Once upon a time
Once upon a time, there was a literary genre commonly known as fairy tales. They were mystical and wonderful and a child’s fantasy. These fairy tales were drastically misunderstood throughout many centuries, however. They endured a hard life of constantly changing and editing to fit what the people of that time wanted. People of our own time are responsible for some of the radical changes endured by this underserved genre. Now, these fairy tales had a young friend named Belle. Belle thought she knew fairy tales very well, but one day she found out just how wrong she was.
On this particular day, she was walking through the woods, singing and skipping merrily along. All of a sudden, there was a sound behind her. As she turned around to see what it was, she noticed a strange looking treasure chest. She walked over to the chest and opened it, completely unaware of the knowledge she would find inside. While she was walking toward it, strange music began to fill her ears. A deep feeling of dread entered her heart as she tiptoed up to the chest. Should she go on? Should she remain in her fantasy of gold and riches to come, or accept the possible danger to have what’s inside the chest? Overcome with curiosity, she made her decision. This is the story of what she found.
Before you can understand what it is exactly that Belle found, you must know her preconceived presumptions about fairy tales. Now as we all know, a fairy tale is a story that includes many magical and wonderful elements that come together to tell about a hero’s adventure. They often begin with the words “Once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after”. Always mystical and enchanting, they draw you in and make you sympathize with one of the characters. This character is usually very good, poor, and misunderstood or mistreated. Through a series of circumstances usually involving a little magic and heroism, this character escapes the hold of the evil villain of the story and overcomes their bad situation. Typically, the story does not take place anywhere specific. Rather, the action will happen in a very generic place such as the woods. They are the stories of your childhood.
Knowing this as we all do, Belle had always loved fairy tales. They made her feel special, like a princess – despite her own bad situation. You see, she lived in a huge mansion with long corridors, huge chandeliers, and butlers. This doesn’t sound bad, but what she saw of it on a typical day were the dark cellar and the washroom. She and her family were servants here, though treated more like slaves. The only time she was ever able to just be a child was when the household was out at the latest ball or party. Then Belle would sneak up into the library that was filled the floor to ceiling with all kinds of books, and spend hours with the fairy tales. So, what was it that she discovered that dark day in the woods?
Peering into the treasure chest, a small gasp slipped out of Belle’s mouth as she began to see the truth about her friends. Laying on a crimson cloth was a book titled “Cinderella”. Delighted to find one of her favorite fairy tales, Belle sat under a tree and began to read. Her delight soon turned to disgust as she realized it was not the fairytale she loved. Overcome at the gruesome, gory details of this version, Belle quickly slammed the book shut and threw it. As she did this, she noticed an inscription on the side of the chest. It read, “Here lies the truth of fairy tales. Believe only what you have been made to see and cursed you will be. Read of the truth of these beloved tales, and the streets will fill with the child’s wails.” Shocked and scared, Belle ran through the woods to her house as fast as she could. She flew down the stairs to their dark cellar and slammed the door behind her. She fell to her knees and began to sob. Seeing her tears and knowing her one love in life, her wise father came over and sat down beside her.
“Don’t cry, little one. It’s time you knew the truth.”, said her father as he wiped a tear off her cheek. “You see, long ago when fairy tales were first born, they were very different from what you know now. They weren’t near as sweet and they certainly weren’t meant for children. In fact, they weren’t books at all. They were stories told throughout the generations by the mothers and grandmothers. Oftentimes, women would share these stories during the menial tasks they performed. Originally, they were even more wondrous than those you love now, but also much gorier and gruesome. The mothers and grandmothers would use these stories to pass on their life experience to younger generations.”
“Just like what you and mam do for me!”, exclaimed Belle.
“It was just like that. Little by little, these stories gained popularity. Sometimes those the peasants worked for would even listen to their tales. Soon after, preachers began using these tales in their sermons and troubadours would capture an audience using the same tales. It really gave the peasants a feeling of value and helped establish their place in their communities. Around the 15th century, the printing press was invented.”, he explained.
“I remember reading about that in one of Mistress’s books. Johannes Gutenberg invented it, right?”, Belle asked.
“That’s exactly right. That printing press allowed these oral tales to be written down and distributed. Throughout the coming years, the stories were printed. However, it was also during this time that they began to be changed. You see, the peasants were poor and uneducated. They wouldn’t have been able to read these stories. So when they were written, they were also changed to fit the audience – the aristocracy and the middle classes, those that could read. They were widely accepted especially by the women of this time. They would hold parlor games where everyone had to come up with their own wondrous tale in a battle of wits. It was these parlor games, where the term Conte de fees, meaning fairy tale, was first used. The aristocratic women would use these stories to share their political opinions. It was an age of political censorship and women had few rights.”
“You mean, they weren’t allowed to just say what they thought?”, gasped a confused Belle.
“No, they weren’t. Soon after, fairy tales received a second purpose. In France, a controversy arose overwriting styles. The literary establishment desired that all authors conform to the classical literary style instead of the modern style that was arising. It was in the 17th century that Charles Perrault, a French author, and lawyer, wrote down one of the first collections of fairy tales. His writings were a protest not only against the modern style but also of women’s tales which were often overlooked. Thus, the literary genre was born in France around the 17th century.”
“I like him.”, Belle mused.
“Many people did. His stories were quite popular. They began to be circulated by peddlers all over the surrounding countries. For the lower and some of the middle classes, they were shortened and changed to be simpler and easier to read. They gradually changed enough to become somewhat suitable for children. By the 18th century, even many of the aristocratic and bourgeois children had been introduced. In the 19th century, there was something called the German Romantic movement. During this movement, fairy tales became even more suitable and acceptable for children, though they were not considered “healthy” reading material. The Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm and Jakob, played a large part in this shift of fairy tale audience. In 1812, they published their first collection of fairy tales after having changed them. They added Christian sentiments and removed the more gruesome elements. However, they stayed true to the original wondrous storylines. In 1823, Edgar Taylor released a translation of the tales by the Brothers Grimm called German Popular Stories. Also in 1835, Hans Christian Anderson began to publish his tales. With the help of these four men and the German Romantic movement, it gradually becomes okay for children to read these stories – even just for fun. People had previously had it in their minds that everything children read had to teach them something. While these stories often had morals, it became acceptable for children to read them simply for the pleasure of reading them. As a result, we are left with the wonderfully enchanting stories that every child loves.”, he concluded.
“Wow, I never knew that fairy tales had such a complicated history. But why was Cinderella the one in the chest?”, she questioned.
“Well, Cinderella is one of the ones that has been changed the most. There have been over 340 variations of the story you know and love today. Charles Perrault most likely wrote the story that you have always read. Originally, Cinderella’s evil stepsisters endured some horrific things such as cutting off parts of their own feet in order to try to fit into the slippers and in the end getting their eyes pecked out for punishment.”, he elucidated.
“Now I see why they weren’t meant for children. So now that I know the truth about fairy tales, what do I do?”
“Well, first of all, hold on to the stories you’ve always loved. Cherish them and keep the enchantment alive. Second of all, remember this: Fairy tales have always changed with the culture. They reflect the current culture and even play a part in shaping it. As communities change, they change with it. Why don’t you try telling your own story? You can rewrite one with the elements of today’s culture, or you can write your own and set the tone for a whole new generation. It’s your choice. Although one thing’s for certain. No matter what your circumstances are, you define your happily ever after.”, he said.
So Belle went on to become one of the many lovers of these misunderstood fairy tales. And Belle and her father lived happily ever after.