Cross Culture Fairy Tales
Seminar in Contemporary Issues-Storytelling
San Jose State University
April 19, 2013
Prof. Elizabeth Wrenn-Estes
Fairy tales, many of which were drawn from folk tales, have been developed over the course of many years. They frequently involve magic, fairies, a moral structure. European authors such as the Grimm brothers and Charles Perrault popularized the fairy tale overseas, while in America, Walt Disney solidified the popularity of fairy tales with his movies. These stories have developed over time, not just by their modernization, but by being retold in different cultures. These stories often share the same characters, but the names of these characters tends to reflect the culture that the story is being presented to. Cross culture fairy tales also tend to have slightly different structural elements.
Introduction to Fairy Tales
A princess, an evil dragon, and a multitude of spritely fairies; these are the some of the familiar elements in the fairy tale genre. These stories are magical in more ways than one. The reader knows that the characters in them are frequently tested. In addition, they are sometimes noble and sometimes rascals. These stories have achieved great popularity among children. One of the reasons for this is that they have a great moral clarity: evil is very wicked and good is very pure. As Wendy Smith (2013) states:
Folk tales are rooted in the most universal and fundamental human emotions: love, hate, jealousy, envy, greed, fear, ambition. Pride is a mortal sin, kindness the cardinal virtue; these are the values of people who see the world as a dangerous place, where a helping hand may be required to snatch you from the clutches of capricious fate. The ubiquity of magical creatures and events hints at an underlying understanding that in reality happy endings are hard to come by–that without supernatural assistance, Cinderella would still be sleeping in the ashes after a hard day’s work and the miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin” would have been put to death for failing to spin straw into gold (Smith 2013).
It is difficult to say when exactly fairy tales began to be told since stories regarding magic have been told for thousands of years. Fairy tales have always had a very strong connection with folk tales. In fact, they were first born “from the deﬁnite structure and universal form of folk tales” (AYOB & ASMA 2010). However, while folk tales tell stories about ordinary people who perform the mundane chores in life and who get into everyday conflicts, fairy tales tell about kings, princesses, and magical beings. They also frequently tell stories about ordinary people whose station in life becomes elevated throughout the course of the story. For example, both Cinderella and Snow White both marry princes at the end of their stories and live happily ever after in castles (Bottigheimer 2006).
Fairy tales gained a great deal of popularity in European countries. It is surely true that “the creation of the archetypal fairy tale narrative owes much to the medieval convention of courtly love” which was so popular in Europe while it also began to move “away from epic hero narratives” (AYOB & ASMA 2010). Fairy tales were certainly told for years in Anglo-Saxon countries (Smith 2013). The first reference to the fairy tale occurred in 1697 when French author Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy officially coined the term “contes de fées, literally ‘tales about fairies.’” However she never explained this name or gave any reason for using it and so its origins remain somewhat mysterious (Zipes 2011).
Technology has had an influence on how these stories have been passed down through the years. As they were being established, they were spread orally and by print. Now in modern times, they are also shared on the internet and film. Zipes (2011) was particularly in favor of the oral tradition as he states:
The fairy tale refused to be dominated by print and continued to be altered and diffused throughout the world by word of mouth up to the present. That is, it shaped and was shaped by the interaction of orality and print and other technological mediations and innovations, such as painting, photography, radio, film, and so on (Zipes 2011).
Zipes continues with this idea when he discusses how the lower classes helped pass down stories by word of mouth while the upper classes contributed to the handing down of fairy tales by writing them down. He states: “the fairy tale adapted itself and was transformed by common nonliterate people and by upper-class literate people.” The many adaptions that fairy tales have gone through also supports the notions that fairy tales were shared orally. Philip Pullman once stated that “the fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration” (Smith 2013). It is also fascinating to consider that while these stories were being shared, they were “constantly being reworked and adapted to reveal new facets of a culture or the creativity of an author or storyteller” (Kuykendal & Sturm 2007).
America is recently founded country and (except for the traditions of the American Indians) does not have the long history of culture or fairy stories that European countries have developed over hundreds of years. In modern times, however, Walt Disney contributed to making the fairy tale popular in America when he famously used fairy tales as subjects for his movies.
Here is an example of an American Indian story. It is told by storyteller Gregg Howard.
Fairy Tales in Modern Times
Modern movie culture in America, which has always lead the film industry throughout the world, has brought back fairy tales and made them relevant to the modern audiance by exploring their darker elements and playing up the action in them. This can be seen in movies such as “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Jack the Giant Slayer,” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
Some modern critics have not accepted the popularity of fairy tales since these stories do not always reflect the cultural trends in modern times. In particular, the passive roles of women in fairy tales has received a fair amount of criticism. While reflecting on this issue, it is important accept the stories for what they are and remember that they tell of another era. It is nonsensical to desire stories from another time to hold to philosophies that perfectly coincide with modern beliefs and vogues of thought. Although these stories do come from a past time in history, it is also important to recall that the moral lessons in fairy tales transcend time and have always and will always have value (AYOB & ASMA 2010). Also, it is interesting to take note of the fact that these stories have remained popular since they were first told and have remained so despite audiences becoming educated in modern ideas about women. There was even a study performed on children which suggested that they did not appreciate a feminist princess as much as the traditional characterization in fairy tales (Kuykendal & Sturm 2007).
