Fairy Tales Final Exam & Reflection – Timmy Sweeney

Fairy tales figure out how to embed themselves into our lives without us realizing it in so many ways. Like our reading regarding memes, fairy tales have managed to convey important messages throughout the ages (Zipes, 2012, pg. 17), carrying an intention to teach a lesson, provide education, explain the unexplainable, and discuss the undiscussable (Ashliman, 2004, pg. 2-5). They have survived the tests of time as a fundamental part of human cultures, whether it be told in communal settings by old peasant women or by the tribal chief, whether it be read to a child in an orphanage by a nun or viewed in the theater by children, they have meaning. They have an intention: a lesson to learn. Fairy tales come with the human experience; they are inseparable from it. A significant amount of the basic common sense that we utilize in our lives can be learned from fairy tales, such as for children to avoid strangers, and listen to their parents, as featured in Little Red Riding Hood (Tatar, 2002, ch. 1). Basic values, too, come from these tales, such as the emphasis on justice and the blessings that come with such virtues that can be found in Donkeyskin (Tatar, 2002, ch. 17). We still have a substantial amount to learn from fairy tales in our modern culture, but we can learn about old and currently existing cultures around the world by analyzing their fairy tales, by analyzing the stories they hold/held dear, and the values that they uphold/upheld. 

The theorist that I feel most helped me in my understanding of fairy tales was D. L. Ashliman. I found the way that Ashliman explained the origins, purposes, and different types of fairy tales to be particularly useful in the study of the topic broadly. Ashliman put forward an effective system that I could always go back to if I needed to during the course, which I utilized for my research project. His breaking fairy tales down into myths, legends, and folktales put into perspective their respective meanings, such as how myths tend to be stories that “establish a context for humans within the cosmos” or how legends are basically “human-centered” versions of myths (Ashliman, 2004, pg. 32-34). Ashliman’s insights into the purpose of fairy tales and why they resonate in all human societies were fundamental in being able to make my argument for my paper – countries create fairy tales to promote values and beliefs in their societies. Additionally, I feel that the chronology he provided in understanding the evolution of fairy tales throughout time was helpful, as it placed them within a historical context rather than a vacuum. When this is accomplished, it becomes easier to assimilate new information with the knowledge that I have, enhancing my ability to understand what it means. For example, talking about the French compilation of stories “Tales of the Fairies” produced by Madame d’Aulnoy gave me a better idea about where these stories came from and how they got introduced into the English-speaking world, which had an impact on my life and my upbringing. 

Honestly, I was surprised to learn about Disney’s substantial revisions in his retelling of the fairy tales, including those promulgated by the Brothers Grimm. My understanding of a large amount of fairy tales was via the Disney Spell, the way that Walt Disney portrayed the characters and storylines. However, in this course, I became aware of the fact that Disney essentially altered many of the storylines he retold, such as the shifts he made in Puss in Boots and Snow White. For example, in Puss and Boots, the context was radically shifted; it was Americanized. Themes such as modernity, technology, and democracy were stressed to explain not only the rise of Walt Disney to fame and fortune, his breakthrough into the king’s court (the animation industry), but the American Dream as a whole – one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps (Zipes, 1999, pg. 344-345). In Snow White, too, much of the storyline and characters are fundamentally altered, with the seven dwarves being portrayed as hardworking Americans rather than as mindless and anonymous characters. Additionally, an emphasis was placed on the role of men vs women, with a man being required to save Snow White from death – “true love’s kiss” (Zipes, 1999, pg. 346-349). This was an attempt to promote certain values held in American society at the time. In a nutshell, I found this part of the course to be the most fascinating because it changed what I thought I had understood about fairy tales. 

During the course, I was most interested in content regarding the historical development of fairy tales in their specific contexts. For example, I found the discussion of the evolution of the fairy tale from an oral and communal phenomena, to a literary and aristocratic one, and finally to that of film in Jack Zipes’ work to be particularly interesting. With my goal of being a double major in history and political science, I find social strata and class structure to be interesting subjects of study, particularly in their relationship with the superstructure of society, and its cultural, religious, etc institutions. As the fairytale became “engendered” by the Grimms in literary tradition, it fundamentally altered much of the purposes that they served, instead now serving to uphold the aristocracy at the head of society – the fairy tale “became privatized” (Zipes, 1999, pg. 335 & 337). Almost paradoxically, the development of the fairy tale into the literary tradition was almost reactionary, as it had stolen the shared and collective nature of the fairy tale from the peasantry, handing it over to the landed gentry and aligned intelligentsia who sought to re-establish many already existing fairy tales in their vision, a vision bent on promoting the status quo. Seeing the evolution of fairy tales through the lens of a historian made the topic really interesting to me and helped me get a better grasp of it. Relating the development of fairy tales to the development of society as a whole, connecting them to class/group interests in history, and bonding them with the cultural experience of different peoples made the topic more relatable to my area of interest that I did not previously give much time to. The humanities, indeed, are fundamental in understanding the human experience – history. Fairy tales can help historians understand different elements and belief systems of cultures that are no longer here. This is a skill, or at least the genesis of one, that I have attained from this class. Connecting fairy tales to historical development all through the course was definitely an exciting and fun thing to learn about. 

That being said, I feel that it would have been useful and/or interesting for me through the lens of a historical to dig deeper into the sociohistorical connections that fairy tales bear with them, such as their influence on concepts like nationalism, the genesis of nations, etc. What is the relationship between fairy tales and nationalists talking about glorified pasts? How does the Russian telling of the Second World War impact their understanding of history? What is the relationship between fairy tales and irredentism? This would have been a fascinating section in the course, and I definitely think that I could have gained from that. This is purely from the perspective of my sought major and my personal interests, but I still think that anyone genuinely interested in fairy tales could have gained from this. Fairy tales explain a significant amount about people, more than we realize. They tell us how people think, and why they think the way they do. They offer a vehicle for the celebration of good values in society, such as the insistence on telling the truth. There are invaluable gains to be made in sharing cherished tales with our own children! Everybody has much to gain from studying fairy tales, but from the perspective of a historian I would have been excited to learn more about them in other historical contexts and how they impact the world to this day, even. 

Works Cited: 

Zipes, J. 2012. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre

Ashliman, D L. 2004. Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook. ABC-CLIO.

Tatar, M. (2002). The annotated classic fairy tales. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA62408976

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Disney Spell.

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