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date: 22 February 2018

Introduction: Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

Introduction: Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale

There is no such thing as the fairy tale; however, there are hundreds of thousands of fairy tales. And these fairy tales have been defined in so many different ways that it boggles the mind to think that they can be categorized as a genre. In fact, the confusion is so great that most literary critics continually confound the oral folk tale with the literary fairy tale and vice versa. Some even argue, to the dismay of folklorists, that we might as well label any text or narrative that calls itself and is called a fairy tale as such since the average reader is not aware of the distinction between the oral and literary traditions or even cares about it. Why bother with distinctions when very few people necessarily want them? There is even a strong general tendency among many readers in the West to resist defining the fairy tale. It is as though one should not tamper with sacred material. By dissecting the fairy tale, one might destroy its magic, and it appears that this magic has something to do with the blessed realm of childhood and innocence.

On the other hand, almost every reader of fairy tales, young and old, is curious about their magic. What is it that endows fairy tales with such enchantment? Where do these tales come from? Why do they have such a grip on us? Why do we always seem to need them? We want to know more about ourselves by knowing something more about fairy tales. We want to fathom their mysterious hold on us. Perhaps this is why there are literally hundreds of scholarly books and essays about the tales, and why the more serious studies insist on making a distinction between the oral folk tale and the literary fairy tale. It is distinction that preserves the unique socio-historical nature of genres. It is distinction that exposes the magic of a genre while at the same time allowing us to preserve and cultivate it so that it will continue to flourish.

One of the first German scholars to analyse the literary fairy tale systematically in our contemporary period is Jens Tismar, who has written two important studies, Kunstmärchen (1977) and Das deutsche Kunstmärchen des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (1981). In his first short monograph, Tismar set down the principles for a definition of the literary fairy tale (das Kunstmärchen) as genre:

  1. (1) it distinguishes itself from the oral folk tale (das Volksmärchen) in so far as it is written by a single identifiable author;

  2. (2) it is thus synthetic, artificial, and elaborate in comparison to the indigenous formation of the folk tale that emanates from communities and tends to be simple and anonymous;

  3. (3) the differences between the literary fairy tale and the oral folk tale do not imply that one genre is better than the other;

  4. (4) in fact, the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author.

Tismar’s principles are helpful when contemplating the distinguishing features of the literary fairy tale. But there are many other distinctions that must be made, and this Companion is one of the first major efforts in the English language to make some of these distinctions and to define the socio-historical rise of the fairy tale mainly in the nation-states of Western Europe and North America that share common literary traditions. It also seeks to provide information on all the writers, artists, musicians, film-makers, and movements that have contributed to the changing nature of the fairy tale as genre. Whenever possible, the contributions of other cultures from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Africa have been included, but the focus of this Companion is essentially on the literary formation of the Western fairy-tale genre and its expansion into opera, theatre, painting, photography, and film, and other related cultural forms.

During its long evolution, the literary fairy tale distinguished itself as genre by ‘appropriating’ many motifs, signs, and drawings from folklore, embellishing them and combining them with elements from other literary genres, for it became gradually necessary in the modern world to adapt a certain kind of oral storytelling called the wonder tale to standards of literacy and make it acceptable for diffusion in the public sphere. The fairy tale is only one type of literary appropriation of a particular oral storytelling tradition related to the oral wonder tale, often called the Zaubermärchen or the conte merveilleux, which existed throughout Europe in many different forms during the medieval period. As more and more wonder tales were written down in the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries—often in Latin—they constituted the genre of the literary fairy tale that began establishing its own conventions, motifs, topoi, characters, and plots, based to a large extent on those developed in the oral tradition but altered to address a reading public formed by the aristocracy, clergy, and middle classes. Though the peasants were marginalized and excluded in the formation of this literary tradition, their material, voices, style, and beliefs were incorporated into the new genre during this period.

What exactly is the oral wonder tale? This is a question that is almost impossible to answer because each village and community in Europe and in North America developed various modes of storytelling in thousands of dialects and different types of tales closely connected to their customs, laws, morals, and beliefs. But Vladimir Propp’s now famous study, The Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), can be somewhat helpful here. Using 600 texts from Aleksandr Afanasyev’s Russian Folktales (1855–63), he outlined 31 basic functions that constitute the formation of a paradigmatic wonder tale, which was and still is common in Russia and shares many properties with wonder tales throughout the world. By functions, Propp meant the fundamental and constant components of a tale that are the acts of a character and necessary for driving the action forward. Consequently, most plots will follow a basic pattern which begins with the protagonist confronted with an interdiction or prohibition which he or she violates in some way. This leads to the banishment of the protagonist or to the assignment of a task related to the interdiction or prohibition.

His or her character will be marked by the task that becomes his or her assigned identity and destiny. Afterwards the protagonist will have encounters with all sorts of characters: a deceitful villain; a mysterious individual or creature, who gives the protagonist gifts; three different animals or creatures who are helped by the protagonist and promise to repay him or her; or three different animals or creatures who offer gifts to help the protagonist, who is in trouble. The gifts are often magical agents, which bring about miraculous change. Since the protagonist is now endowed with gifts, he or she is tested or moves on to deal with inimical forces. But then there is a sudden fall in the protagonist’s fortunes that is generally only a temporary setback. A wonder or miracle is needed to reverse the wheel of fortune. The protagonist makes use of endowed gifts (and this includes magical agents and cunning) to achieve his or her goal. Often there are three battles with the villain; three impossible tasks that are miraculously completed; or the breaking of a magic spell through some counter-magical agent. The inimical forces are vanquished. The success of the protagonist usually leads to marriage and wealth. Sometimes simple survival and acquisition of important knowledge based on experience form the ending of the tale.

