Some Folklore to start with
Because Fairy Tales stem out of Folklore as a whole (whether it Western European fairy tales or Latin American fairy tales–it is naturally a genre with seeds in folklore) the two as an entwined research are oftentimes referred to as “Fairylore.” And so, it seems appropriate, to start off this section with a couple examples of Folklore’s merit within the English studies field, before getting into the fairy tales. Here are two of my favorite examples of traditional folktales, both from drastically different parts of the world, but both so historically rich, that they contribute a whole lot to the wonderful field of the Humanities.
(Trøllabundin translated from Faroese to English)
Trollabundin is an example of a traditional Icelandic folktale that was traditionally told through song. Keeping in tradition with the oral tradition of Folklore (as folklore in its original forms generally predated humankind’s fascination with transcribing every story that was around), this performance of the song is performed by solo Faroese artist Eivør Pálsdóttir.
The folktales of Iceland are truly mystifying–they mainly revolve around the intense nature that fills Iceland, entertaining its listeners with tales of elves, trolls, dwarves, gnomes, and wizards. This is why I’m an absolute fangirl over these folktales–they truly and undeniably laid out the roots of the Fantasy genre as we see it commonly portrayed nowadays, and it’s simply astounding to see how we, as a species, always beckon back to the same elements of the surreal and fantastical in our cultures, no matter how far spread apart in our little planet we might be.
Examples of far-out, ancient Folktales like these being brought into the classroom can benefit students in terms of enlightening the humanistic side of story telling. It is a habit that is embedded in our nature, and without it, we would not have a field of Literature to enjoy or study.
Now one more before I begin with fairy tales (because, as much as I’d love to observe folktales exclusively, this site is called The FAERIE Realm so . . . maybe some day I will devote an entire post to my favorite folktales . . .) I would like to take a moment to give a shout-out to Anansi, one of my favorite heroes of African folktales:
Perhaps one of the most infamous trickster figures of folklore studies as a whole is this little spider trickster, who originated from West African folklore’s. In the most popular folktales that he appears in, Anansi is described as a spider man–that is, not entirely a spider, but also not fully a man, either. He has the ability, though, to choose which form of the two that he would like to adopt–oftentimes using his spider figure as the deterring shape with which to fulfill his literarily inherited trickster responsibilities (Gibbs).
Because he is practically a god in his folklore (though, in folklore terms, he would be best categorized as an icon, or demigod of some sort), the majority of his folktales revolve around him either creating things in the world, or bringing about their inevitable downfall, as he plants the seeds of chaos, as any proper trickster figure would do (click those links to read about his mischievous endeavors!).
Perhaps one of the most enticing things about Anansi currently is that he is reentering the public sphere through the wonderful modern fairy tale weaver, you guessed it, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys (which you can read all about in Heather’s section).
Let’s have a look at Perrault’s “The Faeries” . . .which, readers, if you have not read it, you certainly should, and will not be disappointed—it’s in very easy access, in fact, it can be found here.
(Gustav Doré’s illustration of the good daughter’s trial scene in the story)
Diamonds and gold coins may
Work some wonders in their way;
But a gentle word is worth
More than all the gems on earth.
(Perrault, “The Faeries”)
“The Faeries” by Charles Perrault is an excellent example of the fairy tale at its most traditional, didactic and cultural insinuation-filled form. With a plot featuring the mean-hearted mother, the wicked daughter, the good daughter (who acts as the leading binary role for the allegorical meaning) and—you guessed it—faeries, this story is a perfect lab rat for the potential that fairy tales can offer the average reader who thinks of fairy tales as nothing more than bad Disney propaganda. As one of Perrault’s most renowned fairy tales, this piece hails as one of the most traditional stories of why you should be always be kind and features some classic fairy tale themes that have proven to be iconic in their legacies and adaptations.
Exploring the roles of the characters, and how they are characterized, is an important step in moving to explore this fairy tale. The mother, as aforementioned, a widow and narcissistic type, is in fact, the stereotypical depiction of the “wicked sex” of the time. She favors the daughter who is more like her than the daughter who is as good and pure as the father was (which is no surprise, is it, that the only male appearing in this character set-up would be the very model of righteousness, gracing his daughter with his traits). . .
In observing this about the fairy tale, readers could take the story through a psychoanalytic perspective, making observations about the mother’s treatment of the kind daughter, and how she very clearly favors the rude daughter who is often mistaken for herself (the mother). What sort of egotistical value does that insinuiate, on the mother’s part? Perhaps even more provocative is searching for reasons as to why the mother casts out her kind daughter, despite the fact that she is, well kind. Can it be because she reminds her of her late husband? What would that say about the mother’s disposition towards men?
