Oral Tradition to Modern Media: Are Fairy Tales Being Devalued?

Laurie Anderson campfire
Campfire image by Jeff Souville.

Originally, fairy tales were shared orally. They were told amongst adults, and passed on simply by being remembered and retold. However, nowadays such gatherings are less mainstream. The invention of new media, such as the print, the internet, and films, has provided us with a variety of alternative ways to obtain stories. So, how has this affected fairy tales?

In the book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi claims that ‘the fairy tale today – like the bow and arrow, the tomahawk, and the feathered headress – has sunk to the level of the children’s playroom.’

Fairy tale castle classroom
Many schools feature fairy tale-themed areas where children can play, like this fabulous castle made by Lyn Goff.

Outside of literary circles and the study of folklore, fairy tales are usually associated with children. Almost everyone will recognise a fairy tale from their childhood, they contain memorable elements which appeal to children such as talking animals, adventure plots, and magical objects. Fairy tales provide escapism, but at the same time their fantastical nature reassures children that they are not real; it’s okay to act them out and be afraid of the scary ogre, because it doesn’t really exist and once playtime ends they can return to the safety of reality.

Lüthi’s book was published in 1970, making the ‘today’ he mentions in the above quote some time ago. Since then, fairy tales have somewhat returned to adults. Lüthi’s book came before Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a landmark publication for the adult fairy tale market, and the numerous others which have followed in its footsteps such as A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and, more recently, novels such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens and The Wild GirlIt appears that adults are reclaiming fairy tales, but in written form instead of oral.

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales
Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales – definitely not for the ‘playroom’

Of course, fairy tales have been written down for hundreds of years — more so since people like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and published them in the nineteenth century. Through books, fairy tales have been preserved indefinitely. Print has rescued them from the danger of being forgotten, and made them available to new generations. 

But fairy tales were created with the intent told, not read. Lüthi goes on to discuss how ‘our present era of newspapers, magazines, radio and television’ has ‘practically destroyed’ the oral tradition. Even since Lüthi’s time the media has moved on — now we also have digital means of getting our fairy tale fix such as video games (check out Child of Light, The Wolf Among Us, and Never Alone) and the internet. Whilst this means the default way to consume fairy tales may no longer be telling and listening to them, it also shows their versatility. Instead of dying out, they have evolved with technology. The non-specific time settings of fairy tales lends them a sense of agelessness, allowing them to be reproduced in new forms.

Besides, the oral tradition is still very much alive in the world of performance and theatre. Some theatre companies, such as The Wrong Crowd, perform fairy tales in innovative ways for multiple age groups. This is the trailer for one of The Wrong Crowd’s productions, The Girl with the Iron Claws. It is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon.’

The UK also has thriving communities of performance storytellers, so much so that there is even a national Society for Storytelling. Coming together to hear stories is still a popular activity, shown by the many arts festivals throughout the country which encourage performance storytelling such as Winchester’s Hat Fair, the Hay Festival, and Edinburgh FringeOral storytelling now seems to be more of an event rather than an everyday occurrence, so what status it has perhaps lost in frequency it has gained in prestige. 

As well as performance, another visual way to access fairy tales is films. Despite both being visual mediums, films create more distance between the story and the audience. When watching a live show, there is a different atmosphere compared to watching a film alone in your room. Sometimes theatre offers opportunities to participate — I’m sure most of us can recall yelling ‘he’s behind you!’ seemingly hundreds of times at the annual Christmas pantomime (which is more often than not a fairy tale, too).

Winchester Hat Fair
Performers at Winchester Hat Fair in 2015.

In her post about the film Maleficent, Gypsy Thornton from Once Upon A Blog says that ‘when fairy tales are put on film, especially in “live form”, there is rarely room for us to add our own details, our own flavour, our own emphasis and importance. We are told: “this is how the story is, looks, goes and if you didn’t see it there, it didn’t exist/happen” and we are not engaged except as observers. We have nothing to do with shaping the story.

When reading or listening to a fairy tale, we create images in our minds. We imagine the settings and characters, and whenever we reread or are retold the same tale, our thoughts instantly go back to that same imaginary world. Films take away the need to do this, because everything is already there for us to see. Often it’s different to what we initially imagined, so we have to adopt the new look of the story. In doing so, the personal aesthetic we imagined gradually fades. As story consumers, we become more passive.

However, not everyone is naturally imaginative. For those people, films are a way to access the worlds which they cannot build in their minds, and to experience things they previously might not have done (such as fairy tales). And it has to be said that some films are extremely pretty! They may devalue our own individual interpretations of fairy tales, but they also allow them to stay prevalent in popular culture and make them available to a wider range of people.

Tangled lantern scene
The lantern scene in the Disney film Tangled, which is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel.’ This is so pretty that is made me want to go and light hundreds of lanterns! Image from Disney Wiki.

Fairy tale audiences are continually shifting and encompassing new people, shown by how they circulate between adults and children. Fairy tales don’t belong with anyone indefinitely, which is a further display of their versatility. It can be argued that the move to the ‘playroom,’ as Lüthi put it, downgraded them, but it must not be forgotten that they do not reside exclusively in the playroom. They simultaneously live with authors, filmmakers, performers, and theatre goers — and this isn’t even scratching the surface when you take into consideration digital media and citizens of the internet (like us fairy tale bloggers!) as well.

The ways that we tell fairy tales are definitely changing, but personally I don’t think that this is harmful. Instead of relying solely on oral dissemination, there is now a host of ways to share fairy tales. The fact alone that we are still telling them, in whatever form, is enough testament to their value.

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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