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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Introduction to FairyTales

Welcome... good morning. Let's all take a seat, shall we?

I’d like to take a moment to make sure we’re all in the proper place: this is Fairy Tales 101 (cross-listed with Anthropology 1313: Disney and popular culture). If you’ve come looking for a chance to re-live those fairy tales you heard growing up, you might be in the wrong place. But if you’re interested in hearing about their sources, how the various authors twisted, tweaked, and shaped the tales to match their particular moral and political viewpoints, then you’re in luck. That’s us.

I’m Dr. Yee, an Assistant Professor here who works in both the German and Comparative Literature departments. You can call me Kevin – no need to stand on ceremony.

The good news for you is that you have no homework assignments, ever. The bad news is that you just might find yourself fascinated enough by the material to go out and get these books and do the reading on your own. GASP! Perish the thought!

If you’d like to know what we’ll be discussing, here’s a partial sample of the book list I’m using:

Primary Sources:

1. Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Fairy Tales for Children and Home), various editions 1810-1814.
2. Perrault, Charles, Tales of Mother Goose (1697)
3. Disney films
4. Other sources as necessary, including English authors and Hans Christian Andersen

Secondary Sources:

1. Ellis, John. One Fairy Story Too Many. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1983.
2. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Knopf, 1976.
3. Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre. New York: Basic, 1984.
4. Weber, Eugene. “Fairies and Hard Facts,” Journal of the History of Ideas (1981). 93-113.

Don’t worry, none of this is “required reading,” since I’ll go ahead and quote from things when it seems like a good idea.

What you can expect from this course is a more thorough understanding of exactly how and why the various authors of fairy tales, including Walt Disney and the company which now bears his name, would adjust and alter the tales to suit their tastes. The reasoning behind those tastes, and the effects they unleash in the cultural development of the world, are much larger than you could probably imagine at this point.

To make any headway in our explorations of the specific tales, it’s important to have a thesis guiding us through, by way of providing us with a roadmap. In simplest terms, our thesis could be this:

Fairy tales are short, gripping narratives that evolved from a specific peasant oral tradition into vehicles for social change.

Nice sounding words, eh? What does that mean in plain English, you might be wondering. Let’s take an example like Sleeping Beauty. Many people consider this to be one of Disney’s finest movies – the clearest example of a classic fairy tale. 

Disney's 1959 release of Sleeping Beauty was hailed by many as the ideal example of a fairy tale. Publicity image © Disney.
Disney's 1959 release of Sleeping Beauty was hailed by many as the ideal example of a fairy tale. Publicity image © Disney.

But if we dig into the history of the Sleeping Beauty story, we find that the story is different in subtle but important ways, depending on who is telling the story. And by examining those differences, we learn a lot about who was doing the telling (or re-telling) of the tale. 

Did you know, for example, that the story of Sleeping Beauty began as a tale of a girl raped in the woods, kept magically asleep while gestating offspring, and awakened only by her babies suckling at her breast? It’s true. Bet you didn't know that castle at the middle of Disneyland had anything to do with rape, but there you have it.

Sleeping Beauty Castle
You'll never look at Disneyland castle in quite the same way after this.

The peasants told stories like these to get a point across to their children: be careful in the woods, because it’s a dangerous place filled with unsavory characters who will do nasty things to you. I’m mighty tempted at this point to throw out one of my professor terms: "Moral Didactic" – the story is there to teach us a real-life lesson, and to keep us safe.

Charles Perrault sunk his teeth into the story next, and it took on a decidedly courtly flair. How could it not? Perrault was a courtier at the court of Louis XIV, and the trappings of a royal court came as second nature to him. Lies, intrigues, sex, fashion – it was all part of his world. Picture the guy from the "Dangerous Liaisons" movie rewriting fairy tales, and you get the picture. When the princess awoke in his story, the first thing the prince notices is how out of date her garments are!

The Grimms came next, and they had an entirely different take. As middle-class educators who were devoutly Christian and solidly nationalistic, they infused their stories with a completely different set of moral priorities. Wickedness was now going to get punished, and sex would be squeezed out of the story as far as it could.

Grimms Fairy Tales
A recent and popular translation of the Grimms' Fairy Tales.

The Disney version of the tale borrows elements from both Perrault and Grimm (though nothing from the peasant rape version!) There is certainly a courtly atmosphere, but there is an emphasis on good winning out over evil. And Disney brings to the table yet another moral prism through which the story is refracted. For the first time, Disney sets out to create children’s literature that simply entertains, rather than attempts to send a direct social or political message. And that, my friends, turns out to be the most effective means possible of getting one’s point across.

More on that next time. What you see here is just a taste, and when we next talk, we’re going to go back. Way back into history, and talk about oral traditions and stories of rape, sex, poverty, the absence of morality, and the importance of luck. In other words, your basic peasant fairy tale – the origins of all that is to follow. We're going to start with Little Red Riding Hood. While it isn't Disney, it manages to show pretty clearly the other stages of peasant, Perrault, and Grimms. That will make our Disney discussions, which follow right after, a lot more comprehensible. I think you'll be pleasantly shocked about Little Red Riding Hood....

Questions and comments can be sent to:  kevinyee@mouseplanet.com


Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812/1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810

Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.




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