Once Upon a Time… A Brief (Feminist) History of the Fairytale

We’ve started the new year (and the new decade) with the age-old genre of the fairytale, retold for the modern era through the incredible stories in Little Book of Fairy Tales from Dancing Bear Publications, the book featured in our January box.

The origin of the fairytale is much debated, in part because it finds its roots in the tradition of oral storytelling, which cannot be traced back to a single moment. The fairytale falls into the broader category of folklore, which is itself intrinsically tied to an oral tradition. The definition of a fairytale within folklore is also disputed, with the eponymous ‘fairy’ not necessarily a feature of every fairytale. The name for the genre comes from the French female author Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, who titled a collection of her stories Les Contes des Fees, or Fairytales, first published in 1697. Even in this collection, not every story contained a fairy, but there were fantastical elements weaved throughout each tale.

d’Aulnoy was part of a group of female French writers who introduced these types of stories to literary salons, aiding their growth in popularity. d’Aulnoy’s works typically contained strong female characters – in La Belle aux Cheveux d’Or, or The Beauty with Golden Hair, for example, the male protagonist (named Charming) is thrown into a tower, and it is the female protagonist (Goldilocks) who rescues him. In Finette Cendron, or Cinders, a variation of the Cinderella story, the female protagonist (Finette) refuses to marry the Prince until her terms have been met. The agency given to these female characters is coloured by patriarchal convention – Finette’s terms are that her father’s stolen kingdom is restored to him – but the female characters are still granted power. d’Aulnoy and her fellow female authors dominated the genre of the fairytale in 17th century France. Initially intended for adult audiences, many of their stories were later adapted for children.

Throughout the 18th century the publishing industry in the Western world began to grow, and towards the end of the century publishing for children demanded a more moral approach in fairytales, which were now viewed as a means by which children could learn about the world. In the beginnings of the 19th century the Brothers Grimm published numerous editions of their tales. Originally, many of their tales contained gruesome elements, which were removed in later editions in order to make them suitable for young and developing minds. These tales were bound to patriarchal conventions of the brave male hero and the passive damsel-in-distress, and focussed on plots which promoted the idea of a strong and opportunistic work ethic reaping rewards. These stories were popular with the middle-class reading audience, and their popularity extends through to the modern day – many of their tales form the basis of the ‘classic’ fairytales we see in modern popular culture, such as Disney.

The 19th century also saw the success of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales, which have, similarly to the Brothers Grimm, gained a cultural legacy which continues to this day. Stories such as ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and the ‘The Little Mermaid’ are still widely read and adapted. Interestingly, whilst Hans Christian Anderson is undoubtedly considered one of the most prolific and successful authors of the fairytale, he faced criticism for tales such as ‘Thumbelina’, which was denounced for its lack of moral lesson.

Throughout the 19th century the belief in, and popularity of, fairies and other figures from folklore in Victorian England fostered the continued growth of the fairytale genre, and by the 20th century fairytales had firmly cemented themselves in popularity in Western publishing, aided by the increase in picture books. Disney’s filmic representations, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, ensured that the fairytale was forever embedded in Western popular culture – specifically the formula of the Disney fairytale, which harks back to the Brothers Grimm and the moral teachings of a tale which presents the good protagonist triumphing over evil to achieve a happy ending, which is often tied to financial and/or romantic rewards.

In the latter half of the 20th century the feminist movement saw rise to the publication of feminist fairytales, such as the brilliant The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter, first published in 1979, which reimagines tales such as Beauty and the Beast using a distinctly feminist voice. The Bloody Chamber is often read as an ‘adult’ collection of fairytales, but feminist rewritings were produced for children too. In 1972, the Merseyside Women’s Liberation Movement published a number of fairytales in a collection titled Once and Future Tales. The stories rewrote fairytales with feminist plots designed to teach children about equality – Snow White, for example, chooses to work alongside the prince and the dwarfs in the mines. Stories such as these, which frequently centre on strong female protagonists, can be read as both retellings and recallings of the fairytales written by d’Aulnoy and her contemporaries, which similarly featured great heroines. Strong women have always told stories about strong women.

Much like its origins, the future of the fairytale is uncertain, but Little Book of Fairy Tales suggests that the future of the genre in the 21st century holds more representation, and more strong, complex, and feminist characters – it’s time those characters get their happily ever after.

Written by Elle Borthwick

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