Edmund Dulac’s 1910 illustration of Sleeping Beauty. Wikimedia images
For as long as we have been able to stand upright and speak, we have told stories.
They explained the mysteries of the world: birth, death, the seasons, day and night.
On the walls of these caves, the paintings, which date back to around 30-40,000 BC, tell us myths or sacred narratives of the spirits of the land, the fauna of the regions, and humankind’s relationship to them.
A hyena painting found in the Chauvet cave. Wikimedia images
As humanity progressed, other types of stories developed. These were not concerned with the mysteries of the meaning of life but with everyday, domestic matters. While they were more mundane in the issues they explored, such tales were no less spectacular in their creativity and inclusion of the supernatural.
These smaller, everyday stories, combining the world of humans with fantastical creatures and seemingly impossible plots are now classified as fairy tales or folk tales. Such tales, originating in pre-literate societies and told by the folk (or the average person), capture the hopes and dreams of humanity. They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage.
Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham. Wikimedia images
Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong.
Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete.
Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo.
When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed and Christian morality intervened, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.
Despite these changes, it is apparent that fairy tales are still needed today, even for grown-ups. In an uncanny, sometimes inexplicable way, we consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them, despite advances in logic, science and technology.
It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the tellers, we are the greedy consumers.
The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, has been cast – like her life – as a fairy tale. Throughout the year, she has been commemorated in articles with headings such as “a troubled fairy tale”, “beyond a fairy tale”, and “just another fairy tale”. While these articles have endeavoured to deconstruct the familiar narrative, they have not been entirely successful.
Fairy tale wedding? Prince Frederik and Princess Mary. Jerry Lampen/Reuters
The notion of a fairy tale princess has also characterised the coverage of Princess Mary of Denmark and Duchess Catherine of Cambridge.
Even after 13 years of marriage, our own “Aussie princess” is described as living a fairy tale, evident in 2017 media stories with titles such as “Princess Mary and Prince Frederik’s fairy tale royal romance”.
Likewise, Kate, once a commoner, now a princess, has featured in articles titled “Prince William and Duchess Kate’s fairy-tale love story” and “Kate’s Most Royal Fairy Tale Gown (To Date)”.
As the titles of some of these stories show, they also feature the mandatory prince charming (William), or the prince who is revealed to be not-so-charming after all (Charles). Others extend the fairy tale formula to include wicked stepmothers (Di’s real life stepmother) and wicked witches (Camilla).
Is such recourse to fairy tales merely a media stunt to sell stories packaged in an easily consumable, gossip-laden snack box? Or do these articles reflect that deep-seated compulsion of ours to tell and, in turn, to listen to stories? The answers are “yes” and “yes”. But let’s forget the media’s role and look at the more interesting latter point.
Many fairy tales began thousands of years ago, the age depending on the tale itself. Beauty and the Beast has its origins in the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Greek novel, The Golden Ass, from the second century AD.