LONG AGO, WHEN the world was just as unfair as it is today, villagers gathered at nights and told each other stories. By the light of the fire, they spun and chattered and passed on stories that had been floating around for centuries, or perhaps even longer. Nobody could read, everybody worked hard, and at night they continued their tasks, the constant labour disfiguring bodies, crippling hands, until spinning wheels became like crucifixes for uneducated women. To occupy their minds, these early tales were bawdy and unrestrained, designed to take both listener and teller to another place. Never originally intended for children, in John Updike’s words they were ‘the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples’.
It was only later, much later, that an aristocratic Frenchwoman would call these stories conte de fees or fairy tales. Like any cultural product involving oral transmission, these stories varied widely, but certain key traits persisted. There were magical reversals of fortune: the poor became rich, evildoers were punished for their deeds, and in the end the protagonist enjoyed a life of ease. As fairy tale scholar Marina Warner notes, the schematic characterisations, such as ‘Prince Charming’ or the ‘beautiful princess’, meant that you could slip yourself into the lead role, easily imagining the story was about you. They were blank slates to write your fears and desires. Not surprisingly, fairy tales became incredibly popular, spreading virus-like across the world, intermingling through a combination of publication and oral storytelling.
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