Propp’s structural approach to the wonder tale, while useful, should be regarded with caution because there are innumerable variations in theme and plot types throughout Europe and North America. In fact, the wonder tale is based on a hybrid formation that encompassed the chronicle, myth, legend, anecdote, and other oral forms and constantly changed depending on the circumstances of the teller. If there is one ‘constant’ in the structure and theme of the wonder tale that was also passed on to the literary fairy tale, it is transformation—to be sure, miraculous transformation. Everybody and everything can be transformed in a wonder tale. In particular there is generally a change in the social status of the protagonists. For the peasants who constituted the majority of the population in the Middle Ages, the hope for change was embedded in this kind of narrative, and this hope had nothing to do with a systematic and institutionalized belief system. That is, the tales told by the peasants were secular, and the fortuitous changes and happenings that occur in the tales cannot be predicted or guaranteed.

Rarely do wonder tales end unhappily in the oral tradition. They are wish fulfilments. They are obviously connected to initiation rites that introduce listeners to the ‘proper’ way to become a member of a particular community. The narrative elements issue from real-life experiences and customs to form a paradigm that facilitates recall for tellers and listeners. The paradigmatic structure enables teller and listeners to recognize, store, remember, and reproduce the stories and to change them to fit their experiences and desires due to the easily identifiable characters who are associated with particular assignments and settings. For instance, many tales concern a simple fellow named Jack, Hans, Pierre, or Ivan who is so naive that he seems as if he will never do well in life. He is often the youngest son, and his brothers and other people take advantage of him or demean him. However, his goodness and naïveté eventually enable him to avoid disasters. By the end of the tale he generally rises in social status and proves himself to be more gifted and astute than he seems. Other recognizable characters in wonder tales include: the Cinderella girl who rises from the ashes to reveal herself to be more beautiful than her stepsisters; the faithful bride; the loyal sister; the vengeful discharged soldier; the boastful tailor; the cunning thief; devious robbers; ferocious ogres; the unjust king; the queen who cannot have a child; the princess who cannot laugh; a flying horse; a talking fish; a magic sack or table; a powerful club; a kind duck; a sly fox; treacherous nixies; a beast bridegroom. The forests are often enchanted, and the settings change rapidly from the sea to glass and golden mountains. There are mysterious underground realms and caves. Many tales are about the land of milk and honey where everything is turned upside down, and the peasants rule and can eat to their heart’s content. The protagonist moves faster than jet planes on the backs of griffins and eagles or through the use of seven-league boots. Most important are the capes or clothes that make the hero invisible or magic objects that endow him with power. In some cases there are musical instruments with enormous captivating powers; swords and clubs capable of conquering anyone or anything; lakes, ponds, and seas that are difficult to cross and serve as the home for supernatural creatures. The characters, settings, and motifs are combined and varied according to specific functions to induce wonder. It is this sense of wondrous change that distinguished the wonder tales from other oral tales as the chronicle, the legend, the fable, the anecdote, and the myth; it is clearly the sense of wondrous change that distinguishes the literary fairy tale from the moral story, novella, sentimental tale, and other modern short literary genres. Wonder causes astonishment, and the marvellous object or phenomenon is often regarded as a supernatural occurrence and can be an omen or portent. It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. In the oral wonder tale, listeners are to ponder about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time, and these happy or fortuitous events are never to be explained. Nor do the characters demand an explanation—they are opportunistic. They are encouraged to be so, and if they do not take advantage of the opportunity that will benefit them in their relations with others, they are either stupid or mean-spirited. Only the ‘good’ opportunistic protagonist succeeds because he or she is open to and wants a change. In fact, most heroes need some kind of wondrous transformation to survive, and they indicate how to take advantage of the unexpected opportunities that come their way. The tales seek to awaken our regard for the marvellous changing condition of life and to evoke in a religious sense profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process which can be altered and changed to compensate for the lack of power, wealth, and pleasure that most people experience. Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate people to look for signs of fulfilment and emancipation. In the wonder tales, those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wondrous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature and revere nature in all its aspects. They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use their status, weapons, and words intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they actually seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests. The wondrous protagonist wants to keep the process of natural change flowing and indicates possibilities for overcoming the obstacles that prevent other characters or creatures from living in a peaceful and pleasurable way.

The focus on wonder in the oral folk tale does not mean that all wonder tales, and later the literary fairy tales, served and serve a liberating purpose, though they tend to conserve a utopian spirit. Nor were they subversive, though there are strong hints that the narrators favoured the oppressed protagonists. The nature and meaning of folk tales have depended on the stage of development of a tribe, community, or society. Oral tales have served to stabilize, conserve, or challenge the common beliefs, laws, values, and norms of a group. The ideology expressed in wonder tales always stemmed from the position that the narrator assumed with regard to the developments in his or her community, and the narrative plot and changes made in it depended on the sense of wonder or awe that the narrator wanted to evoke. In other words, the sense of wonder in the tale and the intended emotion sought by the narrator is ideological. The oral tales have always played some role in the socialization and acculturation of listeners. Certainly, the narratives were intended to acquaint people with learning experiences so that they would know how to comport themselves or take advantage of unexpected opportunities. The knowledge imparted by the oral wonder tales involves a learning process through which protagonist and listener are enriched by encounters with extraordinary characters and situations.

