By: Irina Gleyzerman
As Marina Warner comments in From the Beast to the Blonde , “Fairy tales offer an escape, a dream world, a possibility for change” (xvii). There have been many studies and many books written about the fairy tale. However, no modern writer has been able strictly to interpret fairy tales and come to an ideal conclusion about their meaning and their effect on people. This is the miracle of fairy tales; they open an enchanted world to each reader and allow the reader to develop his or her idea of a fantasy. No one has been able to pinpoint the precise origins of the fairy tale. The fairy tale is a fantasy, which is altered and interpreted differently by each person who reads it. According to Jack Zipes, whose literary career is based on the history of fairy tales, “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 innocence” (xv). The fairy tale has remained a sacred genre because its enchantment and simplicity allow for varied interpretations from any reader and therefore it transcends precise interpretations. This is why we love the fairy tale so much; it is unique to every reader.
The literary fairy tale is a modern genre. The written versions of oral folk tales were first officially categorized as fairy tales in the late seventeenth century. The tales are modeled after “Wonder tales,” which is the name for German oral folk tales that were written down to record and distribute them to the public. The literary fairy tale could not become a literary genre until conditions could provide for its development. The most significant influence on the process of recording stories told orally is the standardization of vernacular languages, which later became official nation-state languages. Another is the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century and the growth rate of literacy allowing for mass circulation of the tales (Zipes, xx). Since the literary fairy tale originated, it has evolved and expanded as a genre. These stories were popularized in the seventeenth century by Charles Perrault, who was the first author to have widespread success with his fairy tales. In the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm wrote their tales and are believed to have founded the basis for the scientific study of folklore and folk literature (Opie, 27). Finally, the fairy tale has become a classic in modern American culture through its popularization by the Disney dynasty of movies, books, and paraphernalia. In this paper, I will discuss the evolution of the modern fairy tale from the oral folk tale to Disney's American cultural Icon.
The modern fairy tales of today most probably began as oral tales, many of which date back thousands of years. The origin of each oral tale is not identifiable and its exact dates of origin are unknown. In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, “wonder tales” were written down and provided the basis for the modern fairy tale genre. Writers like Boccaccio who wrote The Decameron and Chaucer whose famous stories are the Canterbury tales , helped pave the way for the future establishment of the fairy tale as an independent genre (Zipes, xxi). The fairy tale became a genre that was beginning to gain respect. The tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer became extremely popular and have remained popular today.
“Wonder tales” were mostly told by peasants who constituted the majority of the population in the Middle Ages. For peasants, the tales gave a hope for change. For unfortunate peasants, “Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate[d] people to look for signs of fulfillment and emancipation” (Zipes, xviii). The tales usually present a good protagonist who is loyal and faithful to others. At the end of the tale, the protagonist is rewarded for his goodness and lives “happily ever after.”
Like every other genre of literature there were some boundaries for writers of fairy tales: “the first stage for the literary fairy tale involved a kind of class and perhaps even a gender appropriation” (Zipes, xx). Starting in the sixteenth century, women's voices were suppressed because they were not often allowed to be scribes. The voices of the lower classes were also silent because most were illiterate. Only males of the upper classes within particular communities were allowed to publish the fairy tales (xx). This lasted until the eighteenth century when Charles Perrault helped a female relative publish her work (Opie, 24).
The fairy tale was established as an official genre in the year 1690 in France (Zipes, xxii). In its initiation, the literary fairy tale was made popular by Charles Perrault. Perrault published his fairy tale collection: “Histoires ou contes du temps passé,” in 1697. This collection included eight tales, seven of which remain the most popular tales in children's literature today. Perrault's tales were the most popular of the time, and Perrault's literature was strongly encouraged by King Louis XIV. The king was very ambitious and wanted to make the French language and customs as highly regarded as those of the Greek. In the king's reign, he pushed for a “cultural flourishing” which was brought about by many famous writers like Descartes, Pascal and Perrault (Canton, 20). The king's support for Perrault allowed him to publish and distribute numerous tales. King Louis' intention was to elevate fairy tales to the category of “high art,” stamping them with the imprint of literary elegance and with moral lessons that would penetrate the minds of children (Canton, 22). The king's determination for the distribution of fairy tales worked: “within the next century, French high society was literally inundated with fairy tales” (Canton, 21).
