"There exists a European convention of an archetypal female storyteller, 'Mother Goose' in English, 'Ma Mere l'Oie' in French, an old woman sitting by thefireside . . . . Obviously, it was Mother Goose who invented all the 'old wives' tales,' even if old wives of any sex can participate in this endless recycling process, when anyone can pick up a tale and make it over. Old wives' tales — that is, worthless stories, untruths, trivial gossip, a derisive label that allots the art of storytelling to women at the exact same time that it takes all value from it."
— Angela Carter
Many scholars over the last century have attempted to define why fairy tales and magical stories can be found in virtually every culture around the globe. Some scholars view magical tales as pre–scientific attempts to explain the workings of the universe; others see in them remnants of pagan religions or tribal initiation rites; still others dissect them for symbolic portrayals of feminist or class history. The most fascinating thing about fairy tales is that there is some truth in all these different views. There are many ways to interpret the old tales, whether as allegory or metaphor, as art or simple entertainment. No single deconstruction of a fairy tale is "correct," no single version of a tale is the "true" one. The old tales exist in many different forms, changing and adapting from culture to culture, from generation to generation. The tales themselves are shape–shifters: elusive, mysterious, mutable, capable of wearing many different forms. This fact is at the core of their power, and is the source of their longevity. It is also what makes them such usefuls tool for women artists, writers, and storytellers.
J.R.R. Tolkien compared fairy tales to the bones from which a savory broth is extracted. Each storyteller dips his or her ladle into that bubbling cauldron of soup, and then uses it as the base of a dish individually spiced and flavored. The soup has been simmering for centuries — there are no cooks we can credit as the originators of the first fairy tales; there is no single version of each tale we can call definitive. At best, we can point to the cooks who have served up particularly memorable variations on old, common themes: the French version of Cinderella, for example, is the best known variant of the "ash girl" tale cyle; Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is the best–loved version of the older "undine" story; the chaste German rendition of The Sleeping Beauty is the one that most of us know today (as opposed to older versions of the tale in which the slumbering princess is impregnanted by her prince and does not wake from enchanted sleep until she gives birth to twins). Each of these classic fairy tales is based upon themes that are universal. The earliest known versions of Cinderella, for instance, date back to 9th century China; we also find her in the Middle East, India, Africa, and even in North America (in such stories as The Rough–faced Girl told by the Algonquin tribe). While the flavor of each tale might change according to the culture, the times, and the teller, the core of the tale remains the same — because at their core these are stories that speak of the most basic elements of the human condition: fear, courage, greed, generosity, cruelty, compassion, failure, and triumph. As a result, their themes are as relevant now as they’ve been for many centuries past.
Though now we think of fairy tales as stories intended for very young children, this is a relatively modern idea. In the oral tradition, magical stories were enjoyed by listerners young and old alike, while literary fairy tales (including most of the tales that are best known today) were published primarily for adult readers until the 19th century. In Europe, the earliest published fairy tales come primarily from two Italian collections: Giovan Francesco Straparola's The Delectable Nights (1550-53) and Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales (1634-36). These stories were sensual, bawdy, unflinchingly violent, morally complex, and intended for adult audiences. (Straparola, in fact, had to defend his collection again charges of indecency from the Venetian Inquisition. He protested that he'd merely retold the tales he learned from a circle of old women.) The Italian collections were almost certainly known by French writers of the 17th century who created a vogue for adult fairy tales in the literary salons of Paris. The French fairy tale writers were so popular and prolific that when their stories were eventually collected in the 18th century, they filled forty–one volumes of a massive publication called the Cabinet des Fées. Charles Perrault is the French fairy tale writer whom history has singled out for attention, but the majority of tales in the Cabinet des Fées were penned by women writers who ran and attended the leading salons: Marie–Catherine d’Aulnoy, Henriette Julie de Murat, Marie–Jeanne L'Héritier, and numerous others. These were educated women with an unusual degree of social and artistic independence, and within their use of the fairy tale form one can find distinctly subversive, even feminist subtext.
Today the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old–fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious — in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function — disguising the stories' sly subtext in order to slide them past the court censors. Critiques of court life, and even of the king, were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young but clever aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies — as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies stepped in and put all to rights. Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name contes des fées (fairy tales) was coined — a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate — just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.
Fairy tales for adult readers remained popular throughout Europe well into the 19th century — particularly in Germany, where the Brothers Grimm published their massive collection of German fairy tales (revised and edited to reflect the Brothers' patriotic and patriarchal ideals), providing inpiration for novelists, poets, and playrights among the German Romantics. Recently, fairy tale scholars have re–discovered the enormous body of work produced by women writers associated with the German Romantics: Grisela von Arnim, Sophie Tieck Bernhardi, Karoline von Günderrode, Julie Berger, and Sophie Albrecht, to name just a few. In 1843 a group of women intellectuals gathered in Berlin to create a women's conversation salon modeled after the fairy tale salons of Paris, meeting weekly between 1843 and '48 (when the Revolution forced them to disband). The women of the Kaffeterkreis, as it was called, presented stories, art work, musical compositions, and performed their own fairy tale plays for audiences that included the Prussian monarch. As Jeannine Blackwell and Shawn C. Jarvis have documented in their book The Queen's Mirror: Fairy Tales by German Women, women writers published over two hundred fairy tale collections between 1845 and 1900, far out–numbering their male colleagues. A full history of German women's tales of the period, however, has yet to be published.
In England in the 19th century, advances in printing methods, combined with the rise of a prosperous middle class, engendered a booming new industry of books published just for children. Casting about for cheap story material, English publishers laid hands on the subtle, sensual adult fairy tales of the Continental tradition and revised them into simpler stories instilled with Victorian values. Although these simplified versions retained much of the violence of the older stories, elements of sexuality and moral complexity were carefully scrubbed away — along with the fiesty heroines who appeared everywhere in the older tales, tamed now into models of Victorian propiety and passivity. In the 20th century, the Walt Disney Studios watered down the tales further still in popular animated films like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, continuing the trend of turning active heroines into powerless damsels in distress. Walt Disney considered even the Victorian versions of the tales too dark for 20th century audiences. "It's just that people now don't want fairy stories the way they were written," Disney commented. "They were too rough." (For an example of this, read about the history of the Snow White fairy tale and Disney film here).
As the 20th century progressed, fairy tales were pushed further and further into the nursery, published in children's editions influenced by the Victorian and Disney versions. The entire genre came to be viewed as simple, silly, sexist stories in which passive, dutiful, beautiful girls grew up to marry rich Prince Charmings. It was largely forgotten that in centuries past fairy tales had not been so simple and saccharine, happy endings had not been guaranteed, and heroines had not sat passively awaiting rescue by a passing prince. Fairy tales in the past had looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young women to the highest bidder in the form of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity.