|Where fairy land meets the real world|
What do you think of when you see the words ‘folk tale’? For me, a mental collage appears of overflowing porridge pots, scrubbed cottage floors, sorrowful children and twining tanglewood. As I watch, homely objects become magical ones: mirrors flung down turn to oceans and then shrink; gathered leaves turn to gold and back again.
How does it go when you see the words ‘fairy tale’? Is there a princess, an old hag, a prince, a frog? Do mirrors speak, and straw turn into gold? Are some of these images in cartoon form?
How we label stories ought not to matter, but I find this one an interesting conundrum, because for me ‘folk’ and ‘fairy’ conjure overlapping realms, but with very distinctive far reaches. I tend to think of folk tales as somehow more earthy; fairy tales as more prim, or better dressed. With words and images stripped away, it comes down to colours. Fairy tales are high contrast, jewel hues and precious metals: red, gold, silver, purple. Folk tales are British landscape tones of brown, green and grey.
Folk tales first?
One version of the folk/fairy tale is that the folk came first. ‘Folk’ in this context really means ‘popular’: stories of the people, the kind that circulated orally, shape-shifting as they went.
In the 17th century, along came Charles Perrault, the French creator of Tales of Mother Goose, and his aristocratic contemporaries such as Madame D’Aulnoy. They rewrote these old tales – by then discoverable in written form – and added glamour, the trappings of courtly life, as well as ludicrous magic of their own. Their selection from the endless sea of oral stories has shaped our contemporary fairy tale canon: the stories Perrault chose to retell (I’m tempted to say ‘pimp’) include those we know in English as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Tom Thumb’.
They were wildly popular, in French and in English translation, which is why they are so recognisable to us now. These are the stories that create the stained glass imagery of ‘fairy tale’ in my head. They are the gilded ornaments from which Disney has picked again, re-establishing a romantic fairy tale canon in the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, those stories languishing in the heap still called ‘folk’ have come to be represented, for many, by the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Un-Disneyfied, they have been repackaged for adults, as they were originally intended. (The Grimms’ tales went through seven editions, many edited, rewritten or even omitted over time, until they were deemed suitable for children). Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, despite the title, is full of old folk tales with adult messages and content. More recently, fairy tale and folk tale scholar Jack Zipes has newly translated all the stories from the Grimms’ first edition, which are more blunt and gory than some of the later versions.
Where fairy tales are glint and glamour, folk tales have come to stand for the authentic, the gritty; they represent community and landscape lost, folklore and folkways, as much as they tell stories. We feel nostalgia when we read them, even if we’ve never read them before.
Fairy tales first?
Marina Warner, queen of academic fairy land, stands on the other side of the mirror, seeing things the other way round. For her, the term 'fairy tale' encapsulates stories both oral and literary, inherited and invented, of which only some "are called 'folk tales' and are attributed to oral tradition". Thus, folk tales are a subcategory of fairy tales.
I like this way of seeing too, including the artful with the accidental, the contrived with the half-forgotten. After all, the written fairy tales, even the literary ones, have often fed back into oral traditions, as far as folk tale scholars can tell. All these stories make up a bubbling pot from which any one may pick to create something new. To pluck a symbol from a Disney film rather than a Grimm original, or an even older tale, is not to fall foul of authenticity.
Warner uses the term ‘symbolic Esperanto’ for the contents of this pot, all the golden hair and keys and doors and paths and wolves and woodcutters that we recognise, deep in the dreaming parts of our minds. We understand them all, and so to separate the older from the newer, the hag from the princess, does not serve our sense of ‘fairy tale’. Rather, all these stories, whether or not they include magic or indeed fairies at all, “conjure the presence of another world, a sense that the story has casements thrown open on a view of fairyland”.
So, whether you call a story a folk tale or fairy tale, look out through its windows and see: the green hills beyond will be glinting with mischief, and you will know exactly where you are.