Fairy Tales

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Fairy Tales

Fairy tales, strictly speaking, were a vast corpus of literary texts published in Western Europe at the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, distinguished by the presence of fairies good and bad, sorcerers, magic objects and operations. Tales of fairies and the supernatural may go back as far as classical antiquity, but are no doubt medieval (such as the "matter of Brittany"), filled with magic, shape-shifting, impossible boons and prohibitions (Harf-Lancner 1984). Medieval analogues or origins have been identified for at least twenty-four tale types (Berlioz, Brémond, and Velay-Vallantin 1989). Antti Aarne catalogued these types in his early-twentieth-century international Types of the Folk Tale, which became the yardstick for classifying folk and fairy tale. An early version of "Little Red Riding Hood" dates back to the eleventh century, by Egbert of Liege (Berlioz 1994). The first version of "Sleeping Beauty" has been traced back to a medieval romance, Perceforest (Zago 1979). "Donkey Skin" was already well known in the sixteenth century in a now lost form, and has antecedents in the many medieval romances of daughters fleeing incestuous fathers. The model for the eighteenth-century "Beauty and the Beast" is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, contained in Apuleius' Golden Ass (c. 150 ce), which spread worldwide and spawned countless versions and variants (Hearne 1989)—in France, for instance, with a rich gendered subtext (Sautman 1989). An extensive literary form was written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1756 in her Magasin des enfants, but another version, "L'Oiseau Bleu," closer to the folk versions, was authored before her by Madame d'Aulnoy.

Readers in the United States tend to associate fairy tales with the German collections of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, published between 1810 and 1852. However, an already considerable international corpus of literary fairy tales had been produced by that time by their illustrious predecessor Charles Perrault (1628–1703), but also by many women, including German women. Benedikte Naubert's magic and fairy tales, written from 1789 to 1810, influenced Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), Achim von Arnim (1781–1831), and Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) (Blackwell 1997). Further, modern scholarship has deflated the Grimm national myth and shown that their so-called folk tales culled from the German oral tradition were a fraud. They were not garnered from peasants and simple people at all but from a few literate women in their entourage, one (at least) who was actually French (Ellis 1983). The Grimms systematically altered the content and tone of tales, giving them a masculinist twist when they might have presented more flexible views of sex and gender (Bottigheimer 1987).

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed nationalist and male-centered recuperations of folk and fairy tales in Europe, molded into a sexually expurgated, gender-conservative, ideologically sound corpus. For instance, in the corpus of the Russian Aleksandr Afanasiev, passed off for decades as "folklore," tales remained tame and conventional. Yet Afanasiev also published a hoard of obscene and erotic tales through a French undercover publication, the erudite Kryptadia (1883–1911), which, like its Viennese equivalent, Anthropophyteia (1904–1913), was edited by scholars hiding under pseudonyms lest the official corpus and its "proper" tone—and they also—be tainted by these bawdy tales (Tatar 1992).

A British admirer of the Grimms, engaged in the battle against the "yoke of classical tyranny," George Webbe Dasent published the widely read Popular Tales from the Norse in 1859. It has many tales of clever, strong heroines. Yet Dasent insisted that the tales were primarily about a male, "the youngest son," and "are uttered with a manly mouth," even though the narrative voice of these tales was imparted to women (Schacker 2003, pp. 116, 125-126). Thus, in this distinctive gender and racial ideology, "the feminized, ruralized, often infantilized images of the narrators of popular tales provide striking contrast with the rhetoric that is mobilized to characterize the study of popular tales—the voices that describe and compare, which dignify folklore with their attention, and which are clearly imagined by Dasent to be male" (Schacker 2003, p. 127).