It is because of this story’s longevity, and the worth in the allegory’s meaning that it remains a pivotal centerpiece for the use of literary analysis. In fact, Neil Gaiman, best selling author of several wonderful fairy tale-esque books, adapted his own version of this Perrault classic in his modern take titled “Diamonds and Pearls,” which Heather, our adaptations scholar, goes into depth on here.
(Illustration by ___ showing Snow White’s 2nd death scene, caused by the dreaded, fatal, horrible vanity-encouraging comb!!)
Forget, if you will, the quivery-voiced Snow White that you may remember from your childhood, and replace it with the Grimms’ version of Snow White who died three times.
Her first encounter with mortality is aptly conducted by her evil queen step-mother with a corset as the weapon. Her second death is caused by a golden comb. Her last, and final murder culprit, is the infamous apple. Let’s think about this for a second. The corset is very obviously known for emphasizing the female figure—it gives that to-die-for “hourglass” figure that is so commonly connected to femininity. The comb, in a similar, cosmetic-centered way, is a tool used to make hair more flowing, more beautiful—both, corset and comb, are tools of vanity and, by nature, sexuality.
The fact that Snow White, who, just by her name alone is the personification of this surreal pure and clean image, falls to the disguised-queen’s temptations is didactic in itself—the pure should stay pure, and must, therefore, try their damned best to do so. The last and final death-causing device, the apple, is a symbol that is notoriously connected to the Christian origin story—the temptation of Eve by the “fruit of knowledge.” This major slip-up, of Snow White mirroring the same fall as the first woman did in Christian myth, tailors this story as one that not only teaches women to stay pure and “white,” but also that if they do not do so, they will suffer tremendously. Yup. As if we needed another story like that, right?
Can we, then, only connect this story with a biblically-geared didacticism and thus only be read it with a feminist critical angle? Oh, certainly not! (A little Literature 101 reminder: no text has one almighty and definitive meaning—if they did, I’m pretty sure that people like myself and perhaps even you would not have a field to explore).
With fairy tales, it must be made clear that a multitude of different theories can be applied and practiced, especially in an English class. In fact, we have decided to provide some resources idea to give you some ideas on how to do so! For traditional fairy tale forms being practiced in the classroom, travel on over here, or if you want to incorporate Adaptations of Fairy Tales, meander on over there. Or, heck, if you’re really into this stuff that we’ve been talking about, you may as well do a combination of them both and have fun with the product that you create!
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To explore this classic of “Hansel and Gretel,” I want to apply a New Economic Criticism angle on it, just because it has never really been done before, as this angle is still under the radars and still being developed.
The story of “Hansel and Gretel” is among one of the most renowned fairy tales that the Grimm brothers published in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, their book of “children’s and household tales.” Its plot is didactic and its characters are true to the tropes that the Grimm brothers are coined as establishing through their written fairy tales; it may be because of this that its plot, didactic and trope-filled as it may be, is full of potential allegories that its readers can take from it, depending on how they hear, see, or read the story. It furthermore features the classic fairy tale element of abandonment–of the child being left lost in the forest, to fend for her/himself.
Throughout the centuries this fairy tale has been approached from a variety of different angles, most commonly from psychoanalytical, feminist, and historical lenses. The fact that, in each of the seven editions that the Grimm Brothers produced of Kinder-und Hausmärchen, “Hansel and Gretel” oftentimes received adjustments indicates that the Grimms’ had a keen interest on what the story’s potential had to offer (In fact, the near-entirely historical background can be seen discussed here) .
The economic patterns woven throughout Grimms’ written text of “Hansel and Gretel” play the role of not only the didactic child story that Kinder-und Hausmärchen was intended on making, but also offer up a deeper didactic meaning that allegories the relationship of the dependent or the worker (paralleling the children), in contrast with that of the bigger system that can potentially abandon (as the parents did with Hansel and Gretel) or exploit its people (Weber 96). When the line between people are treated as nothing more but a means to an end in an industrial work force, the ethics of that workforce become distorted.
Through this reading the Grimms brothers can be found to exhibiting, as Zipes puts it, “efforts and struggles at a particular time and place by humans seeking to inscribe themselves in history” (Zipes 41). The story of “Hansel and Gretel” seems to be the Grimms’ allegory on how people need to rise up against this systemic abuse, while working within the perimeters of that unjust system, in the same way that Hansel and Gretel were forced to in tracing their footsteps back to their home, to using the witch’s powers against herself.