Since these wonder tales have been with us for thousands of years and have undergone so many different changes in the oral tradition, it is difficult to determine clearly what the ideological intention of the narrator was; and if we disregard the narrator’s intention, it is often difficult to reconstruct (and/or deconstruct) the ideological meaning of a tale. In the last analysis, however, even if we cannot establish whether a wonder tale is ideologically conservative, sexist, progressive, liberating, etc., it is the celebration of wondrous change and how the protagonist reacts to wondrous occurrences that account for its major appeal. In addition, these tales nurture the imagination with alternative possibilities to life at ‘home’, from which the protagonist is often banished to find his or her ‘true’ home. This pursuit of home accounts for the utopian spirit of the tales, for the miraculous transformation does not only involve the transformation of the protagonist but also the realization of a more ideal setting in which the hero/heroine can fulfil his or her potential. In fairy tales home is always a transformed home opening the way to a different future or destiny than the hero or heroine had anticipated.

Ultimately, the definition of both the wonder tale and the fairy tale, which derives from it, depends on the manner in which a narrator/author arranges known functions of a tale aesthetically and ideologically to induce wonder and then transmits the tale as a whole according to customary usage of a society in a given historical period. The first stage for the literary fairy tale involved a kind of class and perhaps even gender appropriation. The voices of the non-literate tellers were submerged. Since women in most cases were not allowed to be scribes, the tales were scripted according to male dictates or fantasies, even though many were told by women. Put crudely, one could say that the literary appropriation of the oral wonder tales served the hegemonic interests of males within the upper classes of particular communities and societies, and to a great extent this is true. However, such a crude statement must be qualified, for the writing down of the tales also preserved a great deal of the value system of those deprived of power. And the more the literary fairy tale was cultivated and developed, the more it became individualized and varied by intellectuals and artists, who often sympathized with the marginalized in society or were marginalized themselves. The literary fairy tale allowed for new possibilities of subversion in the written word and in print, and therefore it was always looked upon with misgivings by the governing authorities in the civilization process.

The literary fairy tale is a relatively young and modern genre. Though there is a great deal of historical evidence that oral wonder tales were written down in India, Persia, and Egypt thousands of years ago, and all kinds of folk motifs of magical transformation became part and parcel of national epics and myths throughout the world, the literary fairy tale did not really establish itself as a genre in Europe and later in North America until some new material and socio-cultural conditions provided fruitful ground for its formation. The most significant developments from 1450 to 1700 include: the standardization and categorization of the vernacular languages that gradually became official nation-state languages; the invention of the printing press; the growth of reading publics throughout Europe that began to develop a taste for short narratives of different kinds for their reading pleasure; the conception of new literary genres in the vernacular and their acceptance by the educated elite classes.

Literary fairy tales were not at first called fairy tales, nor can one with certainty say that they were simple appropriations of oral folk tales that were popular among the common people. Indeed, the intersection of the oral tradition of storytelling with the writing and publishing of narratives is definitely crucial for understanding the formation of the fairy tale, but the oral sources were not the only ones that provided the motifs, characters, plot devices, and topoi of the genre. The early authors of fairy tales were generally extremely well educated and well read, and drew upon both oral and literary materials when they created their fairy tales. Beginning with Apuleius’ fairy tale ‘Cupid and Psyche’, part of The Golden Ass, which appeared in the 2nd century ad, we can see that the fairy tale distinguished itself from the oral tradition—as it did throughout the early medieval period—through carefully constructed plots, sophisticated references to religion, literature, and customs, embellished language that signified the high civilized status of the writer, and linguistic codes that were informed by a particular civilizing process and carried information about it.

Contained in chivalric romances, heroic sagas and epics, chronicles, sermons, poems, lais, and primers during the European Middle Ages, the fairy tale was often a story about miraculous encounters, changes, and initiations illustrating a particular didactic point that the writer wished to express in an entertaining manner. It was often written in Latin, Middle English, or in some old high form of French, Spanish, Italian, or German. For the most part, these early fairy tales were not intended for children. In fact, they were not intended for most people since most people could not read. The fairy tale was thus marked by the social class of the writers and readers, and since the clerics dominated literary production in Latin up through the late Middle Ages, the ‘secular’ if not hedonistic fairy tale was not fully acceptable in European courts and cities, and it was certainly not an autonomous literary genre.

In the late 13th century the anonymous collection Novellino (The Hundred Old Tales), with its fantastic themes, unusual medieval exempla, and fables, indicated along with other medieval marvellous tales and reports that new literary genres were about to flower, and in the 14th century writers like Boccaccio (The Decameron, 1349–50) and Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales, 1387) helped prepare the way for the establishment of the fairy tale as an independent genre. Although they did not write ‘pure’ fairy tales per se, many of their stories—and these were not the only writers who influenced the development of the fairy tale—have fairy-tale motifs and structures and borrow from oral wonder tales. Moreover, the frame narratives that they created allowed for the introduction of diverse tales told in different modes and styles, and it is the frame that became extremely important for Giovan Francesco Straparola in his Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550–53) and for Giambattista Basile in Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) better known as Il Pentamerone (1634–6), for they used their frames to produce some of the most illustrious literary fairy tales in the West that were to influence major writers of the genre in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

In many ways the tales of Straparola and Basile can be considered crucial for understanding the rise of the genre. Straparola wrote in succinct Tuscan or standard Italian, and Basile wrote in a Neapolitan dialect marked by an elaborate baroque style with striking metaphors and peculiar idioms and references that are difficult to decipher today. Though all their fairy tales have moral or didactic points, they have very little to do with official Christian doctrine. On the contrary, their tales are often bawdy, irreverent, erotic, cruel, frank, and unpredictable. The endings are not always happy. Some are even tragic; many are hilarious. Some tales are very short, but most are somewhat lengthy, and they are all clearly intended to represent and reflect upon the mores and customs of their time, to shed light on the emerging civilizing process of Italian society. From the beginning, fairy tales were symbolic commentaries on the mores and customs of a particular society and the classes and groups within these societies and how their actions and relations could lead to success and happiness.

