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Fairy Tales: A New History
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Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales > Origin of fairy tales

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Melanti | 114 comments Let's start some more discussion. I'd always heard that fairy tales had oral origins.

It's long since been proven that Grimms gathered the majority of their tales from their middle-class acquaintances and not the peasants they claimed they came from. But I'd still imagined those people originally learned them orally from someone else.

Last month, I read Fairy Tales: A New History by Ruth Bottigheimer. She makes a pretty convincing argument that the fairy tales Grimms brothers published were all from literary sources. She traced many of the plots back to Basile and Straparola, and said that there were numerous small folios that had been continually in print during the intervening years. She points to several different stories that had been published in various translations as the explanation for why there are similar stories in Grimms as in Anderson and other collections - because there were translations made, and people wrote their own stories based on the translations.

She does mention that the Grimms brothers were rather sheltered and probably weren’t aware of the existence of these folios. So, perhaps their claim that they were an oral tradition rather than a literary one was due to ignorance rather than deliberately misleading people. (Though, they definitely weren’t honest on WHO they got their stories from!)

So, thoughts?

If fairy tales aren't an oral tradition and have always been a literary tradition, does that change the way you think of them?

(She makes a clear distinction between the folk and fairy tales - in that the folk tales did have oral transmission and the fairy tales did not.)


message 2: by L.S. (new)

L.S. Johnson (ls_johnson) | 3 comments It doesn't change how I read them as a child, as I only knew them as a form of literature . . . but as an adult, certainly. I initially studied fairy tales from a Jungian perspective, all excited by what I took to be some kind of deep, culture-specific wisdom that at the same time was rife with commonalities that crossed all sorts of boundaries. As I delved deeper and discovered that many of the tales I studied were, at best, reconstructed by their transcribers—who brought with them their own notions of what constituted stories, lessons, etc.—I felt as if I had been interpreting the tales to fit these neat overarching structures, rather than looking first and foremost at the tales themselves.


message 3: by Daniel (new)

Daniel | 1 comments Although I see the merit in taking a new approach to historical fairy tale scholarship, this particular route strikes me as an "all or nothing" approach...I find Bottigheimer's ideas rather founded in cultural evolutionism and ignorant of decades of folklore researchers before her. If Straparola did, in fact, create the fairy tale, it was not without genealogical origins in Latin wonder tales and other oral myths or folk narratives. Privileging the literary over the oral definitively strikes me as an attempt to shock rather than really persuade her readership, and focusing on solely Europeans as contributors to the fairy tale seems nearsighted, if not downright prejudiced.

Jack Zipes' critical essay on this book strikes the point on the nose: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~caforum...


message 4: by Jalilah (last edited Oct 18, 2012 06:10AM) (new)

Jalilah | 132 comments The book sounds interesting Melanti!
A while ago in the into the Forest Group the moderator posed some interesting background information on the Grimms. I hope I am not violating a rule by re-posting the link:
http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/8...
In it she mentions that most of the tales came from the Grimm’s friends and acquaintances many of whom descended from French Protestants who had fled persecution during the religious wars. Therefore many of the stories originated in France.

I know that in the music industry many songs, in particular Bules and Folk, referred to as “traditional” actually were originally composed by someone. It would make sense that the same would be true for Fairy Tales.

If it is true that fairy tales have always been a literary rather than oral tradition hmmm does it change the way way think of them? I am not sure yet!


Melanti | 114 comments Jalilah wrote: "The book sounds interesting Melanti! A while ago in the into the Forest Group the moderator posed some interesting background information on the Grimms. I hope I am not violating a rule by re-posti..."

It was very interesting, but I think Daniel's coming close when he talks about cultural evolutionism. (That's considered a faux pas in anthropology/sociology circles, btw.) I’m not sure I’d quite go that far.

Bottigheimer very narrowly defines fairy tales as being about royalty/nobility/upper class, containing a magic helper of some sort, and having particular plots. Everything else she relegates to being a folk tale.

I read a Native American folklore collection last weekend which contains a story with a beginning that follows the “Cinderella” plotline until she leaves the ball. As I was reading it, it struck me that even if the story had mirrored Cinderella all the way to the end, according to Bottigheimer's definition, it could never be a fairy tale since most Native American tribes don't have what we think of as royalty or nobility.

Her definition, by its very nature, is euro-centric and if you start with a biased premise, you're bound to end up with a biased result.

It’s similar to the old question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Each individual bird isn't that different than the one that came before, but at one time there weren't chickens and now there are. If you define what you call "chicken" narrowly enough, you might be able track the original egg/chicken down to a specific breeder or town – which is sort of what Bottigheimer is doing.

To me, it makes sense that there'd be some back and forth between literary and oral traditions - at least, it makes sense now that I know a literary tradition existed. And that fact was what I found interesting about this book – the tradition and what it consisted of.

Daniel, that article looks interesting. I'm going to try to read it soon. I should read more Zipes in general - I know just enough fairy tale history to sound like I might know what I'm talking about but not enough for that to be true.


message 6: by Jalilah (new)

Jalilah | 132 comments Yes I think that the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg holds true here. Cinderella seems to be quite a universal theme. There is even one in New Mexican folk tales with the Virgin Mary replacing the Fairy Godmother. I know there is a Chinese version too. For the record, some of the Native American nations do have a kind of royalty but of course there is less difference in the way they live from the others than in European royalty.


message 7: by Kate (new)

Kate Forsyth (Kate_Forsyth) | 1 comments Have you read Jack Zipes new book 'The Irrestible Fairy Tale'? Because he does a fairly thorough job of debunking Ruth Bottigheimer's premise in 'A New History'. I'm actually doing my doctorate on fairy tale retellings now, and its clear that the stories have been handed down through the generations, sometimes by mouth, sometimes by being written down, always changing and being transformed by the intent of the teller. Straparola and Basile were influential, yes ... but they did not create fairy tales. As Angela Carter wrote, finding the inventor of fairy tales would be like trying to find the inventor of the meatball :)


message 8: by Brittany (new)

Brittany | 10 comments I sadly don't have time to make a more detailed comment at the moment but I'm another person currently working on a PhD concentrating on fairy tale retellings I second Kate's comment wholeheartedly. I also encourage a look at the special Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of American Folklore about this topic - there was quite a big outcry against Bottigheimer's claims!


message 9: by Danielle (new)

Danielle | 5 comments Isn't one of the earliest versions of Cinderella Yeh-Shen from China? I think it's hard to separate oral from literary. Certainly the Comte des fees were literary but were some sources from childhood tales? Do we need to figure out if each source was adapted from a story read or heard? Couldn't they be both? I consider Anderson and Oscar Wilde's fairy tales as still fairy tales. So the notion of source doesn't change my viewpoint. I consider it a cross germination of read and heard. What makes a great story is still universal.


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