Perrault's tales began to be used as a form of moral education for upper- class children. It is believed that Perrault wrote his tales to educate his three sons (Canton, 18). Governesses also used his tales to educate groups of little girls and boys on the importance of morals in bourgeois homes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Zipes, xxiii). Governesses and other caretakers would discuss fairy tales at salon teas as a way to express discontentment with marital arrangements and patriarchal domination and were inspired to write their own versions of the tales and publish them (Canton, 18). This created an opening for women to publish their own original tales. Two women who benefited from this are Madame D'aulnoy and Madame de Beaumont.
Madame D'aulnoy was a countess; she wrote in the late seventeenth/ early eighteenth century. She was Perrault's relative and he helped her publish her work. She began to write to amuse her friends and soon became an innovator of the genre because of her extremely imaginative descriptions. Madame D'aulnoy's most famous work was the tales that she wrote for Mother Bunch , a famous collection of fairy tales. Madame de Beaumont was a governess who wrote in the eighteenth century. She was inspired to write out of a deep involvement with children. She wrote “The Young Misses Magazine” in 1761 to educate her pupils through the use of fairy tales (Opie, 24). Perrault was the most popular writer of the time, but fairy tales in the seventeenth century were written mainly by governesses and countesses. Women, for the first time had begun to publish their work and make money writing fairy tales.
Perrault's tales remained popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France. However, by the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm published their collection “Kinder-und Hausmarchen ” in Germany. Since their publication in 1812,the Grimms' fairy tales have received more attention and aroused more controversy than any other form of literature (Opie, 17). In the nineteenth century the fairy tale underwent a shift. The fairy tale became very controversial because it became a means for the discussion of social and political issues in Europe. The tales began to address philosophical and practical concerns of the growing middle classes and critiqued many regimes. The Grimm brothers were professors of German Literature at the University of Goettingen and were strong supporters of Liberals who wanted to unify German speaking states; they were opposed to absolute monarchy taking place in German speaking countries. They were almost of their rights to teach for their political views. Children's tales were closely monitored and scrutinized by government censors. These tales were considered “improper” for children (Zipes, xxv).
Between their first publications in 1812 through their last in 1857, the Grimm Brothers published two hundred and eleven tales. Their work was designed to appeal to both children and adults. They created the tales so they could be easily grasped by children and also entertaining and enlightening for adults: “the stories were so well-written and well-illustrated that they appealed to young and old, romantic and scholarly” (Opie, 25). The Grimms' tales were less focused on the teaching of morals with more emphasis on amusement for children. Society began to understand that children needed the “time and space for recreation without having morals and ethics imposed on them” (Zipes, xxvi). Children were no longer looked upon as little adults; they needed childlike amusement until they reached adulthood (xxvi). The Grimm Brothers were the first to introduce this idea in their literature, and since their introduction, literature for children has assumed a transformation.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the fairy tale has become institutionalized. Schools integrated the use of fairy tales into class curriculums. Many tales were “sanitized” by the re-writers to take out grim details and political notions to make sure that they were appropriate for promoting to children. The fairy tale was no longer directed to adults, and the classic fairy tale became aimed solely at children while novels and novellas became the “fairy tale” for adults. The institutionalization of the fairy tale impelled psychologists, sociologists and folklorists to analyze the immense effect that the fairy tale has had on the population, which brought more attention to the genre because of the studies published (Zipes, xxix).
The first famous tale of the twentieth century is The Wizard of Oz , written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum. The tale has since dominated literature, drama, and the film industry (Zipes, xxviii). However, it is impossible to discuss the literary fairy tale in its twentieth-century context without focusing on the main creator of a 47-billion dollar company: Walt Disney. In the middle of the twentieth century Disney revolutionized the fairy-tale genre: “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 ” (xxx). “Snow White” is a fairy tale that Disney had taken from the Grimm Brothers and transformed to suit his own tastes and ideas. Furthermore, he took a German tale and embedded strictly American ideals into it. He made Snow White a young lady instead of a little girl; this allowed him made her look like the most famous actresses in American film at the time to appeal to the American focus on defining beauty. For this first major production he invested millions of dollars into research, equipment and staffing to perfect it. The result was an immense success. Since then the Disney name has become synonymous with the fairy tale genre and his signature has replaced the names of his predecessors (Bell, Haus & Sells, 21).
In the book From the Mouse to the Mermaid the authors write about how Disney has taken over a whole genre: “it was not once upon a time, but at a certain time in history, before anyone knew what was happening, that Walt Disney cast a spell on the fairy tale and he has held it captive ever since” (21). With his industry Disney has overtaken the fairy tale, erased its history, and eliminated writers like Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm from children's minds: “children who think of ‘Snow White,' ‘Sleeping Beauty,' or ‘Cinderella' think of Disney [instead of the original authors]” (Bell, 21). The fairy tale today is so much associated with the name “Disney” it is as if he had invented the entire genre.
In his versions of the tales, Disney continued with an idea of the nineteenth century, which classified children as “children” and not as small adults. He enforced this idea by taking out most of the serious morals and teachings that were directed to adults and putting jokes and vivid colors in their place (Bell, 38). Disney sometimes subversively was very imperialistic in his re-writing of the tales. Historically, Americans had gone into other countries, defeated them and imposed their own political ideals and Disney too took the works of the Grimm Brothers and drastically imposed his own ideals to make the works his own (Bell, 39). Disney molded the female characters' appearance according to American beauty standards of the times; he took out some dramatic aspects of the stories and embellished the romantic plot.
In the 1960's Walt Disney productions also became a key factor in the lives of young adults during the period of the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that Disney seems to support the American attitude of imperialism and because he deleted all political themes from his tales, students who supported the anti-war movement, and supported a key slogan of the movement: “power to the imagination” turned to his fantasy literature to escape and indirectly revolt against the reality of the Vietnam War (Zipes, xxx). Some researchers have stated that Disney's “imperialism” is distressing: “There is something sad in the manner in which Disney ‘violated' the literary genre of the fairy tale and packaged his versions and his name through the merchandising of books, toys, clothing, and records” (Bell, 40). However, without the Disney industry, the fairy tale would never have achieved the status and become as influential in American culture as it is today: “Few cultural icons match the signifying power of the Disney Company (Bell, 45)."
Since its genesis in the the oral folk tales, which date back thousands of years in history, the fairy tale has developed into one of the most influential forms of literature in society. The “wonder tale” began to take on a literary form in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The literary fairy tale was officially named a literary genre in 1690 in France when improvements in literacy and the printing press allowed for its growth. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the genre was dominated by Charles Perrault who achieved this domination with help from the King of France. During this time the fairy tale was significant because King Louis XIV used it as a means to enhance the status of French literature and culture. Also in this period, women began to write and sell fairy tales for the first time. In the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm furthered the expansion of the genre by writing 212 tales that have become the main focal point of the study and development of the genre. The tales of the Brothers Grimm received a great amount of attention by evoking discussions of the political subtexts in the tales. They were also the first to tailor their tales to the idea of childhood innocence. In the twentieth century, the fairy tale has become institutionalized through the work of one man: Walt Disney. Disney's movies, books, toys, and clothes have revolutionized the fairy tale. Disney has had such a powerful influence on the fairy tale that children associate classic stories with his name and are not aware of the existence of the original creators and their works. The fairy tale has become a major influence in all spheres since the Disney creations. The tales influence politics, education, and family life throughout the world.
From its origins to the present, the fairy tale has played an influential part in shaping people's lives and the three main “fathers” of the tales, Charles Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, and Walt Disney have created a fantasy dream world and a form of escape for readers. This effect of the fairy tale of its reader is unique because each reader has his/her own interpretation and the fantasy dream world exists exclusively in each reader's mind.