Although other Italian writers such as Cesare Cortese and Pompeo Sarnelli created fairy tales in the 17th century, the conditions in the different reading publics in Italy were not propitious for the genre to take root. The oral tradition and the ‘realistic’ novellas and stories remained dominant in Italy. This was also the case in Great Britain. Although there was a strong interest in fairylore in the 1590s, as indicated by The Faerie Queene (1590–96) written by Sir Edmund Spenser, who was influenced by Italian epic poetry, and although Shakespeare introduced fairies and magical events in some of his best plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, the trend in English society was to ban the fairies and to make way for utilitarianism and puritanism. There were, of course, some interesting attempts in poetry by Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, and Robert Herrick to incorporate folklore and fairy-tale motifs in their works. But the waning interest in fairy tales and the obstacles created by censorship undermined these literary attempts. Fortunately, oral storytelling provided the refuge for fairy beliefs.

It was not until the 1690s in France that the fairy tale could establish itself as a ‘legitimate’ genre for educated classes. It was during this time that numerous gifted female writers such as Mme d’Aulnoy, Mme d’Auneuil, Mme de Murat, Mlle Lhéritier, Mme de La Force, Mlle Bernard, and others introduced fairy tales into their literary salons and published their works, and their tales, along with those of Charles Perrault and Jean de Mailly, initiated a mode or craze that prepared the ground for the institution of the literary fairy tale as a genre. First of all, the French female writers ‘baptized’ their tales contes de fées or fairy tales, and they were the first to designate the tales as such. The designation is not simply based on the fact that there are fairies in all their tales but also on the fact that the seat of power in their tales—and also in those of Perrault and other male writers of the time—lies with omnipotent women. Similar to the tales of Straparola and Basile, whose works were somewhat known by the French, the contes de fées are secular and form discourses about courtly manners and power. The narratives vary in length from 10 to 60 pages, and they were not at all addressed to children. Depending on the author, they are ornate, didactic, ironic, and mocking. In the period between 1690 and 1705, the tales reflected many of the changes that were occurring at King Louis XIV’s court, and Perrault wrote his tales consciously to demonstrate the validity of this ‘modern’ genre as opposed to the classical Greek and Roman myths. Many of the tale types can be traced to the oral folk tradition, and they also borrow from the Italian literary fairy tale and numerous other literary and art works of this period. In addition to the accomplishments of the first wave of French authors, mention should be made of Antoine Galland and his remarkable translation of Arabic narratives in Les Mille et une nuits (The Thousand and One Nights, 1704–17). Not only did Galland introduce the tradition and customs of the Middle East to Western readers, but he also imitated the oriental tales and created his own—something hundreds of authors would do in the centuries that followed up through our present times.

By 1720, at the very latest, the fairy tale was being institutionalized as genre, and the paradigmatic form and motifs were becoming known throughout Europe. This dissemination of the tales was due in large part to the dominance of French as the cultural language in Europe. But there were other ways in which the French tales became known and set a pattern for most fairy-tale writers. It was during this time that chapbooks or ‘cheap’ books were being produced in series such as the Bibliothèque bleue, and the books were carried by pedlars from village to village to be sold with other goods. The ‘sophisticated’ tales of the upper-class writers were abbreviated and changed a great deal to address other audiences. These tales were often read aloud and made their way into or back into the oral tradition. Interestingly, the tales were retold innumerable times and circulated throughout diverse regions of Europe, often leading to some other literary appropriation and publication. In addition, there were numerous translations into English, German, Spanish, and Italian. Another important development was the rise of the literary fairy tale for children. Already during the 1690s, Fénelon, the important theologian and Archbishop of Cambrai, who had been in charge of the Dauphin’s education at King Louis XIV’s court, had written several didactic fairy tales to make the Dauphin’s lessons more enjoyable. But they were kept for private use and were printed only in 1730 after Fénelon’s death. More important than Fénelon was Mme Leprince de Beaumont, who published Le Magasin des enfants (1757), which included ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ten or so overtly moralistic fairy tales for girls. Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to write fairy tales explicitly for children, and the frame for her first major work was based on Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), which contained two didactic fairy tales for young girls. More artistic than Fielding, Leprince de Beaumont depicted a governess engaging several young girls between 6 and 10 in discussions about morals, manners, ethics, and gender roles that provide her with the opportunity to tell stories to illustrate her points. Mme Leprince de Beaumont’s utilization of such a frame was based on her work as a governess in England, and the frame was set up to be copied by other adults to cultivate a type of storytelling and reading in homes of the upper classes that would reinforce acceptable notions of propriety, especially proper sex roles. It was only as part of the civilizing process that storytelling developed within the aristocratic and bourgeois homes in the 17th and 18th centuries, first through governesses and nannies, and later in the 18th and 19th centuries through mothers, tutors, and governesses who told stories in separate rooms designated for children and called nurseries.

