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Evolving the "happily ever after"

rmehta's picture

“We tell stories because, in order to cope with the present and to face the future, we have to create the past, both as time and space, though narrating it” says W.F.H. Nicolaisen. Such is the opening epithet to Cristina Bacckilega’s book Postmodern Fairy Tales (1). We connect our different time realms by a bridge of remembrance, constructed in the form of narration as to keep the past alive.  It is through oral tradition that the first form of narration was past down, and it is through this form that the fairy tale canon first began to evolve (2).  The evolution of the familiar “once upon a time” tale is a question of cultural moral transition and the perpetuation of reality through the unreal. 

With origins stemming from ancient Greco-Roman mythology, fairy tales underwent a vast transition through the act of spoken history.  Undergoing an intense alteration in the 17th century with the French adaptation of children’s literature, the true first collectors are said to be the Brothers Grimm (2).  By the early 1800s, they were considered to be the first to preserve the true form of the fairy tale, including plot, character and style through a collection of Germanic tales in 1812 (2).  Some familiar stories that are still known today and that have become popularized by the mass media include Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White (2). The transition of the fairy tale between centuries emanates a change in times and culture, portrayed by varying social and political changes from its various non-European manifestations (3).  The Brothers Grimm’s work highly influences several other collectors, beginning to form a mirror representation of the culture and society in which the story was adapted. Overall, the evolution of the fairy tale canon initiates important questions of how and why do such “make believe” stories stick. What is the cultural implication of literary evolution?

In relation to discussing the trajectory of a genre within one culture and time period, it is interesting to focus on how a culture internalizes a fairy tale and molds it to its own fitting and identity. While Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are familiar short stories to our childhood psyches, the representative nature of each of these stories to each individual is different, as is perhaps the version of the story that they remember.  The emerging genre is undoubtedly a reflection of the time in which it written, encompassing the social and political climate of the time whether on the surface or within its intertextual representation.  This brings into question if every classic and emerging genera is fixed within its time, unable of evolving in it intertextual form but changing simply in it applied context. Each fairy tale seems to continuously mold itself to an institutionalized discourse in which it is relevant, molding to the audience and culture in which it is predominantly being passed down by.  However, within this individualistic mold, there exists a sense of commonality. If in general a genre tends to continuously evolve, then what is it that makes a fairy tale tend to stick (if it is continuously evolving)? 

Looking at a specific example, the Brother’s Grimm’s version of Snow White, or rather Little Snow White, unveils German culture and the time in which it was written (4).  External from our conscious perception or reality, this fairy tale encompasses and highlights the emphasis on the unreal to emphasize moral understandings.  In the Brother’s Grimm version of Snow White, there is the unreal image of the evil step mother having the mirror that can speak to her in regards to her beauty and affirm that she is the “fairest one of them all”. Within a land of fairy tale, the Brother’s Grimm version draws a real connection to the moral understanding of true beauty.   Similar to mythological construction in describing an internal conflict of a struggling character, this version of Snow White seems to emphasize an understanding in the difference between inner and outer beauty. The tale also offers a chance for solution and contemplation, revealing the ability to reach a higher, more moral, humanity.  If the actions of the Queen are copied, then a detrimental fate is achieved; however, if the “good” is followed, then the lesson is learned. This “good versus evil” conflict perpetuates through every culture in one form another, forming a commonality and ability to relate fairy tales through these shared conflicts of morality. 

As Jack David Zipes states in his novel Why Fairy Tales Stick, “What is the generic nature of the fairy tale that accounts for its cultural relevance and its attraction?” (5). Perhaps it is the ability to perpetuate the unreal in the most real way.  As Zipes writes, “The literary fairy tale assists us in coming to terms with the absurdity and banality of every day life” (5). He continues,



We tend to shape and form information as a public representation in special ways that can be

categorized socially and aesthetically, and as the human species has evolved, we have cultivated

specific art forms linguistically, cognitively and physically to express and communicate our beliefs and

also or wonder about reality and the supernatural (5). 


There has to be an understood combination of novelty, simplicity, coherence and utility within the story such that it can perpetuate through changing social environments and remain alive. 

Making something stick implies intention and a deliberate want for remembrance.  In addition, in making something memorable or putting it on a pedestal, there’s this inherent nature to compare it to something outside the normal realm of everyday life.  In passing down fairy tales, there is a sense of selective “special-ness” that is inherent in which fats to leave in or out when writing a story as well. The importance of imitation, transmission and interpretation cannot be overlooked. Where is the line between representation and interpretation and how does the literary world evolve to retain representation but embody new interpretation in the context of modernity? 

While the fairy tale genre has undergone an evolutionary transition, the past and modern stories seem to continue to perpetuate as a result of the commonality of human experience within each tale.  Within a progressive change, there exists an apparent stasis.  In ever tale there is the common contrast of good and evil and the “learned outcome” from a moment of struggle.  In the midst of poplar tradition it makes one question how in the essence of progressive modernity is ancient story telling still alive? Perhaps it is through these common moral dichotomies that an expansive canon is able to remain alive in each of its social and cultural contexts.


Work Cited      

  1. Bacchilega, Cristina Post Modern Fairy Tales: gender and narrative strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  5. Zipes, Jack David. Why fairy tales stick. CRC Press, 2006. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

fairy tales, stories, and history

"we have to create the past, both as time and space, though narrating it"

"Within a progressive change, there exists an apparent stasis."

Interesting juxtaposition.  If we're actually creating the past, might one think differently about the history of fairy tales?  About stasis and change?