony Minghella with the puppeteer Jim Henson, each episode opened with a fireside scene in which a storyteller, played by John Hurt, dramatized the fairy tale we were about to watch, presenting it as part of a living tradition come down through the centuries.

A third defining characteristic of fairy tales follows organically from the implied oral and popular tradition: the combination and recombination of familiar plots and characters, devices and images. They might be attached to a particular well-known fairy tale – such as Puss-in-Boots or Cinderella – but fairy tales are generically recognisable even when the exact identity of the particular story is not clear. Elements in many of the great Victorian and Edwardian children’s stories have a fairytale character. The authors of newly invented stories, such as Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, George Eliot, E Nesbit, and JRR Tolkien, do not write fairy tales as such, but they adopt and transform recognisable elements – flying carpets, magic rings, animals that talk – from fairytale conventions, adding to readers’ enjoyment by the direct appeal to shared knowledge of the fantasy code.

Fourthly, the scope of fairy tale is made by language: it consists above all of acts of imagination, conveyed in a symbolic Esperanto. Its building blocks include certain kinds of characters (stepmothers and princesses, elves and giants) and certain recurrent motifs (keys, apples, mirrors, rings, and toads). The symbolism comes alive and communicates meaning through an imagery of strong contrasts and sensations, evoking simple, sensuous phenomena that glint and sparkle, pierce and flow. By these means they strike recognition in the reader or listener’s body at a visceral depth (glass and forests, gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, thorns and knives, wells and tunnels).

Small wonders

Another alternative term for ‘fairy tale’ is ‘wonder tale’, from the German Wundermärchen, and it catches a quality of the genre more eloquently than ‘fairy tale’ or ‘folk tale’. Although it does not enjoy the currency of ‘fairy tale’, ‘wonder tale’ recognises the ubiquitousness of magic in the stories.

The suspension of natural physical laws produces a magical state of reality throughout this form of narrative, which leads to wonder, astonishment. Supernatural agency and the pleasure of wonder are interwoven in the character of fairy tales – this interrelationship presents a fifth defining characteristic.

Wonders shape plots that promise all kinds of riches; fairy tales typically offer hope of release from poverty, maltreatment, and subjection. A happy ending is one of their generic markers. Fairy tales report from imaginary territory – a magical elsewhere of possibility; a hero or a heroine or sometimes both together are faced with ordeals, terrors, and disaster in a world that, while it bears some resemblance to the ordinary conditions of human existence, mostly diverges from it in the way it works, taking the protagonists – and us, the story’s readers or listeners – to another place where wonders are commonplace and desires are fulfilled.

A sixth defining characteristic of the genre can therefore be placed under the heading of ‘the happy ending’: fairy tales express hopes. The agents who bring about miracles of hope in the stories vary from place to place, as they rise from local belief systems which belong to tradition. The tradition may contain imaginary elements but also traces of history: fairies and goblins on the one hand, cunning beldames and stepmothers on the other. The history is itself often an imagined history: King Arthur inspired romances that in turn carry into fairytale motifs and plot devices – enchanted objects (swords, mirrors, cups), tests and riddles, dangers from monsters and forests, dream journeys, and a sense of the other world near to hand. Fairy tales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.

The promise of the happy ending carries the tales of terrible dark deeds to their unlikely conclusion. There is the occasional well-known fairy tale that ends badly, like Red Riding Hood according to Charles Perrault. But it is an aberration, as shown by myriad popular variations in which the young girl tricks the wolf out of his prize or even kills him herself. The most often told version introduces a hero: the Grimms brought her father into the plot.

You have a sketch map and a rough guide; the lights are lit in the windows of that house in the deep dark forest ahead of us. We can begin to move in, listening out, eyes open, trying to find our bearings.

© Oxford University Press.  Adapted from Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner to be published by Oxford University Press on 23 October 2013.

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