Towards the end of the 18th century numerous publishers in France, England, and Germany began serious production of books for children, and the genre of the fairy tale assumed a new dimension which now included concerns about how to socialize children and indoctrinate them through literary products that were appropriate for their age, mentality, and morals. The rise of ‘bourgeois’ children’s literature meant that publishers would make the fairy-tale genre more comprehensive, but they would also—along with parents, educators, religious leaders, and writers—pay great attention to the potential of the fantastic and miraculous in the fairy tale to disturb and/or enlighten children’s minds. There were numerous debates about the value of the fantastic and the marvellous in literary form and their possible detrimental effects on the souls of readers in many European countries. They were significant and interesting, but they did not have any real impact on the publication of fairy tales. Certainly, not in France. Indeed, by 1785 Charles-Joseph Mayer could begin producing his famous 40-volume Cabinet des fées, which was completed in 1789 and contained the most significant of the 100-year mode of fairy tales that paved the way for the institution of the fairy tale in other countries. From this point on, most writers in the West, whether they wrote for adults or children, consciously held a dialogue with a fairy-tale discourse that had become firmly established in Europe and embraced intercourse with the oral storytelling tradition and all other kinds of folklore that existed throughout the world. For instance, the French fairy tale, which now included The Arabian Nights, had a profound influence on German writers of the Enlightenment and romanticism, and the development in Germany provided the continuity for the institution of the genre in the West as a whole. Like the French authors, the German middle-class writers like Johann Musäus in his collection Volksmärchen der Deutschen (1782–6) and Benedikte Naubert in her work Neue Volksmährchen der Deutschen (1789–93) employed the fairy tale to celebrate German history and customs. Musäus and Naubert both combined elements of German myth, folklore, legend, and the French fairy tale to address educated Germans. At the same time, Christoph Martin Wieland translated and adapted numerous fairy tales from the Cabinet des fées in Dschinnistan (1786–9), and he also wrote a novel and some poems that revealed his familiarity with Basile and the Italian fairy-tale tradition. Aside from these collections for upper-class readers, numerous French fairy tales became known in Germany by the turn of the century through the popular series of the Blaue Bibliothek and other translations from the French, and children’s books began to carry more and more fairy tales.

Most important at the turn of the century was the contribution of the German romantic writers. Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Joseph von Eichendorff, Clemens Brentano, Adelbert Chamisso, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and others wrote extraordinary and highly complex metaphorical tales that revealed a major shift in the function of the genre: the fairy tale began to address philosophical and practical concerns of the emerging middle classes and was written in defence of the imagination and as a critique of the worst aspects of the Enlightenment and absolutism. This viewpoint was clearly expressed in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classical narrative bluntly entitled ‘The Fairy Tale’ (1795), as though it were the fairy tale to end all fairy tales. Goethe optimistically envisioned a successful rebirth of a rejuvenated monarchy that would enjoy the support of all social classes in his answer to the violence and destruction of the French Revolution. In response, Novalis wrote a long, elaborate fairy tale in Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1798) called ‘Klingsohrs Märchen’, that celebrates the erotic and artistic impulses of revolution and emphasizes magical transformation and flexibility. Though hopeful, many of the romantics were sceptical about prospects for individual autonomy and the reform of decadent institutions in a Germany divided by the selfish interests of petty tyrants and the Napoleonic Wars. Characteristically many of the early romantic tales do not end on a happy note. The protagonists either go insane or die. The evil forces assume a social hue, for the witches and villains are no longer allegorical representations of evil in the Christian tradition but are symbolically associated with the philistine bourgeois society or the corrupt aristocracy. The romantics did not intend their fairy tales to amuse audiences in the traditional sense of divertissement. Instead, they sought to engage the reader in a serious discourse about art, philosophy, education, and love. The focus was on the creative individual or artist, who envisioned a life without inhibitions and social constraints. It was a theme that became popular in the romantic fairy tales throughout Europe and in North America. In contrast to most folk tales or fairy tales that have strong roots in folklore and propose the possibility of the integration of the hero into society, the fairy tales of the 19th and 20th centuries tend to pit the individual against society or to use the protagonist in a way to mirror the foibles and contradictions of society.

This conflict between the ‘heroic’ individual, often identified with Nature or natural forces, and society, understood as one-dimensional rationality and bureaucracy, became a major theme in British romanticism. At the same time the romantics also sought to rediscover their English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish heritage by exploring folklore and the history of the fairies, elves, leprechauns, and other ‘little people’. Here the prose (Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Allan Cunningham), poetry (Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Tom Moore, Thomas Hood), and folklore and fairy-tale studies (Walter Scott, Thomas Crofton Croker, Thomas Keightley) paved the way for an astounding production of fairy tales in the second half of the 19th century. In addition, the fairy paintings of William Blake and Henry Fuseli had an enormous impact on the later fantastic paintings of Daniel Maclise, Joseph Noel Paton, Richard Dadd, John Anster Fitzgerald, Arthur Hughes, Richard Doyle, and many others, and numerous plays and operas were also influenced by the fairy-tale vogue, as can be seen in the work of James Robinson Planché.

While the function of the fairy tale for adults underwent a major shift in the 19th century that made it an appropriate means to maintain a dialogue about social and political issues within the bourgeois public sphere—and this was clear in all nations in Europe and North America—the fairy tale for children was carefully monitored and censored until the 1820s. Although there were various collections published for upper-class children in the latter part of the 18th century and at the turn of the century along with numerous chapbooks containing classical fairy tales, they were not regarded as prime and ‘proper’ reading material for children. They were not considered to be ‘healthy’ for the development of young people’s minds. For the most part, publishers, church leaders, and educators favoured other genres of stories, more realistic, sentimental, and didactic. Even the Brothers Grimm, in particular Wilhelm, began to revise their collected tales in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, 1812–15), making them more appropriate for children than they had done in the beginning and cleansing their narratives of erotic and bawdy passages. However, the fantastic and miraculous elements were kept so that they were not at first fully accepted by the middle-class reading audience, which only began to change its attitude towards the fairy tale during the course of the 1820s and 1830s throughout Europe.