The seventeenth-century French author of fairy tales Charles Perrault also inscribed his tales in the framework of tradition, times past, and an oral source from "mother goose" (ma mere l'oye), a fictive and highly constructed figure of the governess or nanny telling tales to children, and his tales uneasily interwove folk and literary traditions (Soriano 1968). Eighteen of the literary fairy tales of Madame d'Aulnoy (c. 1650–1705) correspond to tale types in the Aarne-Thompson system (Robert 1982). There is indeed a broad interface and historical relationship between literary fairy tales and those folk tales that incorporate the marvelous and the supernatural. These are "fairy tales" in the broadest sense, although they are usually referred to as magic tales, Märchen, or Zaubermärchen, or contes merveilleux (marvelous tales). There are also profound differences of style, usage, and ideological tone between these two bodies, even though many scholars study both fairy and folk magic tales together and brand them both as conveying a fiercely misogynistic ideology (Tatar 1992). However, this article does not refer to tales outside of Western traditions, which cannot be labeled "fairy tales" without erasing cultural difference and distorting their distinctive educational, ritual, religious, or initiatory functions.

Thus begins the tale of tales—a high-stakes game over race, nation, and gender, reflected in matters of content, authorship, audience, and modes of transmission. The written and the oral, tradition and invention, text and illustration, borrowings and survivals, are closely linked. Sociological perspectives, initiated by Jack Zipes (1983), have met historical ones to render obsolete the notion of an immobilized, frozen tale unrelated to the specific historical and cultural context that produced it (Velay-Vallantin 1992). The study of printed fairy tale books' illustrations has also elicited analyses of the ways sex and gender are constructed through the reception of a given tale (Hearne 1989, Velay-Vallantin 1998). As for debates on origins, they need not be of concern here, but they are rife in the history of tale scholarship (Simonsen 1981).


Contrary to what has been claimed, Perrault was not the first French writer of fairy tales. This longstanding fallacy has been put to rest by fairy tale scholarship of the 1980s (as in the work of Jacques Barchilon and Elizabeth Wanning Harries). The first French writer to publish a fairy tale was Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, comtesse d'Aulnoy, whose "L'île de la Félicité" appeared within her novel, L'histoire d'Hypolite, comte de Duglas, in 1690, seven years before Perrault's and her own volume of fairy tales. The highest volume of tales written in France in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century was by women—even though the genre attracted a plethora of writers of both sexes. Madame d'Aulnoy was a prolific author, popular in her day, who published more than nineteen works, including eight volumes of fairy tales (d'Aulnoy 1997). A similar style is found with other women writers of tales, such as Madame de Murat (1670–1716) or Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier de Villandon (1664–1734): These tales were longer, more prolific and eclectic both in sources and in tone, replete with details, did not shy from the grotesque or the macabre, played with gender identity, and were less conventionally moralistic than those of Perrault and other male writers. Madame d'Aulnoy boldly treats sexual matters, evoking passion, desire, violence, even sadomasochism. Women typically wrote much longer tales than did men, even on the same motifs or based on the same type: Patricia Hannon (1988) has defined this as writing a "motivated text," in which, through the transparent effort of producing text and writing it as a literary work while telling the tale, both the heroines and the writer attain voice. Women within the tales written by d'Aulnoy, L'Héritier, and Murat also speak more, with greater eloquence and freedom, and are capable of enjoying and fostering conversation, while the famous male-authored collections of Perrault and Grimm enforce silence on women (Marin 1996).

German women in the late eighteenth century also produced many tales, before or concomitantly with the collecting endeavors by famous male intellectuals such as the Grimm brothers, Achim von Arnim, or Brentano; yet a masculinist critical tradition has catalogued them mainly as translators and transcribers, active but in subordinate roles. Women writers created highly skilled and original works, such as the mother and daughter couple Bettina and Gisele von Arnim, whose novel Gritta (The Life of the Countess Gritta von Ratsatourhouse, c. 1843) was based on fairy tale motifs and themes, and had an intricate narrative structure with endless series of "drawers." Many German women tale-writers also corrected and strayed from male-dominated moralities and from silencing and punishing women (Blackwell 1997). And some of the tales written by German women demonstrated bold and original social thinking (Morris-Keitel 1997).

In France, mid- and late-eighteenth-century tales were freer toward sex and sexuality than their models, and took increasing liberties with tradition. This was, not surprisingly, more apparent in the works of male authors, less limited by the constraints of decency than women (see, for example, Les Bijoux indiscrets [1784] by Denis Diderot); but even some women went fairly far in questioning gender and societal norms, such as the iconoclastic Mademoiselle de Lubert (Duggan 1994).

