Fairy tales are much older and much grimmer than we thought. They’re also much more beneficial.
Once upon a time…someone first began a story with this iconic phrase that now conjures magical images — witches, giants, dragons, talking animals, ogres and fairies. Once upon a time…someone imagined heroes and heroines who persevered against insurmountable odds to achieve lives of joy and love for the rest of their days. Once upon a time…people told the stories that came to be known as fairy tales.
Most of us know of the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales. But they weren’t the only ones who compiled and stylized fairy tales throughout their lives.
In Denmark, local historian Esban Brage was recently wading through the dense archives of the Plum family when he found something interesting. While sitting in the National Archive for Funen in Odense, Esban came across an aged piece of paper. Written upon it was a story titled “The Tallow Candle.” The story follows a small candle, dirty and discarded, that eventually finds joy after a tinderbox sees its goodness and lights it.
It wasn’t until a bit later that Esban realized through his investigation that the story was written by none other than a young Hans Christian Andersen and is possibly his very first fairy tale. “This is a sensational discovery,” Brage told Politiken.
The phrase Once upon a time in its modern form appears in the 1694 work Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists: With Morals and Reflections by Sir Roger L’Estrange. “The Hares and the Frogs,” a short story for children, opens with “Once upon a time.” A pamphlet from around the same time begins a digression “Once upon a time (to use the old English style),” suggesting that writers in the 1690s already believed this to be a very old-fashioned and quaint construction.
As humans, we seem to be endlessly fascinated by tales of adventure and the consequences of our decisions. Recently the origins of many of our favorite fairy tales have been found to reach further back than previously known. Employing methods that biologists typically would use, academics found common links in stories from around the globe. Their research revealed that some well-known tales predate the English language and some, such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Beauty and the Beast,” were first shared thousands of years ago.
The people of France are believed to have been the first to collect and transcribe fairy tales. Today we can read tales from almost any culture, but the oldest fairy tales were told and retold for generations before they were written down. From countries as distant and varied as Egypt and Iceland, similar fairy tales were told. For example, both Egypt and Iceland have Cinderella stories, as do China, England, Korea, Siberia, France, Vietnam — and the list goes on. The Wizard of Oz, a novel by L. Frank Baum published in 1900, is one of the United States’ earliest notable additions to the global collection of fairy tales.
For 80 years, Disney Animation has brought to life fairy tale classics in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, Tangled (based on the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel”), Frozen (based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”) and the upcoming Gigantic (based on the traditional English story “Jack and the Beanstalk”).
But many viewers may be unaware that the original tales upon which these screenplays are based were filled with dread, violence, mystery and the difficult life lesson that sometimes the bad guy wins. For example, the original “Rapunzel” features the long-maned titular character spending two days living with a prince in “joy and pleasure,” resulting in her pregnancy. In an early version of “Cinderella,” the evil stepsisters slice off their toes and heels to make the slipper fit, and later doves peck out their eyes. In “Snow White” the wicked queen is forced to dance in piping-hot iron shoes and dies. These don’t seem like the fairy tales we’ve known over the last eight decades.
Yet fairy tales have helped shape humans’ morals and character ideals over thousands of years.
Once upon a time, a woman wanted to help her daughter achieve the goal of becoming a scientist. The woman asked a highly regarded scientist which books her daughter should read to help in this venture. His answer, as legend has it, was “Fairy tales.” The mother, a bit confused, asked, “What should she read after that?” The scientist, by the name of Albert Einstein, replied, “More fairy tales.”
A bronze sculpture depicts a grandfather recounting a fairy tale to his granddaughter in Schoeneberg, Germany, which lies along the Fairy Tale Road where the Grimm brothers collected and adapted most of their fairy tales. Via Getty Images.
Hearing fairy tales from an early age can be very constructive. Olga Sidlovskaya observes: “Hardly does one begin the narration with ‘Once upon a time…’ that children calm down and are carried away into the world of their fantasies. Fairy tales support the development of imagination and creative thinking…. No child likes to be instructed directly, and fairy tales never teach children in this way. At most, fairy tales hint at what would be the best thing to do in this or that situation….”
Therefore, fairy tales are more than entertainment. Gerald Hüther writes, “As brain researchers have been able to show in recent years with the aid of new imaging procedures, the connectivity between the nerve cells in the brain as representing patterns of thinking, feeling and activity are formed to a much greater extent through own experiences than hitherto assumed. The experiences which are crucial for our own and the collective management of life are passed on from one generation to the next. Fairy tales are an instrument for passing down important messages about our own management of life and the development of relationships.”
As adults, we know that life does not promise a “happily ever after,” but in the words of Bruno Bettelheim: “As for those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul — its depth, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.”
Fairy tales can not only entertain and delight the imagination, but they can offer life lessons that we take with us forever. They can teach us to overcome negativity, trust in friends, conquer fears and strive for goodness in all we do.
What’s your favorite fairy tale?