Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books

Fairies and Fairy Tales

Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books
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Fairy Tale Interpretation

Introduction to Fairy Tale Interpretation

            Once upon a time people told each other stories for entertainment, and perhaps to some extent to help transmit their culture, for in the clash of cultures as was occuring in Europe throughout the age of fairy tale people will often define themselves by such stories. However as they passed their stories on from generation to generation something happened, their cultures changed, over and over again the concerns and thoughts of the people changed, some of these changes took years, others where dramatic from conversions to new religions, famines that drove them from their homes, and invaders from other lands. And as these people changed so to did their stories, morphing and evolving, these stories passed from culture to culture from person to person, and as they where passed on they would grow becoming a mean of the humanity from whence they came, and while such stories will always reflect the time that they come form they will reflect in some way thousands of years of human history, for the thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, and lives of thousands if not millions of people back each story.

            These people who told stories went through cycles, cycles of prosperity and of unparalleled poverty and horror, from times when starvation required the abandonment of children, to times when raging hoards from unknown lands destroyed everything that they held dear. Diseases swept the villages, with unknown causes the illnesses killed half the population prompting philosophers to advice parents not to get close to their children.

            At the same time these people experience triumph as they built a Renaissance, found room to dream, had children they loved, and a spouse who loved them. Many of these people even experienced the courage to stand up against the darkness, to overthrow their lords and to hope for a better future.

            This is the world of fairy tales, a strange world of magic and unparalleled human emotion. These stories are often the raw uncensored fears of the humans who created them, from dark woodlands to cannibals, incest, and wicked stepmothers, these stories tell of human history and human thought as few other things can. For as means of humanity folktales are not the thoughts and aspirations of one person but of generations upon generations of people. And each person has their own hopes, fears, and dreams. The fact that so many people have touched on fairy tales makes their interpretation in the historical purposes very difficult. For many symbols that made the first story significant have been altered, or taken out completely, replaced by new thoughts and ideas.

            In this set of articles I will mostly be concerned with past meanings of fairy tales, their historical values, as will as ways of understanding their historical meanings. This however does not mean that this is what fairy tales mean today, fairy tales change meaning depending on the time they are in, and depending on the way they are told, so they have likely changed meaning many times and will likely change meaning many more times. It is likely however that it is easier to interpret modern day meaning because you the reader create this meaning, historical meanings however have proved elusive, partly because people have felt the need to find universal truths in the stories, or deep psychological roots. However fairy tales likely have neither, a fairy tale is a story that is meant to change, meant to be altered, so by its very nature folktales are not so much universal in meaning as universal in the ability to be meaningful. In other words fairy tales do not mean the same thing for everyone or in every era, rather the way they are told, and changed is such that fairy tales can have meaning for everyone who reads them, and often this meaning is exactly what society is asking for. 

Cultural Relativism

To begin to understand what fairy tales meant to peoples in the past one must first come to understand the concept of cultural relativism, that is the viewing of an event, a story, etc through the eyes of the culture which that story (in the case of the fairy tale) comes from. This is necessary because universal ideas are rare, there are many if any complete universal truths in human beliefs, most ideas and concepts look differently to every culture and social group. This concept is complex in modern times, as there are literally thousands of cultures on the planet, however when one adds the element of history into this concept cultural relativism becomes even more difficult, for the people one is trying to understand are long dead. One therefore must use what they know, and yes sometimes what they can guess to understand these people. This means that the interpretation of humans as a whole is an ongoing process, and it is the debates, the questions, as much as the answers that make researching and interpreting the fairytale so interesting and fulfilling.

