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The Study of Fairy Tales

Updated May 15, 2021
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The Study of Fairy Tales essay

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The typical definition of a fairy tale is most generally defined as a story essentially for children in a mystical setting with fictional characters that may appear as fairies, fairy godmothers, witches, trolls, etc. In the Aarne-Thompson index of folk tale types, fairy tales are defined as folk tales with magic. However, I feel that the definition of a fairy tale depends on the individual and what characteristics they look for in a fairy tale. The characteristics I look for in a fairy tale are magical elements, an enchanted setting, and that it should have more than one variant to it.

As portrayed in many tales, magic is usually connected with nature, and may seem to idealize the concept of reincarnation. In many fairy tales, the mother is usually not portrayed, and that is because the dead mother usually reappears in another form to help her children. Some tale type examples of such occurrences of reincarnation, are Cinderella and the mirror’s voices in Snow White. Feminist scholars like, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar interpreted that the voice in the mirror is a voice of male dominance. In Cinderella, the mother continues to live and help her child overcome her difficulties.

This tale is interpreted to be “about” a perspective in which there is a compassionate strength operating in the cosmos and where magic and the connection of nature is shown. This essay will focus on what a fairy tale is and how and why fairy tales should be studied. It will explain critical approaches such as, historicism, feminism, and sexuality. Ultimately, expressing the presumption of scholars such as Alan Dundes, Bruno Bettelheim, and Donald Haase, in order to show the importance of evolution and influence fairy tales have upon their readers.

When talking about fairy tales, many seem to be oblivious about its origins and relevance. Some have even read many famous ones, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, but are not aware that they are fairy tales. Many feel as if fairy tales are written because they are for entertaining purposes, but that is not the essential purpose these fairy tales portray. The main reason for fairy tales is to teach a lesson to their audience and to portray a theme.

All the tales that are under the section “Growing Up(Is Hard To Do),” share the same themes of “growing up.” There is not an “explicit” theme to be said in this story but we can infer that these stories are mainly “about” children that are seeking to become independent from their parents and their parents rule over them. These stories under this section do not share the same tale type, rather they are parts of other famous fairy tales. The only comparing feature in these tale types is the same themes that they share.

Fairy tales have not always been intended for children; they also draw the attention of adults and elderly. This audience change has transpired in the last two hundred years. Fairy tales have become prominent in the American Culture and have been evolving over the years and have been globally recognized for centuries now. Due to the strict oral culture in the past, it is very hard to know when exactly fairy tales began, but it is clear that the tales initially started spreading verbally to one another. These fairy tales were published by two very well-known authors, The Brothers Grimm, also known as the Grimm Brothers, and Charles Perrault. They are now recognized as the “fathers” of fairy tales.

Charles Perrault was born in 1628 with a French origin. He held a very high status because he came from a very affluent family. The Grimm Brothers were born after Perrault, but still hold a very valuable place in fairy tale evolution. The two brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, are more familiarized than Perrault, but regardless of that, Perrault has his own versions to his tales. Perrault and the Grimm Brothers have very contrasting approaches and styles of work. They both portray different themes and concepts in their tales.

Perrault portrays versions that make connections to ethics and greediness whereas Grimm’s pay more attention to the grim truth of life. Perrault uses the concept of an ‘“explicit “moral in his famous tale, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. He states, “A brave, rich,handsome is a prize well worth waiting for; but no modern woman would think it was worth waiting for a hundred years”(Perrault 89). Here, he describes how engagements that are taken slow result in much more happier marriages.

Perraut and the Grimm Brothers both also use the technique of “fakelore.” According to folklorists, fakelore is when authors stitch together pieces of stories to create a new composite story. Charles Perrault used the fakelore approach in Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, where he connects the enchanted sleep story to the piece where the evil queen wanted to consume the children.

In Perrault’s tale, the enchanted sleep story is portrayed when the old man says, “‘My lord, more than fifty years ago I heard my father say that the most beautiful princess in all the world was sleeping in this castle, and her sleep was going to last for a hundred years”’(Perrault 85). The evil queen wanting to eat the children is emphasized when the queen says, “‘I want to eat little Dawn for my dinner tomorrow”’(Perrault 87). Both of these quotes above, prove that the concept of “folklore” was used.

Another fairy tale where the concept of fakelore was shown is by the Grimm Brothers in Hansel and Gretel, where they connect two different stories to create one. Hansel and Gretel is a powerful and very famous tale, most likely because of the gingerbread house, the witch, and the idea of cannibalism. Even though the Grimm Brothers had very gruesome ideas in their tales, in this one they made the character a witch because they did not want to traumatize the children or give them the idea of evilness in humans.

Here is an excerpt from the tale that shows cannibalism, “She killed, cooked, and ate any child who fell into her hands, and to her that was a feast day”(Grimm 99). It provides an insightful and imaginative state for children. Hansel and Gretal is a tale that revolves around the notion of starvation. Historians talk about starvation being a big problem in poor families, mostly because of bad harvests. The chance that a child might have to be abandoned was the only choice for peasants. Another very famous tale the Grimm Brothers published was Ashputtle, a variant of Cinderella.

The punishment of vice is apparent in this variant, where the evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out. This grim ending is not a part of Charles Perrault’s version, Cinderella: The Little Glass Slipper, however, it was later changed by Disney. Many justify this story’s popularity in America by the notion of the “American Dream,” which is the motive that diligence will be recompensed with riches, but this is not a valid reason because Cinderella begins the story as a wealthy woman.

Now that the evolution of fairy tales has been covered, we will focus on the some assumptions scholars have made regarding the influence and impact fairy tale evolution has on its audience. In the essay “Fairy Tales From A Folkloristic Perspective,” by Alan Dundes, Dundes talks about the difference between studying tales from the oral tradition and studying tales from the literary tradition. As a folklorist, he claims that scholars who study folklore need to focus on the oral tradition of tales because that is ultimately where folk fairy tales exist. He also states that after a fairy tale is written down it no longer stands as a true or legitimate folklore.

Dundes says that when the audience is reading a fairy tale, it is like the audience is associating with the fairy tale only, like a solitary exercise. He states that many small details in a fairy tale can affect the concept of understanding them. An example being illustrations provided in fairy tales that limit the imagination a reader can have. The main idea in Dundes’s essay is to claim that the stories that have been around for years now have evolved because of the circulation of them from community to community. Especially those that are verbally reading them. It provides a better and richer experience for the readers and makes the fairy tale sound much better.

Throughout his essay, Dundes says, “The aim was usually to present evidence of an ancient nationalistic patrimony, in which the French or German literati could take pride”(Dundes 389). Here, Dundes is referring specifically to the Grimm Brothers and providing a slight reference to Charles Perrault also. In reference to the Grimm Brothers, Alan Dundes says that the Grimms were trying to accumulate original folk stories and were publishing them as affirmation to promote the ancient culture of a single nation.

In the article “The Struggle of Meaning, ” Bruno Bettelheim states that fairy tales have a very powerful influence on young children. This article of his comes from his very own book called The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales which was published in 1976. In his article, he says children can “restore the meaning to their lives”'(Bettelheim 376). He begins by saying that the most crucial and most significant part of raising a child is to support them into finding the essential meaning of life.

In order to provide the correct impact on a child’s life, parents need to start teaching a child in their early ages. Fairy tales normally start off with the main character in the tale going through a difficult time and throughout the tale, the character starts to conquer their problems. These tales usually end with a well-changed and stronger character. When children read such stories, they start to see the bright side to life. They gain confidence by connecting with the character and his/her transformation.

As claimed by Bettelheim, fairy tales are related to art work because they both necessitate distinctive interpretations to obtain expanations from. Everyone will have different interpretations of the same fairy tale. This is why it makes it exceptionally hard for parents to recognize what form of fairy tales needed for their children. Some parents try to give children the adult interpretation to these fairy tales, but Bettelheim disagrees. He feels as if it is necessary for kids to read the original form, so that they can gain their logical and psychological abilities.