The tales of the Brothers Grimm played a key role in this change. More than the collections of the French writers of the 1790s, the Grimms’ work was consciously designed to address two audiences at the same time, and they carefully cultivated the form of their tales so that they could be easily grasped by children and adults. From 1812 until 1857, the Grimms published seven editions of what they called the Grosse Ausgabe (Large Edition), which ultimately contained 211 tales, for the household in general and for scholars as well. The Grimms thought of their book as an Erziehungsbuch (an educational manual), and thus they also wanted to attract children and appeal to the morals and virtues of middle-class readers. Thus they also published a so-called Kleine Ausgabe (Small Edition), a selection of 50 tales, in 1825 to popularize the larger work and create a more manageable best-seller. There were ten editions of this book from 1825 to 1858, and they contained the majority of the magic fairy tales such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and ‘The Frog King’. Since they all underlined morals in keeping with the Protestant ethic and a patriarchal notion of sex roles, the book was bound to be a success. When we think of the form and typical fairy tale today, we tend to think of a paradigmatic Grimms’ fairy tale (quite often modified by the Disney industry). Their tales are all about three to five pages long and are constructed rationally to demonstrate the virtues of an opportunistic protagonist who learns to take advantage of gifts and magic power to succeed in life, which means marriage to a rich person and wealth. Most of the male heroes are dashing, adventurous, and courageous. Most of the female protagonists are beautiful, passive, and industrious. Their common feature is cunning: they all know how to take advantage of the rules of their society and the conventions of the fairy tale to profit. Very few of the Grimms’ fairy tales end on an unhappy note, and they all comply with the phallocratic impulses and forces of the emerging middle-class societies of Western culture.

Aside from the gradual success that the Grimms’ tales had as a ‘children’s book’, the publication of Wilhelm Hauff’s Märchen Almanach (1826), containing oriental-flavoured tales for young people, Edgar Taylor’s translation of the Grimms’ tales as German Popular Stories (1823), with illustrations by the famous George Cruikshank, and Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s Livre des enfants (1837), which contained 40 tales from the Cabinet des fées edited for children, indicated that the fairy tale had become acceptable for young readers. This acceptance was largely due to the fact that adults themselves became more tolerant of fantasy literature and realized that it would not pervert the minds of their children. Indeed, the middle-class attitudes towards amusement began to change, and people understood that children needed the time and space for recreation without having morals and ethics imposed on them and without the feeling that their reading or listening had to involve indoctrination.

It is not by chance, then, that the fairy tale for children came into its own from 1830 to 1900. The most significant writer of this period was Hans Christian Andersen, who began publishing his tales in 1835, and they were almost immediately translated into many different languages and became popular throughout the Western world. Andersen combined humour, Christian sentiments, folklore, and original plots to form tales which amused and instructed old and young readers at the same time. More than any writer of the 19th century, he fulfilled what Perrault had begun: to write tales such as ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, and ‘The Princess and the Pea’ which could be readily grasped by children and adults alike. Of course, Andersen wrote many tales that were clearly intended for adults alone, and they are filled with self-hate, paranoia, and dreams of vengeance.

More and more the fairy tale of the 19th century became marked by the very individual desires and needs of the authors who felt that industrialization and rationalization of labour made their lives compartmentalized. As daily life became more structured and institutions more bureaucratic, there was little space left for leisure, hobbies, daydreaming, and the imagination. It was the fairy tale that provided room for amusement, nonsense, and recreation. This does not mean that it abandoned its more traditional role in the civilizing process as agent of socialization. For instance, up until the 1860s the majority of fairy-tale writers for children, including Catherine Sinclair, George Cruikshank, and Alfred Crowquill in Britain, Collodi in Italy, comtesse Sophie de Ségur in France, and Ludwig Bechstein in Germany, emphasized the lessons to be learned in keeping with the principles of the Protestant ethic—industriousness, honesty, cleanliness, diligence, virtuousness—and male supremacy. However, just as the ‘conventional’ fairy tale for adults had become subverted at the end of the 18th century, there was a major movement to write parodies of fairy tales, which were intended both for children and adults. In other words, the classical tales were turned upside down and inside out to question the value system upheld by the dominant socialization process and to keep wonder, curiosity, and creativity alive.

By the 1860s numerous writers continued the ‘romantic’ project of subverting the formal structure of the canonized tales (Perrault, Grimm, Bechstein, Andersen) and to experiment with the repertoire of motifs, characters, and topoi to defend the free imagination of the individual and to extend the discursive social commentary of the fairy tale. The best example of the type of subversion attempted during the latter part of the 19th century is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), which engendered numerous imitations and original works in Europe and America. Even today, unusual versions of Alice have been created for the theatre, television, the cinema, comic books, and other kinds of literature, demonstrating the exceptional way that the fairy-tale genre has evolved to address changing social issues and aesthetic modes.

Of course, Victorian England was an unusual time for fairylore because many people from all social classes seriously believed in the existence of fairies, elves, goblins, selkies, and dwarfs otherwise known as the little people, and their beliefs were manifested in the prodigious amount of fairy stories, paintings, operas, plays, music, and ballets from the 1820s to the turn of the century. The need to believe in other worlds and other types of living people was certainly connected to a need to escape the pressures of utilitarianism and industrialism and a rebellion against traditional Christian thinking. But it was also linked to a scientific quest to explain the historical origins of the little people, and folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnologists contributed to the flowering of the fairy tale and folk tale. The work of the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang, who published 13 coloured books of fairy tales from 1889 to 1910, still in print today, is a good example of how important the fairies and their lore had become in Britain. Influenced greatly by the anthropological school of folklore, Lang sought to further historical investigation into the origins of myths and rituals and their connection to folk tales while at the same time he collapsed distinctions between folk and fairy tales and sought to address young and adult audiences with international collections of tales and his own literary fairy tales.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the fairy tale had become fully institutionalized in Europe and North America, as indicated by the great success and popularity of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) and their sequels in literature, drama, and film up to the present. The full institutionalization of the genre means that a specific process of production, distribution, and reception had become regularized within the public sphere of each Western society, and it began to play and continues to play a significant role in the formation and preservation of the cultural heritage of a nation-state. Without such institutionalization in advanced industrialized and technological countries, the genre would perish, and thus any genre must be a kind of self-perpetuating institution involved in the socialization and acculturation of readers. It is the interaction of writer/publisher/audience within a given society that makes for the definition of the genre in any given epoch. This has certainly been the case with the fairy tale. The aesthetics of each literary fairy tale will depend on how and why an individual writer wants to intervene in the discourse of the genre as institution. Such interventions bring about transformations in the institution itself and its relation to other institutions so that the fairy tale today is unthinkable without taking into consideration its dialectical relationship with other genres and media as well as its actual ‘absorption’ of these genres and media.

The absorption is based on cross-connections to other genres as institutions and mutual influences that had been present ever since the rise of the literary fairy tale. The theatre, opera, ballet, poetry, painting, and even sermons had made use of fairy-tale material since the 17th century if not even earlier. The pageants at various European courts in the 16th and 17th centuries had actually influenced and helped further the development of the literary fairy tale which became the subject matter of great composers such as Mozart, Schumann, Delibes, Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Humperdinck, Offenbach, and Dvořák in the 18th and 19th centuries. What became apparent by the beginning of the 20th century was that the fairy tale had developed a canon of ‘classical’ fairy tales (‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Puss-in-Boots’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’, ‘Aladdin and the Lamp’, etc.) that served as reference points for the standard structure, motifs, and topoi of a fairy tale for readers young and old throughout the Western world. Other important features of the genre as institution were:

  1. (1) schools integrated the teaching of fairy tales into the curriculum, included them in primers, and purchased them for libraries;

  2. (2) in the adaptations of the tales for children, many of the tales were ‘sanitized’ so that putative terrifying aspects of some tales were deleted and also the language was simplified if not made simplistic;

  3. (3) fairy tales for adults often took the form of a novella or a novel and, though the authors would rely on the formulaic form of the classical fairy tale, they would often experiment and vary the form in highly original and innovative ways;

  4. (4) clearly, the tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm set the pattern for what was considered the fairy tale, but there were also interesting nationalistic developments in the genre that led many authors and scholars to cultivate specific ethnic themes;

  5. (5) at the same time, the intertextuality of most literary fairy tales in the 20th century demanded that the readers transcend their nationalities and make connections between cultures in a ‘universal’ sense;

  6. (6) the so-called universality of the folk tales and fairy tales began to draw the interest of psychologists and other social scientists who departed from the traditional approaches of folklorists and anthropologists to analyse the impact that the tales had on individual psyches.

As the printing of illustrated books in colour became cheaper and as more children learned to read through obligatory schooling, more and more publishers produced the classical fairy tales in the hundreds of thousands if not the millions throughout the 20th century. The tales have been printed in all sorts of formats ranging from 10×10 cm tiny (4×4 in.) booklets to gigantic picture books over 30×30 cm (12×12 in.), not to mention comic books and cartoons. The illustrations have varied from hackwork to brilliant interpretations of the stories. Artists such as Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Charles Folkard, Harry Clarke, and Edmund Dulac made major contributions to the genre at the beginning of the century, and contemporary illustrators such as Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, Nikolaus Heidelbach, Susanne Janssen, Maurice Sendak, Mercer Mayer, Benjamin Lacombe, Lisbeth Zwerger, Shaun Tan, Andrea Dezsö, and Natalie Frank have produced their own unique drawings that endow the tales with special personal meanings and social commentary. The tales of Perrault, Grimm, and Andersen have been translated into practically every language in the world, and together they vie with the Bible as the most widely read literature in the world.

Though the classical fairy tales soon dominated the market for children at the turn of the century, there were important endeavours to create new literary fairy tales for adults and children. For instance, numerous European writers such as Hermann Hesse, Apollinaire, Edwin Hoernle, Hermynia zur Mühlen, Béla Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Oscar Maria Graf, Kurt Schwitters, and Bruno Schönlank sought to politicize the fairy tale; there were numerous attempts from the right and the left before and after the First World War to use fairy tales for explicit political purposes.

After the Nazis rose to power, fairy tales and folk tales were interpreted and used to spread the Aryan ideology throughout Europe, and the situation was no different in the Soviet Union, where tales had to suit communist notions of socialist realism, proletarian literature, and class struggle. Ironically, the most significant ‘revolution’ in the institution of the fairy tale took place in 1937, when Walt Disney produced the first animated feature fairy-tale film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although fairy tales had been adapted for film as early as the 1890s by George Méliès, Disney was the first to use Technicolor, to expand on the Broadway and Hollywood formula for a musical, to print books, records, toys, and other artefacts to accompany his films, and to spice the classical tales with delightful humour and pristine fun that would be acceptable for middle-class families. The commercial success was so great that Disney used the same cinematic devices and ideological messages in his next three fairy-tale films Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). After his death, the Disney formula has not changed much, and even films such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Mulan (1998), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Frozen (2014), Malificent (2014), and Cinderella (2015) follow a traditional pattern of a ‘good’ young man or woman, who finds some magical means to help himself or herself against sinister forces. In the end the ‘goodness’ of the hero or heroine shines through, and there is a happy end that generally culminates in marriage. The story is always predictable. What counts most in the Disney fairy tale is the repetition of the same message: happiness will always come to those who work hard and are kind and brave, and it is through the spectacular projection of this message and through music, jokes, dazzling animation, and zany characters that the Disney corporate artists have made a profitable business out of the fairy tale. Indeed, the Disney Corporation has literally commercialized the classical fairy tale as its own trademark.

