“They show us that even if something doesn’t work the first try, you try again,” Baumgartner said. “I think that that appeals to human nature. We like to try and retry and get it right at the end.”
Fairy tales have, by nature of what they are, been tried and tried again as they’ve been reworked and retold throughout the world.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint” where fairy tales come from, McNeill said. They’ve existed in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. The earliest Cinderella-type tale, she said, was documented more than 3,000 years ago in China.
“Fairy tales come from many, many different sources,” Zipes said. “The origins go way, way back, and they were quite often told for different social purposes that became part of customs and belief systems of people throughout the world.”
There are two explanations for a story turning up all over the world, McNeill said. “Either a whole bunch of people in a bunch of different places for some perhaps inherent psychological reason began telling the same story, all at the same time, or much more likely is that members of cultures who traveled and visited other places have, over the course of thousands and thousands of years, been telling each other stories, and those stories get shaped by the different people who tell them.”
The challenge of tracing a fairy tale to its roots is part of why the oldest stories cannot be attributed to a single person. For that reason, what are generally considered to be fairy tales don’t come from a particular author or publisher, McNeill said.
“We tend to get our fairy tales and folklores out of books,” she said. “Even those books aren’t authored pieces of work; they’re books of collections. The Grimm brothers, for example, didn’t write their stories; they collected them.”
When it comes to those collections, several elements distinguish a fairy tale from other stories.
Fairy tales mostly differ from other folk narratives, McNeill said, because they are told as fiction.
“When we tell a fairy tale, we tell it, ‘Once upon a time in a land far, far away,’ which immediately sets it apart from the realities of life,” she said. “We’ve got that distinction that we’re dealing with a fictional story. Therefore we accept all the strangeness without doubt.”
Fairy tales, in their most basic form, often differ in length — they’re generally short — from many stories of other genres, Baumgartner said, though there are always exceptions.
A fairy tale, she added, is “usually a shorter narrative that has a fantastic or a marvelous or an unreal element. Fairy tales usually, not always, but usually end with a happy ending. They are very optimistic tales and they usually show an underdog succeeding, the third brother or the youngest sister or a member of society who is at the margins.”
The success of a suppressed central character is often one of the defining elements of a fairy tale.
“These tales generally involve some type of miraculous transformation and the survival of a hero or heroine who is either persecuted or given enormous tasks to do, and they succeed,” Zipes said.
With all of their pieces, fairy tales have a long history of not only entertaining audiences but also helping people cope with their surroundings.
“I think people have made up fairy tales from the beginning in order to deal with their environment and to sort of make sense of the world that they couldn’t understand,” Baumgartner said.
Fairy tales, Zipes said, “enable us to talk indirectly but nevertheless to talk about some very troublesome problems that we still have in our society,” such as child abandonment in Hansel and Gretel and predators in Little Red Riding Hood.
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