Fairy tales are women’s tales. This has been said before, in words cleverer and more articulate than my own, but still, it bears repeating: fairy tales are women’s tales. They’re bent-backed crones’ tales, sly gossips’ tales, work-worn mothers’ tales and old wives’ tales. They’re stories shared, repeated and elaborated on over mindless women’s work like spinning or mending or shucking corn. These stories are the voices of those who were, within a social and cultural context, so often voiceless; they’re women’s whispered desires and fears, neatly wrapped up in fantastical narratives filled with sex, violence and humour. Fairy tales speak of the things that women most hoped for – a prince, a castle, a happy ending – and those that they were most afraid of – that their children would be taken from them, that men would hurt them or take advantage of them, that their family wouldn’t be provided for.
One need only look to the sources cited by the great folktale and fairy tale publishers from the late seventeenth century all the way through to the early nineteenth century (a time when readers, editors and publishers showed renewed literary interest in both fantastical stories and traditional storytelling) to know that women were, by and large, the main collectors, keepers and tellers of these tales. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm credit such women as Dorothea Wild, Dorothea Viehmann, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, and their brother-in-law Ludwig Hassenplug’s three sisters as being some of the most important contributors to their Nursery and Household Tales. Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, who produced the Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Rose Fairy Books, relied heavily on his wife Leonora Alleyne and a team of female editors for his content. And Charles Perrault wrote in an introduction to his 1697 work Mother Goose Tales that these stories fell within long tradition of old wives’ tales, such as had been told to children by their nurses since the dawning of time. So, initially at least, the idea that fairy tales came from the domain of women was commonly acknowledged, and even used to give credibility to some stories. And yet these days, we think of them as being for children only. So what happened?
Well, the industrial revolution happened, for one thing. The advent of new technology, and a population shift from rural to urban settings, meant that much of the dull, laborious women’s work simply ceased to exist. Factory-produced thread and yarn, which were finer and smoother than their home-spun counterparts, became cheap and readily available, which lead to a decrease of women spinning at home. Inexpensive, mass-produced clothing meant that it was often easier to purchase a new item than to try to mend an old one. Many working class men and women were employed in the factories that produced these goods, meaning that the long work days they spent in those filthy, airless rooms left no time or energy at night to dawdle in front of the fire telling stories. Opportunities for traditional storytelling diminished radically over the course of a generation or two, and folklorists began to worry about the fate of the fairy tale. Indeed, it was with the idea of preserving German culture that the Grimms began collecting and publishing folktales.
All of this helps explain how women were distanced from the act of storytelling, but it doesn’t answer the question of why fairy tales began to be associated with children. For that, we have to look at the shift in social attitudes towards childhood that occurred during the Victorian era; in fact, one might even argue that this was the first time childhood, at least in our modern understanding of the word, existed. Children had long been treated as miniature adults, expected to help provide for their family as soon as they were physically able to do so. This went largely unremarked upon when that work took place on a family farm, but when factories began hiring children for dangerous jobs in poor working conditions, social reformers sat up and took notice. Activists fought for the right of every child to have a childhood, emphasizing the fact that the earliest years of life were critical for a child’s development. With this cultural sea-change came a new market for games, toys and especially books for children. Interestingly enough, the Grimms’ first edition of their Nursery and Household Tales, which was geared towards an adult audience, didn’t fare very well sales-wise. It wasn’t until they created a second edition marketed for children that they saw any real success.
Of course, when putting together the second edition of their book, the Grimms made certain changes in order to refit their stories for a younger audience. This makes total sense; you wouldn’t expect children to be drawn to a book that, as Maria Tatar writes in The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairytales, “…had the look of a scholarly tome, rather than a of a book for a wide audience.” And certainly the Grimms had to make sure that there was nothing in their book that was inappropriate for children. What’s interesting is what changes they chose to make.
Fairy tales are notoriously violent, and it’s tempting to think that the Grimms would have made sure that the violence was the first thing to go when they were trying to make their stories kid-friendly. However, when we compare the second edition with the first, the opposite is true – the Grimms actually increased the violent episodes in their stories. Take, for example, their version of Cinderella – in the second edition, the children’s edition, the ugly stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves at the tale’s end, whereas in the first edition, their eyes remain intact. Evidently the Grimms had worried that in their original version of the tale, the stepsisters had not suffered enough retribution for their treatment of Cinderella, as the text in the second edition reads, “ … so both sisters were punished with blindness to the end of their days for being so wicked and false.” You can just imagine Jacob and Wilhelm conferring over this scene: “I mean, sure, the stepsisters have already had parts of their feet cut off, but do you think that’s really enough to drive the point home? I think we should remove at least one more body part so that the children truly understand how terrible the stepsisters are.”
