Add fairytales to the list of things that may not be as old as you may have assumed. The argument made below claims that the origins of this material is more accurately traced to the print tradition than the oral one.
Understandably this thesis has been controversial. Folklorists, ethnologists and mythologists have strong opinions about what is culturally invariant, about archetypes and universal story lines. Like most issues that rely on interpretation rather than facts, this is one that can never be determined definitively. The safe and more reasonable answer is a blended one.
The report below is by Alison Flood in the Guardian:
In the 19th century, Scottish author and clergyman George Macdonald said that he “should as soon think of describing the abstract human face” as attempting to describe a fairy tale. More than 100 years later, scholars are still disputing their origins, with the latest clash arising over a new claim that, far from being passed down through an oral tradition, fairy tales actually have their history in print.
Ruth B Bottigheimer, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, disputes the idea that fairy tales were handed down orally through generations until “19th and 20th-century folklorists hearkened to peasants’ words” and they were transformed into literature by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. “It has been said so often that the folk invented and disseminated fairy tales that this assumption has become an unquestioned proposition. It may therefore surprise readers that folk invention and transmission of fairy tales has no basis in verifiable fact,” she writes in her new book, Fairy Tales: A New History. “Literary analysis undermines it, literary history rejects it, social history repudiates it, and publishing history (whether of manuscripts or of books) contradicts it.”
She points to mid-16th century Venice as the starting point for a specific kind of fairy tale, the “rise” tale or Cinderella story, in which “poverty through magic leads to marriage and then money”, arguing that the specific economic conditions and legal restrictions of the area and age gave rise to the format, today the most popular kind of fairy tale. Laws at the time forbade marriage between a noble and a commoner, while the region was also in the middle of an economic downturn.
“This was a mental environment that would have been receptive to a new kind of story line, one in which magic facilitated a poor person’s ascent to wealth. This was also the age in which stories that we can identify as rise fairy tales first appear,” writes Bottigheimer. “The elements that make up the fairy tale genre were all in place before the 1550s: the hallmarks of fairy tales – magic objects and sudden acquisitions of wealth – were not new in themselves. What was different was that rise fairy tales built in the kinds of generalised hopes for an improvement in their lives specific to the burgeoning populations of upward striving young men and women in early modern cities.”
Bottigheimer believes the “rise” genre was invented by Straparola, author of the circa 1550 collection Le piacevoli notti (Pleasant Nights), which contains the earliest known version of Costantino Fortunato (Puss in Boots). “You just don’t get that story before the 1550s,” she said of the “rise” tale in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. It “beggars belief”, she added, that if there were existing oral templates for the “rise” tale before this time, they wouldn’t have been recorded. “It seemed to me that if I wasn’t seeing any stories like this, it was because there weren’t any stories like this.”
Her book goes on to suggest how “rise” tales could have passed from Straparola – whose collection sold well in Italy – to France, to Germany and eventually to the Brothers Grimm, emphasising the central role of print in the journey. But her views haven’t been received well by some of her fellow folklorists, according to the CHE, which reports a “hue and cry” at a meeting in Milwaukee in 2006, and an audience “up in arms against her” in Estonia in 2005. “She’s turning things upside down. Oral tradition is one of the fundamental tenets of folklore, and here she comes to upset it, and that is one of the reasons we reacted that way to her paper and her book,” Dan Ben-Amos, the University of Pennsylvania’s folklorist, told the CHE.
Other academics, however, suggest that the belief in an oral tradition owes a lot to nostalgic Victorian folklorists equating orality with authenticity, while still others say it is wrong to divide the complex history of fairy tales into either oral or literary, claiming they are likely to have had a multitude of sources.
The Princess and the Goblin
George Macdonald, author of At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin, perhaps still puts it best, over 100 years on. “Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”