Once upon a time…

Once upon a time…

For many children the world over, memories of childhood include listening to wonderful stories whether at home or at school. Some stories are soon forgotten but others remain firmly embedded in our memories and stay there for our whole life. Some of the most enduring stories that are told to children and passed down the generations from grandparents to parents are known as ‘Fairy tales’ and are firmly rooted in history and mythology transcending countries, cultures and religions.

‘Fairy tale’ is an English language term for a type of short story called “conte de fée” in French, “Märchen” in German and “fiaba,” in Italian. In Sweden they are called “sagas”. Strangely, only a small number of the stories explicitly refer to fairies but the term ‘Fairy tales’ is still the most popular term for these types of stories. Fairy tales typically feature a number of characters drawn from folklore, myths, legends and traditions and include a wide variety of human-like entities with names like goblins, pixies, elves, trolls, giants or gnomes – as well as fairies! Often the stories will involve a far-fetched sequence of events with lots of magic spells, quests, adventures, enchantments and battles between good and evil.

These stories embody ideas or concepts that are so ingrained into our collective subconscious that we constantly use the symbolism and story themes in everyday life. For example we refer to events as having a “fairy tale ending” or of a “fairy tale romance” (though not all fairy tales actually end happily). We also sometimes use the term “fairy tale” or “fairy story” in a derogatory way to mean any far-fetched tale or unbelievable claim.

In some cultures where ‘demons’ ‘wizards’ and ‘witches’ are perceived to be very real, fairy tales may merge into legends, where the stories are perceived, both by storytellers and listeners, as being grounded in historical truth. However, unlike legends and Nordic sagas, they usually do not contain more than superficial references to actual places, people, and events. Instead they take place in a non-specific “once upon a time” rather than in a definite period of history.

The history of the fairy tale is particularly difficult to trace, because only the written forms can provide evidence in a way that oral traditions cannot. The evidence from literary sources though, indicate that fairy tales have existed for thousands of years. Many of today’s fairy tales have evolved from centuries-old stories that have appeared, with variations, in multiple cultures around the world and such is their popularity that new stories are still being written today.

Defining what a fairy story really means in terms of its ‘genre’ is not easy and scholars still debate what constitutes a real ‘fairy tale’. For example, talking animals and the presence of elements of magic seem to be more common to the fairy tale than fairies themselves. However, the mere presence of animals that talk does not make a tale a fairy tale, especially when the animal is clearly a mask on a human face, as in the case of ‘fables’ which are stories created to make a specific moral point.

What is very clear though is the fact that fairy stories have always provided, and continue to provide, a rich source of material for writers and film makers. In fact both J.R.R. Tolkien and Walt Disney openly acknowledged that they have established their careers based on fairy tale concepts, ideas and characters.

Some folklore experts prefer to use the German term Märchen or “wonder tale” to refer to the genre defined as “a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvellous. In this never-never land, humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses.”

The characters and motifs of most fairy tales are usually simple and archetypal: There are beautiful princesses and gallant princes, youngest sons and ‘seventh’ sons, ogres, giants, dragons, trolls, wicked stepmothers and sly tricksters, fairy godmothers, talking horses, foxes, birds and other animals. The stories tale place in magical landscapes of haunted forests, mountains made of glass, magnificent castles and pastoral countryside.

The first collectors to attempt to preserve not only the plot and characters of the tale, but also the style in which they were told, were the Brothers Grimm who were collectors of German folklore and fairy tales. Their first edition of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’(1812) remains a treasure for folklorists although they rewrote the tales in later editions to make them more socially acceptable which ensured their sales and the later popularity of their work.

With regard to the origin of fairy tales we will probably never know the true answer. Two theories of origins have attempted to explain the common elements in fairy tales found spread across continents. One is that a single point of origin generated a given tale, which then gradually spread geographically over the centuries. The other is that such fairy tales stem from common human experience and therefore can appear separately in many different cultures.

It is certainly true that fairy tales with very similar plots, characters, and motifs are found spread across many different cultures. Many researchers claim that this is caused by the spread of such tales, as people repeat tales they have heard in foreign lands, although the oral nature of fairy tales makes it impossible to trace the route.

In some cultures fairy tales are used in the first grade of school as a central part of the curriculum. Rudolf Steiner’s work on human development claims that at age six to seven, the mind of a child is best taught through storytelling. He claims, and other experts have agreed, that the archetypes and magical nature of fairy tales appeals strongly to children at this age. The nature of fairy tales, following the oral tradition, enhances the child’s ability to visualize a spoken narrative, as well as to remember the story as heard and absorb the messages of the story.

Whatever the true origins of the fairy story might be there is no doubt that these wonderful tales have been an integral part of our culture since time immemorial. Adults and children alike remain captivated and ‘spellbound’ by the memorable characters and the message behind each story. So when you think about it, being criticised for being “away with the fairies” may be no bad thing at all.

About Rory Gear

I’m Rory Gear, also known by my writing pseudonym – Joe St Clair. I’m a full time professional writer and blog writer, I write pretty much about anything and everything that interests me. Connect with me on Google+

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