Questioning Fairy Tales

I’ve always been interested in folk and fairy tales, as far back as I can remember.  I grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales, as a lot of people like me do, and for a long time I thought that was that: Grimm’s was how a fairy tale should be told.

Later, of course, I started discovering fairy tales from other countries and saw similar versions of tales from Grimm’s.  I read both Edward William Lane’s and Sir Richard Francis Burton’s versions of The Thousand and One Nights, and discovered just how much was getting bowdlerized out of certain books.  I read The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim and started thinking about what fairy tales are for.  I had even read several versions of fairy-tale collections that gave the “original, uncensored!” versions of classic fairy tales.

Then, last year, I read The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Talesrecorded by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, edited by Erica Eichenseer, and translated by Maria Tatar.


I hadn’t realized how much the Brothers Grimm had removed from their retellings of folktales intended for children.  It’s a lot:

  • Extramarital sex.
  • Defectation.
  • Gender-reversing tales.
  • Tales about adult situations, that is, themes that kids and teen wouldn’t care about, like quality of life in old age and how to die happy.

I assumed, because I had grown up reading tales from the Brothers Grimm, that their versions of the tales–even their selection of the tales–constituted a sort of “default.”  Other collections of fairy tales, like Andrew Lang’s color-titled fairy books (The Pink Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), also tended to aim their fairy tales toward children, often watering down already watered-down versions.  Even collections of tales from other countries tend censor themselves.

Most existing fairy-tale collections for children seem to bias themselves in several ways:

  • The stories that were not that meaningful for children or young adults tended to be absent, either not recorded or removed.
  • Elements of stories that were deemed “not appropriate” for children were removed.
  • A strong bias toward raising “good” children who valued whatever the anthologists (e.g., the Brothers Grimm) valued was inserted–no more gender-reversal tales where the prince has to be rescued in Brothers Grimm, even though such tales are included in The Turnip Princess.

About the same time that I read The Turnip Princess, I also read The Tale of Tales, also known as The Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile, who collected and amended fairy tales in 17th-Century Italy.  This is another collection of folk and fairy tales that was never intended for children (although it claims to be entertainment for children!).  Lots of sleeping around, gossip, spitting (if you have a serious issue with being grossed out by spitting, you may want to skip reading this, seriously), and backstabbery.

These aren’t tales for children in the sense that most of them don’t address the issues of children or young adults, either.  The stories tend toward topics of getting ahead in life, when it’s okay to trick someone in business, and what sleeping around on your spouse is going to get you (generally, murdered).

I’m sure there’s still bias in there; after last year’s adventures in more adult fairy tales, I kind of just assume that all fairy tales are told with several levels of bias.  But previously, I had no idea.  I just thought the Brothers Grimm approach to editing and selecting tales was the right, correct, default one.

My suspicion is that it’s difficult to question an assumption that you already have on every level.  But this one hit me particularly hard.  I was supposed to be “good” at fairy tales, although (I would say with false modesty), I was no expert.

Maybe that’s just it, though:  until you’ve had your assumptions shaken to the core, until the very idea of becoming an expert at a thing becomes, at some secret, internal level, somewhat laughable, you’re not going to progress beyond a beginner’s ignorance.

No matter how many books you read.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *