The Evolution of Folktales and Fairytales

Folktale vs. Fairytale

The distinct between folktale and fairytale always seems difficult to pinpoint in the eyes of the general public. The line always seems to be blurred and in many cases, the terms are used interchangeably. The reality is folktale and fairytale are related but by definition, they are very different. A folktale is an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation while a fairytale or a ‘literary tale’ Hallett and Karasek claim in their novel Folk & Fairy Tales, is a version of a previous heard folk tale that is solidified in a book, allowing it to be retold in the same manner it was documented. Therefore a without a folktale, a fairytale wouldn’t exist and arguably every fairytale is originated some form of folktale – it is an ongoing and endless cycle.


What is a Folktale

“Folktale tale means exactly what it says: it’s a tale of the folk” (Hallett and Karasek 15). By definition, the word folk refers to common people of a nation. In the past it is important to remember the characteristics of the commoner as common people were usually illiterate. Lacking literacy meant “their tales were orally transmitted; in order words passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, until they were eventually recorded and published by such famous individuals as Charles Perrault and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm” (15). As tales are repeated and passed on, they are inevitable changed as they are retold regardless of the storytellers intentions. With no way to differentiate the original tale from an adapted one, no one truly knows how old the tales is or what form is truly authentic. With that said, the version of the tale told is effected by the person telling it the tale. Their young, socio-economic status, family ties and life experiences all effect the narrative of the story as each person may find value in a different aspects of the same tale; a “conundrum about the universal use of the story to help people come to terms with the fears, the challenges and the mysteries that are all part of life” (16). Metaphorically speaking, Hallett relates the evolution of the folktale to childhood game Telephone. A word is passed on from person to person and in doing so the word undergoes changes as a result of mishearing, misinterpreting or the simply desire to improve such as a folktale is changed every time is it told orally. Literacy and print has quickly made the tradition of folktales obsolete as once a story has been “frozen in print, it can no longer evolve with telling and re-telling since one reading will be exactly the same as any other” (17). Thus the literary tale or fairytale is born.


Origins of the Fairytale and Its Opposition

Fairytale is a continuum. It is genre of extremes as folktales change, circulate and are retold to different audiences while literary tales are “written by a specific person at a specific time, which allows us readily to place the tale in its original context” (Hallett and Karasek 17).  The fairytales are commonly associated with names such as Charles Perrualt and the Grimm Brothers but many of their tales are adapted versions of earlier tales written by Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile. The original tales can be traced back to as early as 1550 when Straparola published The Facetious Nights. Like all great literary minds, Perrault and the Grimm Brothers saw the merit in previous published works and sought to bring these folktales to a new audience  by adapting and embellishing certain aspects to ensure it would be deemed acceptable by society. It was during this period that the genre of fairytales became to rise in popularity and prompt discussions among the “French upper classes, who often gathered in fashionable ‘salons’ to discuss matters of cultural and artistic interest” (18). As a result of these discussions, the notion of improving folktales was born and often as tales were ‘improved,’ the values and beliefs of the person improving them would be reflected in the newly revise tale. This phenomenon continued through the late 1600 and 1700s and as tales were adapted, they became less of the author’s own invention and more an accumulation of multiple variations of a tale and the author’s personal experiences and influences.

By the 18th century, the presence of fairy tales in children’s literature “depended on its ability provide moral instruction”  (21). With violent bloodshed, adultery and often disturbing content, fairy tales were seen with a disapproving eye as they undermined the values of Puritan attitudes and the followers of John Locke and his educational theories (Hallett 21). Parents were warned about the danger of such tales as they threatened children’s minds, supporting the notion that “their imaginations are apt to convert into realities whatever forcibly strikes their fancy” (21). Due to the obvious opposition, fairy tales were still made available in the 18th century but mainly reduced to chapbooks,  a less ‘respectable’ form of literature. Poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke out about the stigma surrounding fairy tales and to many peoples dismay, he affirmed his support of fairy tales stating he knew no other or better way to allow the mind to grow and love (22). Even with the support of poets and writers alike, the resistance continued into the 19th century until tales such as Andersen’s created a narrative with a “moral impulse in line with traditional Christian standards” (22). After this revelation, fairy tales regained their place within the genre of children’s literature. The fairy tale even evolved over time as it grew longer, more didactic and focused more reflecting the social issues and grievances present through the time (23).


Fairy Tales & Modern Day

I believe the fairy tale has continued to evolve and flourish as popular media such as films, video games and music have all at one point centralized a fairy tale. An example of fairy tales developing outside of the previous restraints would be is present in films as a result of Walt Disney. Disney movies are the foundations for children of the 20th and 21st century as parents seek to not only entertain their children but to install and reinforce valuable lessons. These tales are often adaptions of Perrault or the Grimm Brothers just as they adapted their versions from Straparola and Basile. The process of creating a fairy tale remains the same, it is just the content that is sometime disrupted in order to intrigue a specific audience. The Disney version of a tale may not be a gripping or violent as the original it is derived from by the moral lesson is always intact. I am not ashamed to admit that fairy tales were a large part of my childhood. They allowed me to believe in the unexplainable which taught me to have faith. They taught me life lessons that I was able to translate into my personal experiences. Finally they contained characters that acted as role models which helped me see the person I wanted to be. I realize this statements may seem extreme to some and by no means am I say I learnt everything I need to know about life from a disney. All I am saying is that fairy tales have a place and purpose in modern society just as they did in the past. It is true the setting and narrative rarely depict modern day but the lessons to be learnt are relevant to all adults and children of the past, present and future.


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