Friday, February 3, 2012

Morsel of the Day: Fairy Tales Are Easier to Illustrate Than Define

Fairytales, as we have come to recognise them, are perhaps easier to illustrate than to define: we tend to use the term loosely to mean ‘tales like Cinderella or Snow White’, and leave it at that. The term itself is as old as the late seventeenth century, appearing as the title of Mme d’Aulnoy’s Contes de fées in 1698, whereas the broader term folktale does not arrive till the early nineteenth century. A reasonable definition might however ask for ‘short, imaginative, traditional tales with a high moral and magical content’, essentially the qualities offered by the German term Maerchen, with its association with the world of Grimms’ fairytales. Such definitions are all too often doomed to admit exceptions: almost the first thing the first acknowledged modern European Cinderella does is murder her stepmother! But they are useful, nonetheless, and this one may be allowed to stand. The same vagueness as we might have about the definition of fairytales also tends to provide us with the assumption that they are somehow ‘timeless’ without actually being ‘old’. The assumption, too, that fairytales are somehow the province of children seems somehow to disqualify them from existing in antiquity, precisely because we tend to take it for granted that there were no children in antiquity — of the kind we somehow take for granted as the audience, readers or viewers of fairytale.

by Graham Anderson
From the introduction to Fairytale in the ancient world, p. 1

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