So if the Grimms weren’t concerned about small children reading about violence, what were they worried about? Sex, naturally. They took out any and all allusions to sex. Like the fact that Rapunzel was totally doing it with her prince whenever he climbed up her hair-rope into her tower. Check out this brief but sexy (well, sexy by 19th century standards) passage from the first edition version of “Rapunzel”:
‘At first Rapunzel was frightened, but soon she came to like the young king so much that she agreed to let him visit every day and to pull him up. The two lived joyfully for a time, and the fairy did not catch on at all until Rapunzel told her one day: “Tell me, Godmother, why my clothes are so tight and why they don’t fit me any longer.” “Wicked child!” shouted the fairy. “What are you telling me!”’
Once her pregnancy is discovered, Rapunzel is sent off by her fairy godmother to live in a desert, “… where things went very badly for her here and where, after a time, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.”
By the second edition all reference to pregnancy had been removed.
“Rapunzel” was not the only story to be sanitized; many of the others suffered the same fate. In the first edition version of “The Frog King or Iron Heinrich,” for example, the frog transforms into a man in the princess’ bed, at which point “she cherished him as she had promised,” after which both fell “peacefully asleep.” In the second edition, after the frog’s transformation (which does not occur in the princess’ bed), the happy couple immediately run off to find the king so that they can get married in the middle of the night, thus guaranteeing that absolutely nothing untoward happens between them until the palace vicar pronounced them man and wife.
The Grimms decided that some of their stories were completely unsalvageable when it came to the second edition, and just cut them altogether. Take “Hans Dumm,” the story of a man who could impregnate women just by wishing for it – if you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it didn’t make it past the first edition of the Grimms’ book. And yet stories like “The Juniper Tree” somehow made it into the children’s edition of their book. For those of you unfamiliar with it, “The Juniper Tree,” a story about a woman who kills her stepson, lets her daughter think that she was responsible for the murder, and then cooks the child in a stew to serve to his father. Because what’s murder and cannibalism when compared with the evils of sex?
The Grimms’ deletion of all things sexy from the second edition could be taken as a sort of Teutonic prudery, but when we look at it in context with some of the other alterations, there begins to emerge a pattern of marginalization and disempowerment of women. Not only did they remove any mention of sex, the majority of it both consensual and premarital, but all sorts of other details defining and limiting the female characters were added in. With each successive edition, the Wilhelm Grimm added in more and more adjectives describing what they thought was the perfect Christian woman; female characters were suddenly “dutiful,” “tender-hearted,” “god-fearing” and “contrite,” where once they had simply been “beautiful” or “young.” Wilhelm also began to alter the structure of the tales, introducing moral judgments and motivations that previously hadn’t been there. Traditionally, fairy tales had seen luck and chance count for more than hard work and obedience, but Wilhelm put a stop to that – instead the sweet, well-behaved, godly women were rewarded, and those who deviated from that mold were punished. Finally, Wilhelm added in all sorts of hints about the domestic activity he felt women should occupy themselves with – for example, in an early draft of Snow White, the dwarves only ask that she cook their meals in exchange for shelter, but by the time the first edition of his book was published, their demands included that she keep house for them, do the cooking, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and clean.
And so fairy tales began to feel less like women’s stories and more like a guidebook for how women were expected to behave.
These days, women have new ways, better ways of communicating what we feel and think. And though we still face challenges when trying to make ourselves heard, we’re not silenced and dismissed as we once were. Perhaps it’s senseless to mourn the fact that fairy tales no longer act as the voice of women – after all, doesn’t that in and of itself show how far we’ve come in the past few hundred years? Yet it’s hard not to feel that in gaining one thing, we’ve lost another – or rather, that it’s been taken from us, and transformed into something that in many ways works against us. But I like to think that it’s still possible to look at fairy tales and see the beating heart of a woman’s story buried under all that repressive patriarchal junk. You may have to do a bit of digging, but it’s still there. It’s still concerned with all the same things that it once was – finding true love, protecting the ones it loves, outwitting those who would seek to hurt it. And I think that heart is worth resurrecting, if we can.
[Image from Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Book]