It is extremely difficult – if not, in some cases, impossible – to date an original fairy tale. Whilst publication dates can be salvaged for early versions, notably the brothers Grimm, the primitive plots of some of fiction’s most integral stories can often be found to have already existed beforehand. They are an enduring influence on fiction, and yet – despite our persistent fascination with them – their importance is often dismissed and underestimated. Modern works of fiction condemned for simplistic plots or inauthentic characters are often described as “fairy-tale-esque” – a piece of criticism that is perhaps unfair.
One explanation for this could be the feature of a “happy ending”. An artificially positive denouement suspends our belief so entirely that we feel unable to relate to and enjoy them. They irritate us – and so modern fiction circumvents this for fear of the same condemnation. However, in his essay “On Fairy Tales”, fantasy novelist J.R.R Tolkien exposed the irrationality of our antagonism towards the happy ending, arguing that it is one of the most important techniques in literature. He devised the term “eucatastrophe” to describe the consolation provided by a “happy” conclusion – they deliver “a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.” When considered in this light, the correlation we draw between our enjoyment of fiction and our ability to relate to it appears increasingly non-existent. The moment you indulge in a fairy tale, you dismiss binary thinking. Belief is suspended at the very outset, and thus it seems absurd to pick at the inauthenticity of its conclusion.
A positive denouement is, however, by no means a typical attribute of the original folk tale. Instead, the artificial perfection of these stories is largely the work of the Walt Disney Company, established in the 1920s. When the brutal originals of the stories are scrutinised – sporting a range of topics including spousal abuse, incest, cannibalism, child abandonment, identity theft, famine and madness - it becomes difficult to discern how such bloody tales ever came to be associated with entertainment for children. In one of the earliest versions of the classic tale “Sleeping Beauty”, for example, entitled “Sun, Moon and Talia” under its 1643 publication by Giambattista Basile, the heroine is raped whilst lying in her unconscious state – and when she finally wakes, the prince burns his new wife alive to be with her. Meanwhile, in Hans Christian Anderson’s original telling of “The Little Mermaid”, the protagonist trades her tongue for legs - walking on which is likened to balancing on swords - before dissolving into foam when the hero marries another. The “Snow White” of the 1812 Grimm version, furthermore, falls down dead on her wedding day, after being forced to dance in heated iron shoes.
Despite their graphic origins, fairy tales have been a central influence on literature for hundreds of years. The poet W. H. Auden described them as “rank[ing] next to the Bible in their importance.” The potency of this influence is made particularly clear by the concept of an infallible, morally pure and innocent heroine, which was largely established by such stories as mentioned above, and clearly influenced the later heroines of Victorian Gothic literature. In modern fiction, meanwhile, the concept of the infallible woman is criticised for its artificiality and sexist undertones. Today, therefore, women are not presented as vulnerable, but stoic and dexterous. Furthermore, rather than being excessively virtuous and blindly believing in the purity of others, the modern heroine is often emotionally inhibited and struggles to connect. This, therefore, has only led to the formation of a new cliché – which clearly exhibits the enduring power of fairy tales. Be it through embracement or resistance, they are still permeating fiction.
The importance of fairy tales, however, does not derive entirely from their ability to influence us still today – they are also significant in exposing the societies and time periods during which they were formed. The typical antagonist of the “evil step-mother”, for example, is largely the result of primitive medicine, and thus the frequency of childbirth-related death. Remarriage was, therefore, a common phenomenon, which in turn allowed for the neglect of existing children, as mothers attempted to ensure the survival and inheritance of their own offspring. Moreover, the typical distance of children from their parents within fairy tales, as well as their obsession with achieving a happy marriage, are features that illuminate the nature of family life during such periods.
During the current phase of literary reinvention, as demonstrated by the fan fiction phenomenon and film relaunches, the prevalence of age-old fairy tales on fiction has never been more evident. Perhaps they are most powerful, however, for the question they pose as to the true significance of literature, modern or otherwise. Do we really turn to fiction, as Tolkien argues, in search for “joy beyond the walls of the world”? The enduring popularity of fairy tales suggests that this is certainly a part of the answer – as no other literary medium offers a more alternate existence.