The next step to understanding fairy tales is to begin to research multiple cultures; this must be done without Western conceptions of the happiness of hunter gatherer or pastoral  cultures. For many the search to understand other cultures begins with preconceived notions, most often any more this is that these cultures are better in some way. One must remmember that people have developed the way they developed out of necessity on a planet with very different geological histories, weather patterns, and social histories. The Kung! were a hunter gatherer society because they where able to be, because a long series of events forced them to change in such a way that they would continue to be hunter gatherers. In New York City, humans have become a Metropolitan society because a long series of events forced them to change to become a  that form of society. Understanding cultures is a very difficult task, one which requires honesty and accepting that there are logical reasons for the way people are. It also requires the belief that life is hard for everyone that the struggle continues for all people no matter how internal or superficial everyone from the Pigmies in the Jungles to the Girl in California, to the starving peoples of the world, everyone has concerns, has sadness, anger, fear, joy, and with any luck love. You must come to accept and understand the emotions of other people to truly understand other people.

Finally in order to understand fairy tales you must of course begin to understand the history of the area where they came from and quite possibly a longer history behind that of peoples one would think are totally unrelated to the people in question. Cinderella for example was first written down as a story in China. This further adds difficulty to understanding any given fairy tale as it is likely that most have traveled geographically through cultures as will as through time. This aside however one can still learn a lot by examining a singe regions history, or a single peoples history, recalling that all people at some point where hunter gatherers, before evolving to other forms of hunter gatherer societies, or agricultural life styles. In studying a people’s history remember that what may be most important to the fairy tale are not typically wars, there are after all very few fairy tales of these things, rather what is important are famines, diseases, religious, and cultural changes. Each of these things could influence the way stories are told and the way people think, and so should be examined to understand the basics of how people at any given time may have felt. This way the history and the fairy tales will both work to help develop our understanding of a people, and humanity..


To begin to understand the difficulties in understanding fairy tales lets try an experiment I will tell you about two folk tales from different lands, and you will attempt to guess at their meaning. In the first folk tale some children sneak out into the fields at night, and are cursed by evil spirits. Much like the first tale the second is story two boys sneak off into the long grass together, there they talk to a women they don’t know who gives them food. She then eats one of them and chases the other who barely escapes with his life. 

What are the messages of these two fairy tales? If you said don’t sneak off at night your wrong, if you said don’t talk to strangers your wrong, and if you said anything involving sexuality you are very wrong.

The message of the first surprisingly for most people of Western cultures is in fact that you will be cursed if you go into the fields at night. This is becuase the story is a Micronesian story and there are many insects that can give horrible diseases to those who go into the fields at night. The people where well aware of the consiquences of going into the fields and night, though they did not know the origians of the diseases.

The second is a Yupik legend from the north, where the grass by rivers had sink holes which children could die in, stories where a way of keeping children away from these area’s yet children as young as seven would (and still do) wonder onto dry parts of the wilderness alone to hunt sometimes a mile or more from the village. So the concern was that long grass was dangerous, not that strangers, or the act of wandering off alone was dangerous.

Now lets try another experiment. Imagine three things with regards to the above stories. First a famine sweeps the land, making the abandonment of children a common event. Second imagine that the woodlands of both areas become filled with bandits, isolationists, wealthy nobles, fugitives and more. And that these peoples are dangerous, and have at times been dehumanized by the culture telling the stories, and are in many ways the targets of theft. Now imagine that fear of witches grows so great that people are burning them at the stakes by the thousands.

Suddenly you have the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Molly Whuppee who’s meanings are completely different from the above stories. Is this what happened to the Hansel and Gretel stories? One can’t of course know for certain but it is quite possible that such an evolution occurred.

            Remember always that the fairy tales you read are not likely the original tales even if they where written exactly as told, for every time period in history changed these stories to fit their needs and ends, to match their culture. Peasants after all had no qualms about changing the stories to fit what they wanted or needed to say, or to match what they felt was just good entertainment. Further the locations of the people telling the fairy tales changed constantly, so the meaning which may have been obvious in a certian geographical region, or cultural structure can be lost as the story leaves such regions.

It is important to continue the discussion of fairy tales by helping rekindle half-truths and discussing some of the claimed myths, as will as some of the likely facts regarding fairy tales, and their emotional impact on people. I will begin this by pointing out that folklorists as a whole will tend to agree that women are the mostly likely bearers of many of the fairy tales, at least within Europe. This does not mean that it was always they who told the stories, however in general it would seem that women who worked within the home, or who told stories to families and each other where the most likely tellers of such stories. This is important to understand because it can help explain why many of the most involved or interesting fairy tales involve female heroines. Keep in mind though this does not mean that fairy tales would be free from what we would consider sexist thoughts, as within may cultures the women are some of the main enforces of some of the major anti-feminist aspects of that culture.

Another thing to keep in mind when reading a fairy tale is that fairy tales were told by adults, often times to adults. The themes therefore are most often intended for adults, there is however an interesting facet to keep in mind in this. That is that this does not mean that these stories where not for children, though many have argued otherwise, in her book “The Witch Must Die” Sheldon Cashdan states that it is a myth that fairy tales teach messages and that they are intended for children. For Cashdan fairy tales are much too gruesome to have been intended for children. However while we may often feel lovely sentiments of coddling children the truth of the past is far from this. Think for example of how many children today watch movies rated R and PG-13, now put yourself in a one room house in the past. What are the odds in such a situation that children did not hear and have favorite stories, especially when you consider what children where in the past. Children where much harder then we think of them, for they watched half the population die during some times, from disease, are and famine. Children also did a lot of work, hard labor included, they where not so cuddled as today’s children. And if children heard fairy tales, then they would have altered the story tellers methods, and words, so for good or bad the children of the past where a part of the fairy tales, no matter how dark.

As for the idea that fairy tales do not teach lessons this is not the entire truth as all stories including fairy tales teach us things, because we the reader or listener to these stories will take meanings away from the stories. Further as we change and alter the stories we often emphasis the parts that would give the fairy tales the meaning that the person rewriting or retelling the fairy tale wants to give. For this reason the fairy tales we are reading now do teach us to be leery of strangers, to listen to our parents, and so forth. It doesn’t matter what the original story was or what it was intended for what maters is what the person receiving any given fairy tale is told. This was the same in the past as it is today.

            It is important to keep in mind also that even should the intended meaning of a story be to entertain the fairy tale will stoll transmit meaning. All Fairy tales are a way of transmitting messages it is just not always certain what this message might be. However to give a modern day example of such transmission of meaning the fact that everyone in movies needs to be beautiful to be loved gives these movies the message that you too must be beautiful to be loved. Snow White transmitted this same message to the listeners of the past as the princess succeeded in getting the prince because of her beauty. At the same time of course this story also taught the listeners that those who obsessed competitively over how they looked would be punished. This is the interesting conundrum of stories, for our cultural prejudices will show through even as we try to eliminate the message these prejudices tell.

            Finally for anyone who would presume that the people told fairy tales of the past solely for entertainment should read “The Grandfather and Grandson” one of the folktales compiled by the Grimm Brothers this story is a direct message about the treatment of ones elders, a story which is used in churches to this day. This message occurs because people not only look for messages in the stories they hear, but try to add them to the stories they tell just as often.

    I will mention at this point however that such meanings may have been placed in the stories by the very religious Grimm brothers, who altered many of the stories to some degree. So what meaning many of the stories orginally held may be lost.

            France and Germany, two lands one land and the back and fourth of history.

             For those in Western Culture there are in truth only a few fairy tales which are hear commonly,  these include Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, etc. Our most common conceptions of these fairy tales comes from France and Germany and to a lesser extent from Northern Italy. Though we might think of these countries has having distinct cultures which are unified among themselves and separate from one another this is not necessarily true now and it certainly wasn’t true in the past. At one time France Germany and Northern Italy where all occupied by a similar set of Germanic as will as more southern tribes that did not conform to modern boarders. Such groups included the Franks, the Lombard’s, the Goths, Gauls, Celts among many others. Further most all of these nations where at one point united into a single Empire ruled over by the Franks. The Franks were a Germanic Tribe who’s King is someone considered to be one of Frances Greatest Rulers, Charlemagne. Notice the cultural irony as these two kingdoms waged war and separated themselves from each other culturally, some of their most important cultural roots where fairly similar.

The Holy Roman Empire which spanned over these nations, is perhaps one fo the greatest influences within these countries and this regions because of it religious, infrastructural, and social contributions to people. When this Empires reign came to an end the Frankish domination of these nations did not, further the kingdom broke up along lines different from the current national lines. The boarders of these lands divided and subdivided, as its borders and peoples fluxuated, moved and fought wars within and among each other, until the countries we know today emerged. But when one considers that many of the fairy tales we know of today had their origins from thousands of years ago, we can see how many of them may have had their beginnings or major plot lines created during the time when France and Germany where the same set of nations.

Consider now that the Franks, and the peoples of this region began as hunters and gatherers, people who traveled to the cold Northern part of Europe, leaving behind warmer homes. These people grew hard, even as they began to farm, splitting up into what was likely a clannish tribal systems. This system of living was fairly close to nature, much more so then we normally associate with Western peoples, there was however something strange about these people. That is while most of the world is considered to be more socially geared towards collectivism all the peoples later conquered by these Germanic Tribes from 500 AD onwards would be some of the few individualistic peoples in the world. While it is common to associate such thinking with Rome and Greece, one must consider at the fact that the peoples who are the most individualistic in Europe are those who had the least influence from these groups, including Germany, England, France, Denmark, Sweden, and of course Northern Italy (Northern Italy was conquered and ruled by none Roman Tribes). Consider then that what existed in this region was likely current individualism or the birth place of this new cultural dimension. This made the carrying and changing of the fairy tales of this region much easier, allowing the fairy tales themselves to take on new forms. For individualists can switch sides, and ideas quickly, without truly switching sides, allowing extreme opposite thoughts to exist in the same person.

So as these tribes moved South into What was once Roman Territory, or Celtic lands they began to do two things. First they subdivided the territory into regions and second they began to adopt the ideas and stories of the southern peoples while changing these ideas to match their own desires. It was this subdivision of so many peoples in a single area that would force feudalism to come into being, for there where so many different groups in a given area, peoples displaced who would live in the woods as bandits, roving warlords, or just cultural enemies with different ideas about life who would hide in the dark woodlands. In such an environment the people where willing to give up their freedom in order to gain safety and protection. This seems like it could be important to understanding fairy tales for two reasons, first that people should be so afraid they are willing to give up their traditional freedoms is a significant factor in the stories people would choose to tell, and second all peoples in this area experienced a time when they had unknown dehumanized enemies out in the wilderness, or even in the next village over. In dehumanization one of the common beliefs is that those others eat humans, and since those others where common, stories of near human monster cannibals would therefore be very common as well.

Think of this and then think about the Hansel and Gretel stories, an evil creature in the woods waiting to devour people and most especially children. While the meaning of these stories likely changed they could easily have some of their roots, or at least their prevalence in the dehumanization of other peoples, in the early Dark Ages. This however does not explain how the parents in many of these stories could just abandon their kids, especially to the wiles of the evil beings in the woods.

The answer to this question likely came later as did the addition of abandoning ones children in the woods. For as disease and famine swept through Europe over half of all children born would die, prompting philosophers of the day to advise parents not to get too close to their children. While such advice was likely not always followed in full it would have influence, to the point where starvation did often lead parents to abandon their children to the wilderness. The abandonment then as will as the witch in the woods where both very real fears, not some psychological symbol.

Its interesting to note that many people seem to have been getting fairy tales all wrong for quite some time. Many people who have discussed fairy tales have said that the fairy tales represent some internal desire. That the villains are representative of the mother, puberty, and the bad parts of the listener. However it is just as likely that the villain represents the very real external fears of the story tellers, and of victory over such external forces. To illustrate this idea I would like you to imagine that you are a great hero. Now what are you battling? Chances are you imagine battling external forces, because while it is important to overcome sins and primal urges this is hardly what people typically day dream about over coming.