Psychoanalytical critics like Bruno Bettelheim interpret stories as symbolic narratives that captivate children creatively and allow them to overcome their fears. Hansel and Gretal has a symbolic and underlying meaning for children. It portrays the hidden concern about growing up and becoming more independent by relying on siblings rather than adults. Since the parents in this tale show evilness, the story highlights the child’s need to overcome their fears.

Donald Haase, a scholar who has brought attention to the feminist side of fairy tales argues about the feminist fairy-tale scholarship, in his article, “The Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography” excerpted from Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches. In his essay, Haase has three sections: gender and socialization, folktale and fairy tale anthologies, and editing and the feminine image. He starts off by talking about two feminist scholars, Alison Lurie Fueled and Marcia R. Lieberman who focus on gender and how such stories teach lessons about gender identity and behavior.

In the first section he focuses on the evolution of scholarly conversations among fairy tale scholars. The main focus being the scholarly debate between Lurie and Lieberman in the 1970’s. The debate Alison Lurie holds is that folk fairy tales are good for advancing women’s liberation, whereas Marcia Lieberman finds Lurie’s claim irrelevant. As the essay proceeds, Lurie says not all fairy tales are associated with male dominance.

Many classic fairy tales have a range of female characters that proves the stereotype towards patriarchal oppression on women as false. Marcia Lieberman, on the other hand, says it does not matter how many folk fairy tales in the world have spirited, brave women that encourage a less submissive example towards girls because many girls living in the modern society do not come across them. The only ones these industrialized women come across are those that have become dominant. Looking at those dominant folk fairy tales, they do present girls as passive.

An example being Little Red Riding Hood which shows women the allegory of rape. Here is when Karen W. Rowe enters and provides her point of view. She says modern women “no longer provide[d] mythic validations of desirable female behaviour”(Haase 397). Essentially, claiming that women today are no longer like the old-schooled depictions of fairy tales. She says that women and girls now have been modernized and have more rights due to feminist groups that have assisted in women’s liberations.

Rowe sides with Lurie and says that these powerful fairy tales that are still very famous today have the potential to influence the interaction of boys and girls due to their legendary dominance. She says that the “idealized romantic patterns in fairy tales were also evident in mass-markets reading materials intended for adult women ” (Haase 397). Adding to that she says that the “fairy tales romantic paradigms” (Haase 397), impact children and grown women who “internalize romantic patterns from ancient tales” (“Feminism and Fairy Tales 222). Essentially claiming that the complication in fairy tales is the portrayal of romantic love rather than the male or female dominance.

The main focus of this essay was why and how fairy tales should be studied. It highlights the reflection of real lived experiences of its audience. It has also analyzed the many perspectives and presumptions of scholars on critical approaches such as feminism, gender identity, and sexuality. These scholars like Alan Dundes, Bruno Bettilheim, and Donald Haase have unique claims towards fairy tales and their evolution throughout the progression of years.

Works Cited

  1. Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle of Meaning.” Folk & Fairy Tales Fifth Edition, edited by Martin Hallet, Barbara Karasek, 2018, pp.375-387.
  2. Dundes, Alan. “Fairy Tales From A Folkloristic Perspective.” Folk & Fairy Tales Fifth Edition, edited by Martin Hallet, Barbara Karasek, 2018, pp.387-394.
  3. Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Hansel and Gretel” Folk & Fairy Tales Fifth Edition, edited by Martin Hallet, Barbara Karasek, 2018, pp.96-101.
  4. Haase, Donald. “Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship.” Folk & Fairy Tales Fifth Edition, edited by Martin Hallet, Barbara Karasek, 2018, pp.394-406.
  5. Hallett, Martin, and Barbara Karasek, editors. Folk & Fairy Tales. 5th ed., Broadview Press, 2018.
  6. Perrault, Charles. “The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood” Folk & Fairy Tales Fifth Edition, edited by Martin Hallet, Barbara Karasek, 2018, pp.83-89.
The Study of Fairy Tales essay

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