This commercialization does not mean that the fairy tale has become a mere commodity, for the conventional Disney fairy tale in film and literature serves as a referential text that has challenged gifted writers and artists to create fascinating critiques of some of the blatant sexist and racist features of the Disney films and the classical canon as well. The works of these writers and artists offer alternatives to the standard formulas that stimulate readers/viewers to rethink their aesthetic and ideological notions of what a fairy tale is. In particular the period from 1960 to the present has witnessed a flowering of remarkable experiments in the institution of the fairy tale. Significantly, the fascination with fairy-tale writers began with the late 1960s counter-culture movement and its turn towards writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, Hermann Hesse, and to a certain extent C. S. Lewis. One of the slogans of the anti-war movement in Europe and America was ‘power to the imagination’, that is, ‘empower the imagination’, and thousands of students turned to fantasy literature and fairy tales as a revolt against the reality of the Vietnam War and the rationalizations of the so-called military-industrial complex that the younger generation could not trust. The turn to the fairy tale and other forms of fantasy was not so much escapism as a rejection of the compromising policies of educational and political institutions that the young regarded as corrupt. This was the period when no one above the age of 30 was to be trusted.

Though there were few specific ‘political’ fairy tales written during the Vietnam era, feminist fairy tales soon began to be produced by writers such as Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, Angela Carter, and Tanith Lee, along with feminist cooperatives in Italy, Ireland, and Britain. In addition, Edith Johnston Phelps, Alison Lurie, and other feminist writers began publishing collections of feminist fairy tales or tales in which traditional sexuality was questioned, and this work has been continued in anthologies edited by Suzanne Barchers, Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Kathleen Ragan, and Jane Yolen. Indeed, if the Disney fairy-tale factory marked one sort of revolution in the genre, the feminist fairy-tale production that generally involves a questioning of gender roles and a recording of personal experiences in poetry and prose marked a second one by breathing new life into the genre, and it has led to exciting experiments up through Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch (1997) and Catherynne Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White (2013).

In fact, experimentation linked to magic realism and a postmodern sensibility have become the key words in the fairy-tale genre from 1980 to the present. In Great Britain there are several notable authors who have stamped the fairy tale with their diverse perspectives and unusual discourses: Angela Carter, who edited important volumes of folk tales and fairy tales about women, produced the provocative Bloody Chamber and Other Tales that turns Perrault on his head; Salman Rushdie, who relies on a variety of oriental and Western folklore in his novels, wrote an important political novella, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, for young people that reveals the dangers of and the necessity for storytelling. A. S. Byatt produced the novel Possession, one of the most creative explorations of the genre in prose and poetry, not to mention her shorter fairy tales that have raised questions about social codes and narratology. The list of contemporary talented writers who have endeavoured to break with the classical tradition is great. Their styles range from oblique postmodern montage to poetic, straightforward traditional narrative styles, and they include Michel Tournier, Michael Ende, Robert Coover, Donald Bartheleme, Peter Redgrove, Michael de Larrabeiti, Janosch, Steven Millhauser, Jane Yolen, Donna Di Napoli, Gregory Maguire, John Barth, Italo Calvino, and Gianni Rodari. In addition, many film-makers such as Jim Henson, Tom Davenport, John Sayles, Hayao Miyazaki, Michel Ocelot, Catherine Breillat, and others, including numerous East European filmmakers such as Jan Svankmajer, Jirí Barta, and Garri Bardin have sought to go beyond Disney and bring about new perspectives on the fairy tale and society through cinematic experimentation.

The present Companion seeks to document all these recent endeavours while providing as much information about past efforts of authors who have contributed to the rise of the literary fairy tale in Europe and North America. There are separate entries on specific national developments in France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Italy, North America, Portugal, Scandinavia, Slav and Baltic countries, and Spain. Most of the articles deal with the literary formation of the genre and the development of specific types of tales. Plays, operas, paintings, films, musicals, illustrations, paintings, and fairy-tale artefacts such as stamps and postcards are also included. Although every effort has been made to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, there are bound to be some regrettable gaps that will be covered in future editions of the Companion. The present edition has been updated to make the Companion more comprehensive and thorough. There are over 130 new entries and numerous additions to another 70 or so entries based on recent information. Every effort has been made to verify the data and provide reliable accounts about the writers and artists and their works. The production of different types of fairy tales continues to grow at a rapid rate each year. It is mind baffling to see how our lives are filled with fairy tales, and the Companion is only one drop in the bucket, but, I hope, it is a fulfilling one.

This work would not have been made possible without the dedicated efforts of my assistant Anne Duggan, who supervised all the manuscripts and helped me organize the entire project. I am deeply grateful for all the work that she put into the Companion. Special thanks are also due to: Terry Staples, who brilliantly reorganized the film entries and wrote wonderful entries; Rosemary Creeser, Lydia Marhoff, and Ulrike Sieglohr, who supported Terry Staples with all-round advice; Tom Higgins and Thomas Hoernigk, members of the Offenbach-Gesellschaft, who developed the opera and music entries with their expertise; Mary Lou Ennis, who repeatedly came to the rescue with new fascinating entries; Carole Silver, who went out of her way at the last moment to add important entries, as did Gillian Avery with great generosity. From the beginning I could not have done without the advice of all the contributing editors who helped conceive the lists and provided me with wise counsel. Last but not least I want to thank everyone at the Oxford University Press for their tireless efforts to assist me. Michael Cox provided the initial spark for the project. Pam Coote and Alison Jones were always helpful and patient, and they constantly gave me sound editorial advice. Wendy Tuckey made certain that there was some semblance of order as the work developed. Veronica Ions did a splendid job of copy-editing the entire book and offered useful suggestions for changes. For the present revised second edition I have been ably assisted by Rebecca Lane, Joanna Harris, Cornelia Haase, and Bethan Lee who have made invaluable contributions to the Companion. Altogether their work and the collaborative effort of scholars from many different countries has, I hope, borne fruit, and a touch of magic was especially necessary to harvest the results.

jack zipes