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist collections or rewritings aimed to depart from traditionalist and patriarchal models. Results are not always felicitous within a stated feminist goal. Seeking "strong, capable heroines" in nineteenth-century printed collections, Ethel Johnston Phelps openly transformed tales, omitting or adding details, changing story endings, and imparting a strange racial twist by claiming a higher valorization of "strong, resourceful women valuable as marriage partners" in northern climes (Phelps 1981, pp. x-xii). The fairy tales of professional women writers have been more innovative in destabilizing masculinist norms. Margaret Atwood's "Bluebeard's Egg" and "Alien Territory" (Bacchilega 1997) and Angela Carter's substantial work have been influential and defining. Carter reinvented fairy tales of the international repertoire, with a strong feminist eroticism focused on female (hereto)sexual desire. She has translated, anthologized, and rewritten many of the best-known tales, such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Red Riding Hood," revising fairy-tale mythology, thematizing conflicting images of women, and highlighting the violence that runs through these tales (Bacchilega 1997). Emma Donoghue's revisions are stylistically taught, far-reaching questionings of gender roles, normative institutions, and heterosexuality: Thus "Cinderella" ("The Tale of the Shoe") and "Beauty and the Beast" ("The Tale of the Rose") are transformed so that the heroine discovers love and intimacy with another woman.


Fairy tales have been read psychoanalytically beginning with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) himself. Motifs such as various enclosures (ovens, caskets), towers, and blood reflected familial relations. Geza Roheim (1891–1953) interpreted the tale of the "Good Girl and Bad Girl" (Perrault's "Les Fées")—rewarded or punished by the fairies with oral production of flowers and jewels or vermin—as a dream, and its latent content as translating aggressive hostility toward the mother but projected onto the sister. The Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990) famously advocated for fairy tales as the privileged story form available to children to structure their psyche and direct their life; his theories have been scathingly criticized by tale specialists and pretty much discredited (Zipes 1979). Jungian readings of tales are exemplified by the work of Erich Neumann (1905–1960), Hedwig von Beit (who published two major works on the symbolism of tales between 1952 and 1964), and Marie-Louise von Franz (1915–1998). Bridging the needs of the collective unconscious with the hero or heroine's effort to reconstitute a fully integrated self through a variety of functions enacted through the fairy or magic tale's details, such readings do not typically confer agency primarily on women. In one study devoted to women in the fairy tales, von Franz develops her theory of the anima, asking whether the image they project corresponds to the true status of women and their psychology, or to the anima of men, concluding that they are not mutually exclusive and that women influence the anima of men, and conversely; she also considers the impact of the tale-teller's gender on this reading (von Franz 1972, Simonsen 1981).

Historical studies have also addressed sex and gender in fairy tales. Yvan Loskoutoff linked their appearance in the late seventeenth century, and the artificial recreation of an "innocent" folk tradition through a falsely naïve and childlike style, with a precise historical moment: before a mystical Catholic reform movement led by a woman, Madame Guyon (1648–1717), and supported tacitly by François Fénelon (1651–1715), was actually condemned. This was a form of the repuerascentia advocated by Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469–1536), a devotional cult of the infant Jesus demanding a spiritual metamorphosis that embraced all the phases of childhood (Loskoutoff 1988). In 1695 Madame Guyon was arrested for heresy, and the fact that tales like "The Patient Griselda" and "Donkey Skin" were found in her papers was apparently held against her (Loskoutoff 1988). Many tale writers at the time—including Perrault—would have felt the impact of this doctrine, but the vogue of mystical childishness was particularly strong among women of the court, who reproduced it in the carefully contrived style of fairy tales (Loskoutoff 1987). It has also been suggested that fairy tales, commencing with the Italian versions of the sixteenth century, were from the onset embroiled in pedagogical debates on the independence of children from mothers, who become bad-fairy types, in parallel with the masculine forms of authority such as State and Reason, and against whom childhood learned to seek freedom. Another avenue is to read the tales of women writers, like Mademoiselle L'Héritier, in the light of Norbert Elias's work on court culture, and analyze their representation of the "euphemization of violence" and the extolling of ancient warrior virtues or obsolete chivalry models (Velay-Vallantin 1988, p. 66).

Catherine Velay-Vallantin thus provided a rich interdisciplinary interpretation of the confluence of "Little Red Riding Hood" with eighteenth-century southern French legends of the Beast of Gévaudan that brings together history, theology, sociology, folklore, and the study of fairy-tale illustrations. She has shown how this nexus of tales conjoined to instill fear in women, but also in the population at large, in the context of an antiheretical witch hunt, with a silenced practice of rape and murder against young women by their own kin in a culture where inheritance is a strong economic focus (Velay-Vallantin 1998).

Fairy and folk magic tales have been read as complicit in a lethal acculturation of girls and women into passivity, obedience, and silence, stressing a normative and repressive sex/gender ideology (Bottigheimer 1987, Marin 1996, Tatar 1992). However, other studies, especially of the literary corpus, have focused on their destabilizing potential, for instance by deconstructing masculinity (Seifert 1996). Ritual and symbolic material has been analyzed to reveal an imaginary of sex and power that confers active and transgressive roles on women (Sautman 1986, 1989). These viewpoints may not be as mutually exclusive as they first appear, since the corpus of fairy and magic tales is immense and extremely variable by writer, literary moment, region and sub-region, and tale type.

The representation of sex and gender in folk magic tales need not be traditionalist and misogynistic. The folk versions of tales that are easy targets of feminist criticism, such as "Cinderella" or "Little Red Riding Hood," can project more "woman-centered" messages. The folk variants of "Cinderella" are of the Ashputtle type in the English tradition, a tale that focuses on female bonding and the power of protective female ghosts, as opposed to hostile ones, and have generated feminist rewritings (Carter, Donoghue). While the Aarne-Thompson typology labels tale type 313A as "the Girl as Helper of the Hero on his Flight," the ethnologist Claude Gaignebet returns the focus to the girl when he dubs it "the demonic fiancée" or "devil's daughter." "Demonic" is not necessarily evil at all, but pertains to an imaginary of power and poetics of ritual that counter the pattern of "victim awaiting savior." In this type, women have magical and shamanistic functions: When the young man needs a tall object, he must kill the girl and boil her, and then put all the bones back, but he forgets one, and she is thus left with a defective foot or limb, a demonic mark. Cinderella also shows the demonic limping function, as she has only one shoe, with a foot that fits no humanly known size; this signals her as an Otherworldly being who leaves traces in the hearth, an identity confirmed by the glass slipper: The French verre (glass) is homonymous with vert (green), and thus she hails from the green mountain which is also the glass mountain, the Glastonbury of British fairy lore.

The nineteenth-century and twentieth-century French folk versions of "Little Red Riding Hood"—whose eleventh-century version stressed protection through religious ritual and color symbolism, not terror and punishment (Berlioz 1994)—depart both from Perrault's dire ending, and from Grimm's masculinist one with the manly hunters freeing the women from the beast's stomach—a version not in the German oral tradition at all, but derived from the French and found in Italian Tyrol (Verdier 1997). In the folk versions, the resourceful and brave little girl outwits the wolf. These tales are filled with gendered and erotic rituals, through the motifs of pins and needles, and the girl's cannibalistic repast, as well as scatological elements mobilized by the child to her advantage (Verdier 1997).

Thus, in the name of greater antiquity—the folk versions are recorded later, so they do not matter—many scholars have tended to privilege literary versions of tales that exist in both registers, or to glide over authentic folk origins as unimportant (for instance in the well-established treatment of the Grimm brothers' texts as oral tradition). They thus ignore or obliterate the unsettling, even disturbing, content of the folk versions. The latter prove unruly not merely with respect to female acculturation into the sex/gender order, but to the veiling and silencing of sexual matters. Scholarship on the literary tales of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has greatly illuminated the gender gaps and gender disobedience of these tales; the task remains to bridge the gap between the two bodies of tales and recognize the unique contribution of the folk tradition to non-normative readings of sex and gender.

see also Big Bad Wolf; Little Red Riding Hood.



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                                  Francesca Canadé Sautman

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