Fairytales: Why & How Stories Evolve Over Time [Elements of Fantasy]

April 14, 2017     Michelle     Elements of Fantasy

Elements of Fantasy is a feature I host here at FaerieFits. Periodically, there’s a book that puts the spotlight on a particularly interesting element of fantasy, and I like to explore it more in-depth. Sometimes I’ll pull on some history, other times I’ll explore variations on a similar theme. These will all be different!

Fairytales have been a VERY popular topic these last few years, and I honestly can’t complain an ounce! I’ve always loved fairytales, in all their forms. I loved listening/reading bedtime stories as any kid would, and I have LONG been obsessed with Disney. Perhaps more importantly, I have enjoyed studying their “original” forms. I’ve even read quite the suite of Brothers Grimm lore in the originally scribed German (and then a modern German translation because duh, language evolves and at the time I only had 3 years of high school German under my belt).

One of my favorite classes in college, in fact, was called “European Storytelling.” It sounds like a blow-off easy-credit class, but it was actually a fairly intense literary history course. We read several pieces of lore from a range of times, going as far back as ancient Celtic & Nordic tales, through the era of Christian influence, and then through Tolkein, and, eventually, even things like Shrek and Harry Potter. It was one semester, so the sampling over these thousands of years was pretty sparse, but it served to be an INCREDIBLY interesting class.

And since there have been SO MANY retellings and SO MUCH hype about them, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my key takeaways from that class.

I apologize in advance that this post is very Europe-centric in its contents. While I am fascinated by non-European cultures and place a huge value on diversity, I don’t feel educated or informed enough to represent these cultures in a post of this nature. I feel it is more respectful of these cultures to not discuss them at all than to accidentally mis-represent them.

Fairytales are a reflection of society.

From a historical perspective, fairytales and related lore become a window into the past. We can break down and understand societal values by reading and thinking about the stories that mothers told to their children. It’s through these texts, for example, that we know today that the Ancient Norse valued battle prowess over long lives, and valued strength in their partners over beauty. And we can surmise/confirm that in the Dark Ages of Europe, obedience was expected, and those who disobeyed (their parents, for example) were punished (say, eaten by witches or something). And that those who deceived their liege lord and/or ruler (say, Prince Charming or whatever), were also punished (perhaps they get their eyes eaten by birds or something).

Retellings happen ALL THE TIME. This is not a new phenomenon.

Retellings in some shape or form have been happening for millenia. In fact, the very reason we even have any knowledge at all of the original tales (or at least as broad a knowledge base as we do) is entirely because of retellings.

Some VERY common ones that you might consider:

  • Pretty much anything Disney has made. Ever.
    • Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration they do have some original things.
    • Maybe.
  • Tolkien (if you didn’t know it, he pulled VERY heavily on several European myths, most notably the Finnish epic Kalevala)
  • Shrek
  • Anything that ever makes reference to Greek/Roman mythology
  • King Arthur (yes, he’s a retelling; more on that in a second)

This list could be MASSIVE, so I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll have some more examples in the rest of the post 🙂

A Leading cause of retellings: Religious and/or political revolutions

Most of the tales we have common knowledge of today (from Europe anyway) are VERY heavily influenced by Christianity. I’m sure most of you know by know that the Christians in certain eras of history had a tendency to squash all things non-Christian and portray them as evil. This generally involved burning any references to non-Christian gods and/or magic. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of original information from the pre-Christian era isn’t really available to us. So we effectively have been studying older cultures through a lense of a retelling.

Our understanding of Norse mythology is very heavily influenced by Christianity.

Almost ALL of what we know of Norse lore, for example, comes from the Poetic Edda, which is a Christian text. We’ve made quite a bit of speculation based on similar retellings, our knowledge of Christianity at the time, and other glimpses into the past aside from literature, so we’ve been able to get a feel for what these stories might have looked like without the Christian influence. But honestly, that’s all speculation. That’s right, most of your favorite Norse Myths have been scrubbed and approved by Christian leaders of the ages.

Same with Celtic mythology.

Same with Greek & Roman mythology (albeit to a lesser extent; there was an AWFUL lot of very good documentation there).

Retellings keep a story going instead of stagnating and being forgotten.

Think about all the examples of folklore and/or fairytales and/or mythology that you can come up with off-hand. What do they all have in common? Chances are VERY good that the first instance that comes to mind is a retelling. And you may know a bit more about the underlying story or idea that prompted your modern knowledge, but that’s likely only because you’ve looked into it or found the story interesting enough to care.

Take Arthurian legend, for example.

There are millions of people familiar with this story, at least some aspect of it. There are dozens of movies and TV shows, even more books. People have made careers out of studying these legends.

King Arthur, is, in an incredibly simplified presentation, one glorious massive retelling. The tale that most closely matches what we generally think of today was Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. And it wasn’t even written until the 15th century. For frame of reference, the original Welsh story that inspired Arthurian legend in any capacity took place between 500-550AD. There were almost one thousand years for that story to evolve before it became something remotely resembling what we think of nowadays, with knights and chivalry and romance.

I blame the French.

In all seriousness, on this one, I really do blame the French. The tale of the Welsh versus the Britons was largely documented as a historical text by Welsh authors until around the 12th century. And then somehow the French got their hands on the story and started changing things. Suddenly there was a round table. Suddenly there was chivalry (a concept that very likely did NOT exist in 6th century Celtic society, let’s be honest). Suddenly there was a holy grail (cause that doesn’t scream Christian influence).

And then in the 15th century, Sir Thomas Mallory got his hands on it and romanticized the whole thing even further. I won’t go into the rest of the details in-depth, but if you’re interested, this is a pretty thorough and quick article that summarizes the whole thing.

Now, here we are, fifteen hundred years after the instigating event, and we still tell stories about it. Yes, the stories are dramatically different. But I can promise you that I wouldn’t know anything about the original events in 500AD if they hadn’t been kept relevant through all the retellings of the story.

Retellings keep stories relatable as societal values change

One of the things that’s particularly interesting with Arthurian legend is that the various retellings actually place the events in times that the author can relate to, instead of dating the events back to 500AD. My personal opinion is that this is because the point was for people to hear and be absorbed by these stories. Honestly, just like it is with authors today, although nowadays we don’t always need a book to be set in modern times.

But let’s walk through an example that isn’t quite as convoluted: Cinderella

Aschenputtel

This tale was originally documented by some dude I’ve never even heard of in the 17th century. And then later the Brothers Grimm included it in their publication. And honestly, who knows how different it was before anyone bothered to write it down. A very brief summary:

  • Aschenputtel wants to go the ball at the palace
  • Her stepmother says she can if she separates the lintels from the ashes (hence the name)
  • She does this a few times but still isn’t allowed to go
  • She goes anyway with the help of her dead mother from a tree in the woods
  • The prince decides he likes her
  • She runs away multiple times
  • On the last night, he spreads tar on the steps and she loses her gold slipper
  • He searches for her by finding a woman whose foot fit the slipper
  • Both step-sisters try to deceive him by cutting off parts of their feet (a toe and a heel)
  • Birds tell the prince they were lying
  • He finds Aschenputtel
  • The birds eat the eyes of the step mother and step sisters.

The values demonstrated in Cinderella were a little bit different.

Maybe a few things might have changed for the Disney movie, but the general story is largely the same. (Which … honestly is kind of depressing if you think about it. Not a TON of values were all that different between the 1950s and the 17th/19th centuries)

In Aschenputtel, the very clear message (to me, at least) is not lying to your ruler. If you deceive your prince/king, your eyes will be poked out by birds. Yes, you could argue that they were punished for their cruelty. But let’s be honest, way back when, it was totally about obedience.

In Disney’s Cinderella, the values were very different. That movie was about hard work paying off. It was about finding a man. It was about perseverance. Boy, these are really sounding like ideals from the 40s and 50s. Oh wait … Cinderella debuted in 1950.

A more recent retelling: Cinder

Let’s take it even further and talk about Cinder, a very new retelling of the same general story. We’re still valuing hard work. But we’re also seeing evidence of valuing independence (Cinder fends for herself an awful lot), loyalty to family (or at least the nice sister), putting the needs of others before ourselves (curing Letamosis), inclusion (cyborgs are people too), deceit (the lunars are evil because they deceive people with their skills). And so on.

