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Adventures with fairy tales

25 April 2024

York u3a member Graham decided to explore a topic that had long intrigued him, fairy tales, by setting up a group at his u3a. He shares some of the themes and stories that he has discovered - and how they reappear in popular culture. 

An illustration of Red Riding Hood (a young girl wearing a red cape, holding a basket) walking in woods next to a wolf, whose tongue is hanging out and teeth are showing.

Little Red Riding Hood by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911. From the book A Child's Book of Stories.

After a long portfolio career in education, I finally retired, a little reluctantly, at 78. But not quite: I joined u3a in York. The range of activities is enormous; they keep body and brain alive.

In time, I started my own group, on folk and fairy tales. The topic had intrigued me, without much follow-up at the time, when, as a kind of party piece, I had read bits of two folktales on the celebratory last evening of an in-service training course for teachers. Both sections were from 'Cinderella:' one from Suffolk, the other Egyptian. With sharp cultural differences, their storylines are practically identical; I dodged between them while reading, without losing coherence, and I now know that there are over 500 Cinderellas in Europe (type 510 in the international tale index), with more worldwide. How tales travelled, adjusting to widely different contexts, while retaining their deeper structures, is one of their mysteries. There is a rich body of scholarship.

The York folk and fairy tale group has 15 members (and a waiting list), and meets once a month. We have a core book each year, but range widely beyond it, with themes suggested by the members and by me. Topics have included variants of Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, The Juniper Tree, and we have ranged far beyond the Grimms to include Russian, Ruthenian, French, South American, Chinese, Japanese, and Sicilian tales, along with legends, urban myths, ghosts and witches, slave tales from the USA, and more.

We have looked too at fairies: they are far from the gauzy figures of popular imagination. They might be male, may be threatening or helpful, and include a range of categories, from domestic Hobs (you must never thank them: they'll go away!), to the little people who replace healthy babies with wizened changelings. There are over 180 types of fairy in Britain and Ireland alone.

The folktale, perhaps our oldest form of narrative, began before the invention of writing, and familiar motifs, like Cinderella's task of sorting grains, appeared in Roman tales too. While the literary fairy tale, with its folktale roots, seems first to have emerged in sixteenth century Italy, there is much blurring. If folktales are essentially oral and anonymous, while fairy tales are written and authored, spoken tales must be written down to be preserved, and written tales, read aloud, get re-told; the distinctions are permeable.

Fourteen people - York u3a's folklore and fairy tale group - sat around a table. There are various manuscripts on the table and pens and paper. Everyone is smiling.

York u3a's Folk and Fairy tale group, photographed at a recent meeting.

I don't know if Ian Fleming consciously studied folklore, but his Bond stories, especially their film versions, resemble a common folktale structure unpicked in 1928 by a Russian scholar, Vladimir Propp. So,

  • 'M,' is a dispatcher, (like a king sending his sons on quests).
  • Bond, tasked to save the world, is the hero;
  • he is equipped for his trials with 'magic' weapons by a donor, Q;
  • and assailed by the villain and his acolytes (false helpers).
  • In turn, he is assisted by a helper, perhaps a US secret service buddy;
  • and, though not quite with a wedding, his trials end by defeating the villain and winning the girl.

Jane Austen, similarly, put her heroines through trials and rewarded them with marriage, but cast her books in deftly pointed prose, with rounded main characters who develop. Propp suggested that this underlying narrative pattern might derive from initiation rites in pre-industrial societies.

We now think of fairy tales as only for children, but in pre-scientific, subsistence cultures, where magic really did explain things, children might listen in, but were not the target audience. And it is easy to understand, for example, the wish fulfilment in changeling tales that end happily, in stories that turn a neglected third son into a wise king, or where her wit and ingenuity win a prince for a clever youngest daughter. Tales of foresters abandoning their children (Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel...) seem to have arisen in times of real famine. And ones where spinning is important reflect societies where marriage, with divided labours, was essential for survival. Without much romance, success in a spinning contest could win a girl a husband.

Honed by repeated re-tellings, the tales have adapted to different times, cultures, audiences and purposes. Medieval priests mined them for sermons, Chaucer and Shakespeare borrowed plots, French courtiers invested them with arch irony, and feminists give them new perspectives, while opera, ballet, and film producers adapt them to different media. Meanwhile, advertisers make play for their own purposes with familiar tales.

The fairytale world, shorn of detailed descriptions, and peopled by flat characters, is prone to extremes, from abject poverty to glittering riches, yet the supernatural (giants, dragons, magic gifts, flight, seven-league boots, glass mountains, empty palaces with invisible servants, animals that talk, magical healings and resurrections...) never surprises any of its inhabitants. Beneath their smooth surface, the tales handle love, longing, adventure, betrayal, cruelty, trickery, kindness, dreadful punishments, ingenuity, jealousy, justice, hardship, racism, and order restored.

In summary, in the magical world of fairy tales, as The News of the World once claimed for itself, 'all human life is there.'

Further reading:

Nicholas Jubber, The Fairy Tellers (2022), John Murray.

Our current core book is Maria Tatar's The Classic Fairy Tales, (1999), Norton, (easily obtainable, inexpensively, online].

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