While telling a story, it has also become acceptable to use slang or to make modern cultural references. There are fun and silly ways of introducing modern elements into a story which current storytellers experiment with, yet, overall it seems that it is best to remain true to the familiar structure of the story in order to please audiences (Kelly, p. 64, 2007).
Here is a blog where modern storytellers and fans of fairytales discuss this genre. Fairy Tale Lobby
Important Names in Fairy Tales
Charles Perrault was a French author who helped to establish what is expected from a fairy tale story. The genre was not yet in existence when he was creating his stories. One of the original literary devices Perrault used was little moral verses that rhymed at the end of his stories (Schacker 2007). His writings include “’Cinderella’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood; but his versions of the stories were meant for sophisticated aristocratic families” instead of the working classes which the Grimms brothers wrote for (Cavendish 2012).
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are probably the most popular authors and collectors of fairy tales. Born in Germany, the Grimm brothers listened to many old tales before they collected, rewrote, and published oral and written sources that had existed for many many years (Smith 2013). Their first collection was published in 1812 and their second in 1814 (Cavendish 2012). The Grimm brothers studied what they called “folk poetry” which came from ordinary people who passed down these stories by word of mouth over time (Smith 2013). Indeed, “they believed that folk stories, handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another over centuries untold, enshrined the fundamental ideas, beliefs and reactions to human experience of ‘the folk’” (Cavendish 2012). The brothers gathered “folk tales from peasant storytellers and from middle-class friends and families and their servants, as well as from European literary traditions.’Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, for instance, came from a friend called Dortchen Wild and her family and their nanny” (Cavendish 2012). Indeed, most of the stories that they discovered for their first collection of stories were told to them by peasant women. These women could read and doubtless possessed books of fairy stories which would have come from France (Bottigheimer 2006).
The Grimm brothers added the morality to their stories that latter came to be associated with fairy tales. In addition to this change, they also tried to remove some of the violence of mother figures in the old fairy tales, by making the most wicked women stepmothers instead of birth mothers. This was in keeping with the times since many women died in childbirth (Smith 2013).
Hans Christian Anderson was Danish writer. His stories such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Wild Swans,” and “The Little Match Girl” have a poignancy about them which does not fit into the “happily ever after” formula. However, these stories display a powerful moral character which is willing to sacrifice in order to maintain an honorable standard. His stories tend to be grouped into the fairy tale category although not all of them precisely fit this label. Many of them were original, although “The Wild Swans” and “The Tinderbox” were his interpretation of folktales (Alderson 2005).
Sharing Stories Across Different Lands
Bottigheimer (2006) gives several theories about how stories told in different countries and by different authors are frequently alike. He states:
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, folk narrative scholars accounted for remarkable similarities between certain stories in the canon of the Grimm, Perrault, Basile, and Straparola collections by contextualizing them within a sea of unchanged and unchanging stories, by claiming that these very stories had always existed in the world of the unlettered poor and by further claiming that one need only drop one’s net into that sea of stories in order to pull out the same story that a predecessor had pulled out two hundred years or two thousand years before or would pull out one hundred or two hundred years hence. This theory of fairy-tale origins cannot be documented.
Tale dissemination via print pathways, in contrast to the proposition of a sea of stories, can be documented in an increasing number of cases, as presentations by Margaret Mills, Abd-el Hameed Hawwas, and Maria Kaliambou at the 2005 ISFNR Congress in Tartu demonstrated. Dissemination via print pathways can also be inferred from instances of close textual study, as in a textual comparison of Perrault’s Peau d’asne with Basile’s and Straparola’s earlier stories, because that comparison shows that Perrault picked and chose only among elements that existed in those two printed texts.
Basile, too, used existing narratives for many elements, out of which he assembled the stories of the Pentamer one. Being a classically educated courtier, he like many of his contemporaries – had read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and he filled his stories with unacknowledged quotations from Ovid and from other classical authors. Basile’s Venetian forebear Straparola, unlike Basile, appears to have had less of a formal classical education, and so it was that he turned more to the current marketplace and piazza for the ingredients of histories: medieval romances and medieval fabliaux and medieval sermon tales. (Bottigheimer 2006)
How exactly these stories have been shared, sometimes across continents, is still a matter for puzzlement. They could have been orally transmitted, there could have been written copies that circulated far and wide, or the stories could just be the same by chance as different storytellers and authors could have made up these stories individually on their own. Scholars are still puzzling over these questions (Bottigheimer 2006). Schacker (2007) also suggests that pantomimes might have helped in the handing down of these stories as well.
The Stories Themselves
There are many fairy tales that have been retold in different cultures. Here are a few versions of popular stories that show how there is continuity in the characters and structure of the stories even though they are told from another culture’s perspective.
The Grimms version of “Cinderella” does not include a fairy godmother like Parrault’s version does. Instead, she receives her help from two doves who give her splendid clothes to wear to the ball and who peck out the evil stepsister’s eyes at the end of the story. The evil mother figure was also made into a stepmother (Cavendish 2012). Also, the Grimms version has the more complex aspects of the story including the task of picking through the lentils that the stepsisters set for Cinderella (Ashliman 2011).
Here is a video that gives “Cinderella” as an example of cross culture fairy tales.
The Grimm’s version of “Snow White” is the classic story of the queen who is jealous of her stepdaughter. The queen first sends the huntsman after Snow White, but he spares her and she escapes through a forest to a house where seven dwarves live. The dwarves try to protect her, but the queen makes repeated attempts on her life until finally Snow White eats a poisoned apple and dies. The dwarves lay her in a glass coffin where a prince sees her and takes her back to his castle. One of the prince’s servants dislodges the apple from Snow White’s mouth and so she comes back to life and lives happily ever after with the prince (Ashliman 2002).
Here is a reading of the Grimm’s version of “Snow White.”
There is also a Mexican folktale version of this story called “Blanca Flor” or “White Flower”. In this version of the story, the evil queen is jealous of her daughter Blanca Flor. The queen sends her servant, Juan, to kill her daughter. After Blanca Flor is spared by Juan, she runs away until she reaches a hut where some robbers live where she falls asleep. When the robbers return, they prove to be good men who only steal to help others and so they agree to let Blanca Flor stay with them. The queen’s magic mirror informs her that her daughter is still alive and so she goes in search of her with an enchanted necklace. When Blanca Flor puts on the necklace, she immediately falls into a deathlike sleep. A prince sees her in the coffin the robbers place her in and takes her to the chapel in his palace. There a naughty servant decides to steal the necklace. When he attempts to Blanca Flor wakes up. The prince destroys the queen with his army and marries Blanca Flor. In this version of the story, the names are the main aspect of the story that changes, however, there are some details such as the robber’s hut and the necklace which enable one to better picture this story in a Mexican setting (Mexican Folk Tale).
Schacker (2007) calls “King Thrushbeard” a restoration story, which according to his formula refers to the fact that the princess marries a beggar but is restored to her royal rank at the end of the story. The most popular version of this story is the German version written by the Grimm brothers. In this story, the prideful princess refuses to marry anyone since she finds some flaw with all of her suitors. For example, she says that one has a chin like the beak of a thrush. Her father the king becomes impatient with her antics and marries her off to the first wandering minstrel who comes to the castle gate. The princess must now work for her living as the wife of a poor man. She is employed at the local castle and is embarrassed in front of the whole court when her dinner spills all over the floor. The prince of the castle catches her when she tries to run away and reveals himself to be the prince with the defective chin who disguised himself as a wandering minstrel in order to marry her and teach her humility. Since she has now been humbled, she is grateful for his love and returns it, so they live happily ever after (Ashliman 2013).
Here is a clay animation version of the story. This is a wonderful adaption for children.
The Irish version of this story is called “The Haughty Princess.” This version is quite similar to the Grimm’s version. The princess turns down the prince because of his beard which she does not care for. A beggar with a large red beard comes to the palace and she is married to him at the king’s insistence. This version of the story is much more emotional, perhaps showing a characterization of a fiery Irish temper, since the princess is described as roaring and bawling in order to avoid the distasteful marriage. When she is sent to work at the castle, she again shows spirit when she rejects a saucy manservant who wanted to steal a kiss from her. When the prince sees her in the castle, he asks her to dance a jig to fiddle music which again shows Irish culture (Kennedy 1870).
The Italian version of this story, “Cannetella”, is very different from the previous two versions discussed. It begins with the same idea of the princess being too proud to choose a suitor. She states that she will only marry a man with a gold head and gold teeth. However, in this version of the story, there is an evil magician called Scioravante. He enchants himself to that he fulfills the princesses requirements. He marries her and then makes her ride all day until they come to a stable where he says she must remain for seven years’ time. She does with much suffering. She at last escapes with the help of a kind cooper and returns humbly to her father. One of the horses in the stable tells Scioravante that the princess has escaped and so he chases her. But he is caught by the king and executed. The names in this story (the characters are called Scioravante and Cannetella while the country they live in is called Bello Puojo) are the main aspects of the story which give it its Italian flavor (Lang 1900).
All cultures have many wonderful stories to share. It is amazing that stories have been spread across different cultures. As Zipes (2011) powerfully states, the fairy tale “continues to grow and embraces, if not swallows, all types of genres, art forms, and cultural institutions; and it adjusts itself to new environments through the human disposition to re-create relevant narratives and through technologies that make its diffusion easier and more effective” (Zipes p.222, 2011).