Like most mythology, fairy tales started as oral stories only. Their actual origins are forever shrouded as the stories were traded by illiterate peasants throughout continental Europe from 600AD-1700AD. The stories spread, carried by travelers and merchants where people appropriated them as their own and re-told them, often making small changes to fit the new geography and culture.
Because they weren’t written and spread, there are no definitive versions. The most popular stories (Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) have half a dozen or more versions. Because of this, the people we think of as authors of fairy tales were not. They were collectors of tales, and often did so regionally.
Charles Perrault (French, 1628-1703) laid the groundwork for fairy tales to become a literary genre.
- “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Puss in Boots” , “Sleeping Beauty”, “Bluebeard”
- “Hansel & Gretel”, “Frog Prince”, “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Snow White”
- "Little Mermaid", "Snow Queen", "Ugly Duckling", "Nightingale", "Emperor's New Clothes"
There are so many different fairy tales that experts had to create the Aarne-Thompson Classification System to classify different story types into groups by plot elements as follows: (category: type numbers)
- Animal: 1-299
- Fairy (supernatural): 300-749
- Religious: 750-849
- Realistic: 850-999
- Tales of stupid ogre, giant, or Devil: 1000-1199
- Anecdotes and Jokes: 1200-1999
- Formula tales: 2000-2399
Fairy tales, like mythology, are packed with meaning, and the unique feature of being disconnected from specific settings makes it easier to assign meanings. Here are a few interpretations of Red Riding Hood.
- Politics: Lower classed wolf rises up to destroy wealthy upper class of Red and Grandma.
- Nature: Natural world’s cunning and power overcomes humanity despite technological superiority.
- Sex: Wolf is a sexual predator. Uses deception, devours women, and fetishizes physical features.
- Curiosity: Red talking to the Wolf, gathering flowers, and questioning the Wolf leads to destruction.
- Trickster: Wolf as mythological trickster who hides and deceives, treating humanity as an amusement.
- Culture: Red’s lack of prudence makes her, and Grandma, suffer the Wolf’s cleverness (and teeth).
- Innocence Lost: Children cannot afford to retain innocence in a cruel world.
Properties of Fairy Tales
- Length: Fairy Tales are generally short, never more than a dozen pages long
- Disconnected: Fairy tales are ambiguous as to setting and character names, which make them universally accessible (“Once upon a time . . .”, “There once was a . . .”, “In the faraway kingdom . . .”).
- Though not locked down to a time, they are universally in a medieval world, reflecting the time period that created them (kingdoms, princesses, knights, magic, swords, and fantastic creatures).
Optional (Many fairy tales have these elements, but they’re not universal)
- Fantastic: Elements of supernatural character/creature/power/item helps propel story forward.
- Unhappy: The first fairy tales did not end well. They served as cautionary tales. Only later through the Grimms and Andersen did they move to a children’s audience and “happily ever after”.
- “True Love’s Kiss” is a modern convention. http://popularromanceproject.org/true-loves-kiss/
- Inconsistent conflict: Many stories use throwaway antagonists that instigate the plot, but never return.
- The old fairy in “Sleeping Beauty” cursed the princess, but was never heard from again.
- Folklore and Mythology Texts by D.L.Ashliman (ed.). This collection has thousands of tales, including different versions of popular stories. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html
- Le Cabinet des Fées by Leprince de Beaumont, Perrault, and Gérard. The original collection of stories from France, which predates the Grimm stories. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/28891
- The Internet Sacred Text Archive is probably the most comprehensive source for mythology and fairy tales out there. Simply search for Fairy Tales. http://www.sacred-texts.com/search.htm
- The Metamorphoses by Ovid. Many fairy tales have connections to older mythology stories, especially of the Greeks and Romans, who were fond of fantastic creatures and transformations.