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Fairy Tales 101: The Origins of Fairy Tales


Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped to shape the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of these tales, these 101 series of articles aims to delve deeper into the beginning of fairytales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairytales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.

Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:

• The Origin of Fairy Tales

• Once upon a time: The Oldest Fairytale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

• Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

• Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty

• The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid

• The 21st Century Fairytale: A modern twist on traditional works.

The Origin of Fairy Tales

Figure 1: Illustration of Story Book by Kraisercraft (n.d)

Fairy tales constitute a significant part of a child’s upbringing, as they can be both entertaining and educational. As they fall under the umbrella of “Children Literature”, adults rarely give much thought to these stories as they seem innocent, simple and shallow. However, fairy tales have been around for centuries and were passed on from one generation to the other. They are universal, used by parents, kindergartens and schools across the globe. Additionally, the classic fairy tales have even been animated and showcased on both the small and big screen. This article series will be taking a trip down memory lane, to rediscover these nostalgic tales and try to uncover their concealed implications. But, first, it is necessary to explore the genre itself and unfold its origins, which are often overlooked.

Much like novels, fairy tales first began as an oral tradition and developed to become a written practice. Seifert (2006)criticizes “the lack of documentation of oral fairytales” that led to the loss of their origins and anonymity of authorship.According to Rahman (2017), fairy tale’s oral roots make it hard to trace back the source of these stories, as multiple versions circulated before their written adaptations. He defines the fairytale as “a kind of storytelling that typically features fabled fantasy characters and explicitly moral tales”. Mostly, these stories were told by parents to their children, masking morals and life lessons with amusing characters and a magical setting. The iconic “Once upon a time” is meant to blur the space-timesetting, making it universal. Another feature of fairy tales is the closing sentence “they lived happily ever after”, which immerses the child in an enchanted world, unrestricted by time or space. According to Zehetner (2013), this ending also counteracts “a child’s separation anxiety”. The original goal of fairy tales is mainly educational, as parents try to develop their child’s imagination, but also their love for reading, by presenting interesting and diverting stories. Also, Rahman (2017) argues that through these tales “parents also seek to instill new knowledge, habits, values, and behavior patterns”.

Figure 2: Illustration of Children Story coming out of a Book by (2019)

In addition, another key feature in fairytales is their stereotypical characters: the damsel in distress, Prince Charming, the evil step-mother or queen, witches, and the mentor. The brave and fearless hero often has to go on a quest or journey in order to save the helpless and innocent princess. Rahman (2014) argues that “The quest brings about the transformation of the hero from the state of innocence to the state of awareness or knowledge, thus from childhood to adulthood”. Fairytales not only have a structured plot and a predictable ending, they also present archetypal characters that look alike in terms of narrated description. Rahman (2014) mentions that “the heroes and heroines are usually young, innocent and isolated, ideally beautiful or handsome, or when not charming, they possess a noble heart”. To add another layer of misfortune to the hero, they are typically abandoned orphans or have only one parent. This awakens empathy in the reader, who feels sadness and pity. In consequence, the hero will need a guide to teach and help them in difficult situations. This is where the wise mentor interferes. Rahman (2014) further explains that “The hero meets the Mentor to gain confidence, insight, advice, training, or magical gifts to overcome the initial fears and face the threshold of the adventure”.

A significant turning point in the history of fairytales occurred at the French Royal court during the late 17th century, where “salons” were held to exchange these stories. This rapidly became a renowned trend that aided the popularity of the genre. It is believed that this ritual inspired the French author Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who published a variety of stories named Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. Perrault believed that fairytales are "tales that our ancestors invented for their children” (1697). Davidson et al. (2006) discusses Perrault’s works, mentioning that his tales were “distinguished by the fact that they all appeared freestanding, without the literary device of a framing tale”. He adds that he employed simple diction and “his uncomplicated linear plots proceeded to endings embellished by socially acceptable morals” (2006). Thus, it is not uncommon to consider him the father of the fairytale.

Figure 3: Illustration of a scene from The Sleeping Beauty by Richard Doyle (1863)

Perrault was later followed by the Brothers Grimm’s works,which took a more political and national aspect. According to Hasse (1993) “Grimm’s collection of folktales was conscripted into nationalistic service and became a political weapon in the Grimms' intellectual resistance to the Napoleonic occupation of their beloved Hessian homeland”. However, this has led to some repercussions, which Hasse (1993) described as “the abuse of the Grimm’s tales by the culture industry of National Socialism”. Consequently, people become prejudiced when it came to the Grimm’s tales and began to associate them solely with the German identity.

Despite these primal beliefs, nowadays, fairy tales remain universal, as they speak general socially accepted norms of conduct. This is proven by the widespread popularity of fairytales that have stood the test of times and are still famous in the 21st century. That fame is partly due to the fact that the characters of these stories do not belong to any grey area, as Nikolajeva (2003) argues. She states that “its characters are either thoroughly good or thoroughly evil; they are not allowed any doubts or hesitation, or in general any ethical choices”.

Figure 4: Illustration of the Brothers Grimm by Eric Lynx Lin (2018)

To sum up, fairaytales' oral tradition blurred their origins and made the tracing of their primary manuscripts and authors a difficult task for scholars to to complete. However, the recognition of these tales lie in this vagueness whether in terms of time, place or characters. Their most important feature is the universal norms and social rules convey and transmit to children.


Davidson, H. E., Davidson, H. R. E., & Chaudhri, A. (Eds.).(2006). A companion to the fairytale. DS Brewer.

Haase, D. (1993). Yours, mine, or ours? Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and the ownership of fairy tales. Merveilles & contes, 383-402.

Nikolajeva, M. (2003). Fairy tale and fantasy: From archaic to postmodern. Marvels & Tales, 17(1), 138-156.

Rahman, F. (2017). The revival of local fairy tales for children education. Theory and Practice in language Studies, 7(5), 336.

Rahman, G. (2014). The Archetypes of Hero and Hero's Journey in Five Grimm's Fairy Tales. Yogyakarta State University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Seifert, L. C., Velay-Vallantin, C., & Bottigheimer, R. B. (2006).Comments on Fairy Tales and Oral Tradition [with Reply]. Marvels & Tales, 20(2), 276–284.

Zehetner, A. (2013). Why fairy tales are still relevant to today's children. Journal of paediatrics and child health, 49(2), 161-162.

Pictures References

Figure 1. Kraisercraft (n.d) Story Book [Digital Illustration], ScrapBookYourFamilyTree.

Figure 2. (2019) Children Story coming out of a Book[Stock Illustration], istockphoto.

Figure 3. Richard Doyle (1863) Scene from “The Sleeping Beauty” [Painting], MutualArt.

Figure 4. Eric Lynx Lin (2018) Brothers Grimm [Digital Illustration], ArtStation.

1 Comment

Fascinatng reading. Excited to read the next parts of the series!

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Elsa Abdallah

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