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The Story of the Fairy Tale

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”


It was widely accepted that the idea of fantastic folkloric tales featuring the likes of trolls, mermaids, magic and, of course, fairies likely dated from 16th century Europe. The first person to use the actual term ‘fairy tale’ was French writer Madame d’Aulnoy in the late 17th century, but some folklorists prefer the German term Märchen or ‘wonder tale’. Nineteenth century German academics and authors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – usually referred to as the Brothers Grimm – are often seem as the Godfathers of the modern fairy tale, popularising stories such as The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella. Their tales, however, were not always tailored to children’s tastes.


“The Grimms were told by friends that some of the material in the first edition was too frightening for children, and they did make a few changes,” writes Joan Acocella in her essay ‘Once Upon a Time: The Lure of the Fairy Tale’ for the New Yorker. “In a notable example, the first edition of Hansel and Gretel has the mother and the father deciding together to abandon the children in the woods. In later editions, it is the stepmother who makes the suggestion, and the father repeatedly hesitates before he finally agrees. Apparently, the Grimms could not bear the idea that the mother, the person who bore these children, would do such a thing, or that the father would readily consent.”


Fairy tales could be split into two categories: the literary kind favoured by the likes of Hans Christian Anderson famed for fables such as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Princess and the Pea, and those of an oral tradition, which were far harder to date and place and which were rapidly beginning to disappear. “Intellectuals considered this a disaster,” continues Acocella. “Hence the many fairy-tale collections of the period, including the Grimms’. They were rescue operations.”


Bearing in mind the brothers’ reverence for these ancient fables it would be safe to assume that they would no doubt be fascinated by the findings of a recent a study by the universities of Durham and Lisbon, published in Royal Society Open Science, which concludes some of these tales may in fact date as far back as the Bronze Age.


“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” says co-author Dr Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University. “We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods,” he tells the BBC. “This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence.” He believes Jack and the Beanstalk to, excuse the pun, stem from a group of stories known as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, a tale told when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages diverged over 5,000 years ago. Other classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin were thought up around a thousand years later. “We don’t invent culture anew every generation,” says Tehrani to Science News. “We inherit a lot of our culture.”


But are these fables still relevant today? “The intelligentsia often dismiss fairy tales as unimportant or as bad examples that create unrealistic expectations of love,” writes Maria Rodale, author and CEO of publishers Rodale Inc., for the Huffington Post. Renowned biologist and professional atheist Richard Dawkins is one such example, once telling a science festival that it’s somewhat “pernicious to inoculate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” before adding, rather miserably, that anyway it’s “statistically too improbable” that a prince could turn into a frog. So much for fostering imagination in our kids. Bedtime stories must have been a real hoot in the Dawkins household. I prefer Einstein’s theory. And Maria Rodale’s. “But to me there’s something primal about a fairy tale,” she continues, “its hypnotic storytelling teaches us things without us feeling like we’re being taught. And in these days of mass shootings and unimaginable brutality, it’s more important than ever to hear messages of kindness and courage.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces