The Origin and Evolution of Fairy Tales

According to Hamilton and Mitch, a Folk Tale is a story which has been handed down from person to person for generations and generations. Therefore, one of the most important identifying features of a folk tale is that it belongs to an entire culture, rather than to an individual. For this reason, folk tales give us many insights into the cultures from which they spring. While some of the stories may have originated as literary tales, they became part of the oral tradition as they were told over and over. The characters tend to be somewaht one-dimensional, stereotypes of ordinary people (for example, an evil old man or a wise woman). However, extraordinary things do happen to them. The themes in folk tales are universal and timeless. Folk tales generally lack descriptive passages and rely almost exclusively on plot. A Fairy Tale is sub-type of folktale where it tends to be the longest, most descriptive, and most complicated compared with other types of folktales, like legend, myth, and fable. (Hamilton and Mitch) In this sense, the story of Cinderella is a Fairy Tale; it has all the extremely detailed description even in the earliest form.

The Origin of Fairy Tales

However, once Upon a Time, fairy tales weren’t written for children. In spite of their name, the popular fairy tales usually have very little to do with fairies. We took the name from the French “contes des fee”, and the French literary fairy tales of the 17th century do feature far more fairies than the tales which are best-known today. The Grimm brothers collected the folk tales of the German people to make up their volume, but fairy tales are more than just folk tales. The German term for them is “M�rchen”, a word for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent – it is the diminutive of M�r, a story or a tale, and has come to mean a story of wonder and enchantment, as the fairy tale is.

Although large numbers of literary fairy tales were written in 17th century France, most of the tales which are still told and retold now are far older in origin. Many of the stories were edited and changed as they were written down, removing the darker and more gruesome elements of the stories. The intended audience of the stories has also changed. Perrault’s collection of tales was written to be presented at the court of Versailles, and each tale ended with a moralistic verse. At the same time, literary fairy tales of great imagination and invention, often quite cruel and gruesome, were being created by the women surrepticiously rebelling against the contraints placed on them by their restrictive society. They were not written for children.

The Tellers of Fairy Tales

Today, when asked to name authors of fairy tales, most people now (if they knew at all) would answer the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault, and perhaps Hans Christian Andersen.

Yet throughout history, fairy tales have been women’s stories, passed down orally by the mothers and grandmothers. When the tales began to be a literary form, the number and output of female authors vastly exceeds that of the males. The Grimm Brothers collected their tales from peasants and edited them to suit their audience; most of Perrault’s stories are retellings of old tales. Although the female authors included familiar elements, their now-forgotten tales were largely more inventive, original and fantastical than their male counterparts – and frequently nastier, too.

The Authors of the Literary Fairy Tale

In 1634, a cycle of fifty tales was published by Giambattista Basile, in which can be found some of the earliest written versions of familiar stories like “Sleeping Beauty”. Basile’s tone is bawdy and comic; his narrators within the tale are old women, hags, crones and old gossips, the stereotypical tellers of the “old wives’ tale”.

The women who brought the literary fairy tale to popularity fifty years or so later were anything but “old wives”. The story which marked the beginning of the form was written by the Countess d’Aulnoy, an aristocratic woman who tried to implicate her husband in a crime of high treason, but was discovered, and managed to flee Paris. She had been married to the husband at the age of 15; he was 30 years her senior, and a gambler and libertine. The cruelty of enforced marriages is remarked on by the heroines of many of her stories, and the tales of other women of the time. 30 years after fleeing Paris (she returned in 1685), Mme d’Aulnoy is thought to have assisted a friend to kill her husband, who had abused her. The friend was beheaded.

The Countess de Murat was banished from Louis XIV’s court in Paris for publishing a political satire about him; she then shocked the people of Loches, where she had her chateau, by holding gatherings where she and her friends would dance, talk, and tell fairy tales, as in the salons of Paris. Her tales concern marriage, the power struggles of the aristocracy, and true love. They do not always have a happy ending, either.

Marie-Jeanne L’ Heritier led a less controversial life. She did not marry, choosing to dedicate herself to writing. Her father was a historian and writer, her sister was a poet. She was also the niece of Charles Perrault, and quite likely influenced his interested in fairy tales. Her “Adventures of Finette” features a a heroine who wins by her wits, in spite of two lazy sisters and an evil prince.

Voicing the Unspoken

In a time of political censorship, where women had few rights, fairy tales were one way that they could make their opinions known. The fairies themselves in the tales often stand for the aristocrats, having power over many but often caring little, bickering amongst themselves, concerned with their own power struggles. The heroines comment on the double-standards of the times, arranged marriages, and the false glory of war; the tales also illustrate the authors’ ideas on the standards of correct manners, justice and love.

The tales were also written in opposition to the literary establishment at the time, which championed Classical literature as the standard for French writers to follow. Fairy tales were modelled on French folklore and the courtly love of medieval literature. When Perrault joined them in writing fairy tales, he was taking a stand for the modern style and for women’s tales (although his tales did not exactly feature liberates females). The “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” was part of the society which the fairy tales rebelled against – for most women there was no choice over which side to take, as they weren’t thought worth eductating in Latin and Greek anyway. Instead of being forced out, they formed their own style.

Women’s Tales

Women’s talk has been frightening and dangerous since even before the Church taught that Eve’s words tempted Adam and led to the fall. St Paul wrote that women should be silent, and warned against their idle gossip. The talk of wmone was seductive and wicked.

Fairy tales and their relatives, myth and folklore, have always been tied in with women’s wisdom and power. The tellers of the tales were often the older women, passing on experience to the young, telling tales which outlined social functions and places, which saw the virtuous rewarded, and adversity overcome. While people worked at boring tasks, at sewing and spinning, tales would be told. While the voices of the women were unheard politically, they were passing on knowledge to the young.

The best-known tales today are the ones collected by the Grimms and written by Perrault, changed to favour the charming Prince rather than the clever heroine. Even so, throughout the tales still read today can still be found traces of messages about the lives the tellers read, from step-mother to mother-in-law to childbirth, their greatest killer for many years. Modern writers are returning to fairy tale themes to produce great works, taking them out of the children’s nusery and back where they belong.

The Cinderella Fairy Tale

Cinderella, as a well-studied case of fairy tales, has many different versions.

Different versions of the stories ended in different ways. Perrault’s version is perhaps the one that has been adopted the most widely; it ends on a happy note, with Cinderella forgiving her stepmother and stepsisters. The Brothers Grimm incorporated more graphic details into their texts; for example, when the stepsisters try on the glass slipper and find it doesn’t fit them, they cut off their toes to make it fit properly. Rossini’s opera uses bracelets instead of glass slippers, and the Disney version incorporates subplots involving talking animals that live in the house with Cinderella.

As one of the best-known fairy tales, Cinderella has over 340 variations and can be traced back as far 850-60 CE (Common Era), where a version was written down in China.

The Chinese Cinderella was taken down from a family servant, but the text makes clear that the audience already know the tale. The ill-treatment from the stepmother and stepsisters, the festival where Cinderella (Yeh-hsien) loses her shoe, the local warlord who wishes to marry the owner of the shoe, are all there. There is also a magical golden fish which appears in the pond and comforts Yeh-hsien, until the stepmother discovers this and has it killed. (Louie)

The bones of the fish in the Chinese story work the magic which helps Cinderella. In “Rashin Coatie”, the Scottish version of the tale, Cinderella’s dead mother returns in the form of a calf, who helps Cinderella. Even when the calf is killed, it contines to help and protect her. In the version collected by the Grimm brothers a hazel tree grows over the dead mother’s grave, and the tree shakes down the dresses Cinderella wears to the ball. It also shelters the dovers which help and protect her, and in the end peck out the sisters’ eyes. The Grimms’ version also includes the sisters hacking off their heels and toes in order to squeeze their feet into the shoes.

Perrault’s version gives Cinderella a godmother with no apparent connection to the spirit of her mother; it is this version which gives us the pumpkin, mice and fairy godmother, and which has become the most well-known version of the tale. The dead mother (and Cinderella’s ashes imply mourning) who watches over her daughter disappears.

There are also similarities between the Cinderella story and “Donkeyskin”; there are many tales in which the heroine is a servant who dresses up in magical clothing and wins over the Prince, but is unrecognized in her rags by day. In “Donkeyskin” however, the heroine is not maltreated by her stepmother, but runs away from home to escape the incestuous intentions of her own father, which is no doubt why the story is little-known today. It was included in Perrault’s collection of tales, and variations on it abound.

Conclusion and Modern Fairy Tales

Cinderella, in its western form, has consistently been rewritten and analyzed since Perrault first published “Cendrillon” in France in 1697. It was first translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm included it in “Kinder- und Hausm�rchen”, the first edition of which was published in 1812, the last in 1857. The composer Gioachino Rossini turned it into the opera “La Cenerentola” in 1817, Rodgers and Hammerstein into a musical theater production, and it has been the subject of many films, most notably the 1950 Disney animated film “Cinderella”, a 1955 film “The Glass Slipper” starring Leslie Caron, and a 1960 gender change in “Cinderfella”, starring Jerry Lewis.

Much has been written on the subject of Cinderella, perhaps because it has become such a big part of American culture. Some have written about it as a reworking of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, where a daughter is cast out by her father because she is misunderstood. The small slipper is said to symbolize the beauty of Cinderella, because small feet were said to be a virtue of femininity. Psychoanalysis from the Freudian viewpoint has considered Cinderella’s relationship to her father and her stepmother, and her eventual overtaking of power from the stepmother. The feminist viewpoint has been that the story has exemplified ideals for women in America, particularly in the 1950s, when the film versions were released; the idea of being rewarded for being pretty and polite, and marrying not just anyone but a “prince,” is looked upon as part of the message taught to women from the 1950s onward. The evolution of traditional fairy tales will continue as a trend.

Works Cited


Hamilton, Martha and Mitch, Weiss. Children Tell Stories: A Teaching Guide. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Louie, Ai-ling. A Cinderella Story From China. Philomel Books, 1982.


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