“People tell tales: peasants and artisans, lords and ladies, mothers and fathers, priests and preachers, girls and boys. The literate read aloud, the gifted recount. Over and over people tell tales whose content seem the same but that nonetheless differs in profound ways.”
– Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales
I was recently posed a question by a friend: why the sudden resurgence in the popularity of fairy tales?
Now, I could’ve given my friend an answer stating something about cycles, and how this is simply the case here. I could’ve said fairy tales are a trend like any other— vampires, superheroes, Nicholas Cage— and yet…
The moment I was asked that question, my brain immediately railed against it. In fact, my response took my friend a little by surprise. It was, in short, “What sudden resurgence?”
For me, my friend’s question is mostly invalid. Fairy tales are so old, it is virtually impossible to trace back their beginnings. For thousands and thousands of years, these tales have been retold, recycled, repurposed, and rewritten. Fairy tales are not a “trend”; they are the very foundations upon which all stories are built.
Tales of Wonder, Tales of Reason
“As we know, tales do not only speak to us, they inhabit us and become relevant in our struggles to resolve conflicts that endanger our happiness.”
– Jack Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of A Genre
These bare narratives literally defined the way humans entertained one another and passed on knowledge. Before they were written down, oral retellings were ways of teaching morals and life lessons. Not only do they teach about the human condition, but they are the lessons from which creators learned pacing and plot, and leave so much room to fill in the blanks of why and how that they have gripped our imaginations for millennia.
“The verb ‘to wonder’ communicates the receptive state of marveling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire,” Marina Warner writes in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, “and as such it defines very well at least two characteristics of the traditional fairy tale: pleasure in the fantastic, curiosity about the real. The dimension of wonder creates a huge theatre of possibility in the stories: anything can happen. This very boundlessness serves the moral purpose of the tales, which is precisely to teach where boundaries lie.”
It’s in this incredible realm of possibility that we search for reason in the chaos, motivation behind the actions, and, in turn, process these things internally for use in our everyday lives. Whether or not we’re consciously aware of their impact, fairy tales leave a mark on us all.
Narrative Stripped Bare
It’s in the whys and hows of our interpretations that our colors show. By giving us nothing but the action or occurrence, we’re left to our own devices to explain why a person would go to such lengths to secure power, love, beauty, wealth, or revenge, and say how they were done. It’s up to us to spin a character as “good” or “evil” based on how we view the world. Narrators can change the lens we see the happenings through. In flipping a villain into a tragic hero, the original hero becoming an unrelenting, inescapable evil. Something as simple as a gender reversal can change the entire perspective, even when the guideposts of the tale remain unchanged. Fairy tales are fertile soil for any creative mind but are just as powerful when their strings are pulled by other masters.
Historically speaking, one need only look back into the evolution of these folk tales to learn how human cultures shifted in what they valued⎯ what society wished to perpetuate. Original versions of stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were dark and violent by today’s standards, showing devastating (and often horrifyingly gory) consequences for bad behavior. By contrast, today, the focus is often placed on rewarding good behavior, with villains self-destructing on their own, rather than being condemned by the protagonist. Disney wasn’t the first to scrub these stories for their own purposes, however; even the Grimms altered them from edition to edition, changing them as religious and societal pressures demanded. Originally, Rapunzel’s banishment from the tower wasn’t of her own volition, but upon her witch captor’s discovery of the girl’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t woken by true love’s kiss, but by the children she’d given birth to in her sleep, the product of a wayward king’s visit to the comatose woman. All of these elements and so much more have been stripped away, replaced by things more palatable to the consumer at the time of the reworking.
One could argue for the preservation of these tales, bemoan the loss of important cultural ideas with every “corruption” that occurs, but that would be ignoring the entire purpose of folk and fairy tales. They have always been a means of conveying ideas and standards, and in restricting them to a box of “only told one way,” they cease to function in the purpose for which they were created. The basic principles of evolution demand change, and fairy tales have shown that they are very nearly living things in how they adapt to survive extinction.
Haunting Us Through The Ages
In 2014, a book of the first edition Grimms’ fairy tales was published by Princeton Press, giving us a new look at how those stories changed over the years, sparking all new discussion in academic circles. Fables are still given to us as children just beginning to read, engraining those ideas into us from the very earliest of ages. Almost any child can recount Jack and the Beanstalk from memory, or knows the dangers of munching on candy-coated cabins in the middle of the woods.
As the song goes: “Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”
It might take a moment of reflection to understand that the “trend” isn’t really a trend, but that these stories are only experiencing a moment of collective heightened awareness.
Humanity cannot shake the fascination with these skeletons. Those old bones are everywhere, haunting every story we tell, their themes echoing throughout classic and modern literature. The entire fantasy genre springs from them in the most obvious ways, but, substitute technology for magic, and it’s easy to point to science fiction as a descendant as well. Even by a modest estimate, the entire romance genre is defined by its use of the happily ever after trope, and most of Western literature is structured in the same way as those very basic, primitive stories.
As a further illustration, whether or not it’s intended, any story told today contains a lesson, or leads the audience to a place where some conclusions can be drawn. While those lessons might not be as obvious as the one expressed in Fairy Gifts, for example, entire academic fields are built around the interpretation of literature to suss out the meanings of modern stories and to classify them for easy study. And so, it’s not only the old stories themselves that persist, but their very nature that’s perpetrated no matter what the medium.
In truth, what we consider contemporary fiction today may become the folktale of tomorrow. Perhaps, a thousand years from now, we’ll see The Grapes of Wrath condensed down to that same bare-bones essence, wherein a strong family, burdened by their lack of education, succumbs to slow destruction because of their poor choices in the face of bad luck. Maybe Katniss Everdeen will become a mere shell of what’s written now, reduced to the powerful archer that saw through corruption and pierced the hearts of the wicked with her bow and arrow. In the vast game of telephone that is the human condition, eventually all that remains of even the strongest structure is basic foundations. In the end, all the best stories become ghosts: lone, whispering fairy tales that echo far beyond their first telling.