Then what exactly does the witch mean in fairy tales? The fairy tale after all is usually not a heroic struggle, in Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel or the vast majority of other evil villain fairy tales, the story seems to focus on more domestic events. According to Sheldon this means that the witch represents the bad parts of ones self, Bettelheim states that the witch represents wrongful sexual desires or the hate or anger of and at ones mother. However it is likely that these stories have multiple meanings, the majority of which involve the destruction of some external evil, or the avoiding of becoming evil.

            Remember that fairy tales are most often told by and to girls and women, this means that they will be most often maternal and female based conflicts. Further it is important to remember that no matter who was hearing the story such stories where most often told by adults, they then are not the stories children need to hear but the stories adults want children to hear. As Zipes has pointed out numerous times all such stories are adult stories, involving adult rather then child concerns, they are a way of socializing children.  For this reason it is unlikely that psycho-analysis came into play in such stories for it would be a rare Medieval parent to even think of Oedipal concepts much less that this would be the parents primary concern within a story. Parents rarely tell children stories to help them with their sexual longings, at least not in so obscure a way as many people seem to think they have. Certainly in the Twelve Dancing Princesses the story likely had such elements in them, it was after all about girls sneaking out at night to dance with boys. Such a story is much more blatant in its plot line however, and it involves no witches no major defeated opponents.

Think now of Cinderella, and other wicked stepmother stories (keep in mind when examining the wicked step mother motiph that Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White had the orignial villions as their actual mother, the Grimm's changed this in order to make the stories more acceptable). In many of these stories the young girl is successful because of the faith in their first mothers words, their hard work and continued kindness. Of further importance is likely the punishment of the wicked step mother, in a time when stepmothers where common as women died young one of the primary cultural mores was that women should make good stepmothers. It would have been the fear of every women that when they died their children should end up with a wicked stepmother, someone who cared little for their child, so the moral of these stories may have been that the stepmothers success and happiness might rest with the step daughter and failing to realize this could lead to punishment. There are likely many other meanings to such tales, but the repeated stepmother theme is likely due to the fear that ones child would end up with an evil stepmother should the real mother die.

As for physical witches in fairy tales, their presence and death could in truth result from the real belief and killingKinder- und Hausmärchen of witches at this time. For much of the time of fairy tales millions of women and girls where burned as witches and so the fear that such things might be in the woods or in the castle was very real. So to was the fear that a girl might succumb to the temptations of magic, the devil and witchcraft. People feared their daughters might follow the dark path of those portrayed in the stories.

Remember at the time when most fairy tales in Europe where told it was believed that girls where indeed very susceptible to the dark lure of witchcraft, that they where lustful, and weak willed, so susceptible to the traps of the devil. While obviously women and girls are likely no more or even arguably less susceptible to many lures one cannot place the constraints of reality over fairy tales for these are about beliefs from the time they came out of. And during the dark ages plagues, famines, and nature ravaged the poor of Europe, causing them to believe that there where indeed evil witches among them working dark magic’s, and people enjoyed the destruction of these beings so much that at times they would pitch into a wild fervor killing and torturing thousands of people. Further at these times it became a form of entertainment to watch executions. For the girl then to destroy the witch in the fairy tale is an indication of the duel nature of the fairy tale, for as tales told by women they are often about female heroines, but as the primary fear of the time was that of an external female witch, and the possibility that a girl might become one was so real that the witch had to die at the end of the story. This death would represent a victory over external fears, just as it would represent a lesson to people not to take the route of devil craft or they would end up as the witch ended up.

Remember as you study fairy tales that they have duel many meanings, meanings which have changed over time as the stories have been edited and reedited to fit the time period of the telling.

Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books


Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books