What retellings are you familiar with in history? Do you see value in retelling stories in a new way? Or do you feel like we lose sight of valuable pieces of history by rewriting things?

  • I found this whole post fascinating. It seems like you learned a lot of really interesting and valuable things in this class!

    • Michelle

      Thanks! I really did learn a LOT in that class, though I never thought I would actually USE that info at the time.

  • Greg Hill

    I find the Arthurian timeline in particular very fascinating. The fact that elements that as a kid I thought were “essential” turn out to have been late additions to the story! I never questioned the chivalry and knights ideas for example, even though the popular conception of those was no doubt not happening in the 500’s!

    Nice post Michelle.

    • Michelle

      Thanks Greg! While I haven’t really DELVED into the history of the legend more than we discussed in the class I referenced, I have often found it fascinating! It’s a topic that has always had quite a bit of speculation, and I have always had some amount of interest in studying it as an example of the game of “telephone” — seeing how much the message changes as it passes from person to person. I, too, thought certain staples of the story were set in STONE (couldn’t resist) up until late high school / early college when I really started paying more attention to the history of the time period / location.

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  • What a great post! Fairytales, myths, and legends — and their origins — are endlessly interesting to me. Beginning in high school, I became obsessed with the Arthurian legends (after reading Mary Stewart’s retellings), and then with the search for the historical Arthur… a search complicated by the fact that there are almost no contemporary records of his existence. I burnt out on the topic after about 10 or 12 years, but not before doing a lot of reading and even helped design a King Arthur tour for my mom’s tour company. (She dealt with the logistics; I suggested places to go. We were even able to get Geoffrey Ashe, at the time practically the only “big name” in the field, to come lecture to our group.) Recently my interest has been reviving, and I’ve found myself wondering what new scholarship has emerged in the field.

    As for fairy tale retellings, I love them when they’re well done. The Lunar Chronicles (Cinder and its sequels) are wonderful. So are some of Jessica Day George’s retellings, particularly Princess of the Midnight Ball. Dennis McKiernan had fun with Once Upon a Winter’s Night, a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon (plus a few others thrown in for good measure), though I wasn’t quite as impressed with its sequels. And Robin McKinley is amazing. Have you read Beauty, Spindle’s End, and Rose Daughter?

    • Michelle

      Thank you so much! I love that you have delved so deep into the Arthurian legend(s). I was always more interested in the mythology and folklore of other cultures around that time, and it wasn’t until MUCH later (late college?) that I started paying more attention to Arthurian legend. I thought it was interesting before then, but I hadn’t been in LOVE with it, you know? It’s awesome that you did a King Arthur tour, and that you got to hear from Geoffrey Ashe — I’ve actually heard of him!

      I haven’t actually read many of your suggestions — they will all be promptly added to my TBR! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  • Sam Kozbial

    I actually took a class when I was an undergrad. It was in German, but we studied fairytales and folktales, and all the sociological aspects of them. It was very interesting.
    Sam @ WLABB

    • Michelle

      That’s awesome! In my last year of high school I took a German class that didn’t have enough students to really BE a class (there were five of us in German IV, so we just tagged along with a German III class). So most of our assignments were reading folklore and whatnot. We actually created skits of several of the Grimm tales to perform in German in front of the German III kids, which was … interesting 😛 We didn’t actually STUDY them though, which would have been WAY more interesting.

  • OH I LOVE YOUR ELEMENTS OF FANTASY POSTS!!! I agree with all your points! And I’m so glad you mentioned Aschenputtel. I love trying to find the origins of fairytales and comparing them with the later versions! Shows us the evolution of the story writing and the society… Loved the post Michelle 🙂

    • Michelle

      Thanks! I’m really glad you enjoy them 😀 They’re some of my favorite posts to write! One of my favorite things to do is dig into the “original” version of a story, but it can be a LOT of work! I actually went to do a bit of research on Aschenputtel for this post, and even its history isn’t very clear-cut. From the little bit of research I did before deciding I was going to deep, there were some fairly stark differences between the “original” version and Grimm’s take(s) on it.