Sunday, 27 October 2013


 'Upon a day' or 'Once upon a time' has long been a traditional opening for myths, fables and folklore.  For most of us the phrase would belong to our earliest memories of listening to stories. I loved story time and looking at my books. I was delighted when my mother acted out parts of the story as she read and used squeaky voices.  But, those fairy tales they read to us when we were very young were often nicely revised versions of folk tales - originally almost horror stories designed to entertain with fright or teach lessons. 

Fairy Tales, originally called Little Tales, usually involved fantasy with magical creatures, curses, goblins, witches spells and the like. They often began with 'once upon a time', referring to a supposed age when magic was still in use. One old German opening was 'In the old times when wishing was still effective'.

Folk tales and legends included actual events and were often stories for adults while moral tales, including beast fables (animal characters) were told to adults and children.  Many stories appeared in a variety of languages, with changes to suit the local culture.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm travelled Germany writing down the folk tales told to them by a variety of people. They published a book titled 'Children's and Household Tales', volume one in 1812 and volume 2 in 1815 with a total of 83 stories.

The Brothers Grimm continued to add to the collection  and now we can read 200 stories under their name.  Stories without proven German origins were rejected and the brothers rewrote many tales to make them more acceptable to families. We now refer to their collection as Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Many of those tales have been made over again by the Walt Disney machine and what once were stories of horror, mutilation, curses and despair are now mostly plastic sugar and spice.

Hans Christian Anderson
The brothers Grimm inspired others to collect tales in their own language and writers such as Hans Christian Anderson continued writing tales that often drew on fables.  First published in 1822, his stories have been translated into over 125 languages, including The Emperor's New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina and one I remember very well, The Tinderbox, live on today.

Whether they are fables or folk tales we all love the stories and new tales are being written for future generations. One of my favourites, by Oscar Wilde was published in 1888 - 'The Selfish Giant' - a moral tale of self sacrifice.

And from the Grimm collection;

The Pied Piper: (pied being a sort of patchwork of different colours) In the original story the piper rids the town of rats and when the town leaders refuse to pay him he leads the children to, not a wonderful paradise, but the river where they all drown.  That'll learn 'em.

Snow White: The evil queen wants Snow White killed because she is prettier than the queen. The hunter is told to take Snow into the forest and kill her,  cutting out not just her heart, but her liver and lungs too which were to be served for dinner in the palace.  Later when the Prince finds a dead Snow White in the forest, he hoists her body onto his horse and this jostling awakens her - not the Disney kiss.  When exposed in the end as an evil woman, the queen is welded into red hot iron shoes and forced to dance herself to death. ewwwwww

Cinderella: The Cinderella story dates back to 1st century BC in different forms, with different names.  In the version collected by the Grimm brothers the ugly sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. Does the Prince not notice the pools of blood? Eventually their eyes are plucked out by pigeons and they spend the rest of their lives as blind beggars, while Cinders enjoys a life of luxury in the castle.

Little Red Riding Hood or Little Red Cap:  This story was so horrible even the brothers Grimm had to nice'n it up.  In the original versions there was no woodsman to rescue Red and sometimes not even a grandmother. We tell this tale to babies when it's really about a young girl being seduced by a wolf and losing her virginity. An old saying from France, referring to a girl losing her virginity, translates as 'she saw the wolf'. In some versions, to illustrate that her life is over, the wolf eats her up.

Sleeping Beauty: A young woman falls into a deep sleep as the result of a prophecy. While unconscious she is raped by the King, gets pregnant, delivers twins and it is her children who finally wake her, not the modern day kiss of a handsome prince.

Hansel and Gretel: This is a scary story even today but in an early French version, called The Lost Children, the wicked witch was actually the devil.  The devils wife attempts to help the children but they are forced to trick her and then they slit her throat to aid their escape.

The Frog Prince: In the Grimm collection there is no magical kiss. The frog makes a bargain with the Princess to take him home to the palace to live. He gets closer and closer to her until he is in her bed but she throws him against the wall. Somehow this turns him into a Prince ... and it's a little confusing.

Rapunzel: Letting down her hair too often gets Rapunzel in the family way so the witch cuts off her hair and sends her away.  When the Prince comes back the witch lets down the hair for him. He is afraid of the witch, rejects her advances and she pushes him out the window. He falls into thorn bushes and brambles, which blind him, so he wanders the forest forever.

The Little Mermaid: One of many by Hans Christian Anderson this story originally ended with the mermaid's suicide, after watching her Prince marry a human Princess. Walt Disney added the happy ending we have today.

The Story of the Three Bears:  First published in 1837, this story by English author and poet, Robert Southey, featured a malicious old woman who invades the home of three male bears. As early as 1813 Southey had been telling the story to friends in various versions including a fox or vixen as the female. It is possible that this version had been a traditional oral tale. By 1849 Southey had changed the old woman to an intrusive little girl, who was given various names referring to her hair colour until she became Goldilocks early in the 20th century, and the three male bears evolved into father, mother and baby bear. The oral tale ending with the intruder being torn to pieces by the bears became the soft cuddly family story that is the most popular tale in the English language today. It comes under the banner of fairy tales even though it is more of an animal fable. The underlying theme of harsh punishment for those who trespass in areas they should not has changed to one of accepting others who seem different and making life 'just right', with the bears being the good guys. Some cartoon versions today show Goldi remaining with the bears to live happily ever after.

Usually this happy ending refers to the main characters only and indicates a work of fiction. It also gives us the comfort so necessary today.  While we read 'they lived happily ever after', many years ago it was 'and they all lived happily in the ever after'. 


  1. Love, love LOVE this post! I am so interested in the origins of stories, You have re awakened my love for tales. Thanks for that!

  2. I'm so glad you are inspired Sue. There is much more information floating around the net, this is just a few bits and pieces compared to some more detailed writings.


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