Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Telling (fairy) tales

Fairy tales have been passed down through communities for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and have existed in almost all cultures in one form or another. These narratives, often set in the distant past, allow us to escape to a world very unlike our own. They usually follow a hero or heroine who comes up against some sort of obstacle (or obstacles) – from witches and ogres, to dwarves and (as the name suggests) fairies.

In the beginning, before writing and printing, these stories were passed down by storytellers across the ages using the oral tradition. Written versions started to appear before the modern systematic collection of tales we know today, meaning that the oral and literary have intermingled for generations. However, the genre of fairy tales still holds characteristics and legacies that come from oral transmission.

We’ve dug out some interesting facts about fairy tales and their oral tradition – how many of these will you pass along?

  • There are three main, specifically oral, prose genres of folklore. Fairy tales are one, and the others are myth and legend. Myths are believed to be true stories about gods or magical beings that can teach a moral lesson, whereas legends report extraordinary things happening to ordinary people (generally reported as true, but with some reservations on behalf of the audience and/or narrator).
  • Paradoxically, until the middle of the 20th century people that researched the oral tradition of fairy tales actually studied them in text-form.
  • Because of their oral tradition, fairy tales have crossed borders freely, with some of the same stories appearing across many different cultures. For example, the earliest recorded version of Cinderella was found in a mid-9th century Chinese book of folk tales.
Image Credit: ‘Mother Goose reading written fairy tales’ by Gustave Doré. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: ‘Mother Goose reading written fairy tales’ by Gustave Doré. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The roots of German literary fairy tales go as far back as ancient Egypt and the Graeco-Roman period, as well as the pagan Nordic and Slavic traditions.
  • One of the earliest references to a British fairy story is in the work of Giraldus Cambrensis in 1188, when he describes being told a story as he travelled through Wales. In this story fairies invite a boy to go with them to their country. He travels between the two worlds freely, until his mother asks him to steal some fairy gold, which he does. The fairies chase him and he falls, loses his gold, and can never find his way back to the fairy world again.
  • The romantic idea that the Brothers Grimm travelled across the German countryside collecting fairy tales directly from the mouths of the people that spoke them is, unfortunately, not exactly true. Instead, people who were familiar with printed fairy-tale editions went to the Grimms’ home and recited their stories, whilst others were sent in the post.
  • It is likely that the story of Little Red Riding Hood came from the oral tradition of sewing societies in southern France and northern Italy.
  • The Grimm’s (sentimental) ending to the story of Rapunzel (where the Prince’s blinded eyes are magically restored after Rapunzel’s tears land on them) cannot be found in the oral tradition of this tale.
  • The tales in The Arabian Nights can be traced back to three ancient oral cultures: Indian, Persian, and Arab. Scholars think that they probably circulated by word of mouth for hundreds of years before they were ever written down (which was at some point between the 9th and 15th centuries).

Featured image credit: ‘Bled, Slovenia’ by Ales Krivec. CC0 1.0 via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Lucie

    Hello! I really enjoyed reading your article. There is one point in particular that attracted my attention. You mentioned that the earliest version of Cinderella was found in China. Do you have any official source of work that mention this fact? It would help me a lot because I’m writing my thesis about fairytales and the fact that they are used in advertisements because they have an international reputation, but I have to prove that point and it’s a bit difficult to find some ressources about that. I thank you in advance for you answer!

Comments are closed.