Once Upon a Time


Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

It is a cliché that causes us to smile, yet variations of that phrase will have been used countless times in the distant past, when our ancestors gathered around the storyteller of the tribe to hear whatever tale he (or she) was about to tell.

And research http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645  that was published this week, now tells us that the history of fairy tales turns out to be even longer than anyone suspected, going back to the times of prehistoric tribes. Not that this theory is entirely uncontested, of course.

But I would be surprised if it were untrue.

There have always been storytellers, who performed an important role, especially before the invention of writing. In those days, when all knowledge had to be memorised if it was to be of any use, then the skills of the storyteller in the tribe, someone who was used to organising their thoughts so that they could remember what was important and then recount it to the rest of the tribe, would have been vital for far more than simply entertainment; they would have been essential for the tribe’s survival.

They would have told stories about wild animals; either cautionary tales, or how to hunt them. Stories of skirmishes with other tribes; praising the bravery of their own warriors, and recounting how the other tribe was put to flight, but warning, still, of the danger these other tribes posed.

They must have always speculated on the origins of their world, and come up with the various creation myths. It would be important that all the tribe understood the appropriate rituals they would need to follow to appease the gods and ensure their own welfare.

So these stories would have been a way of sharing information with all the members of the tribe.

Much later, after the invention of writing, these tales began to perform a different function. They would still be used as cautionary tales, but now perhaps aimed more towards children (watch out for cross-dressing wolves and the like), or purely for entertainment.

But in a society where the majority were unable to read, they would remain important.

Throughout history, there has always been a borrowing and reinvention of stories; the myth of a flood that wipes out most of mankind, for example, is found virtually all over the world.

But the difference between a ‘myth’ and a ‘fairy story’ seems a little vague. I suppose the term ‘myth’ does seem to have a little more gravitas.

Many of these stories concern blacksmiths, which might be due to an early awe of those peoples who discovered how to work stronger metal, specifically iron, and fears that they might be using magical or supernatural means to do so. I’ll return to that shortly.

Now let’s take one well-known example of a fairy tale; the story of Snow White plays out both as a royal power struggle, something that has occurred time and again all over the world, and also the classic tale of the wicked stepmother, highlighting the insecurity a child may feel when a parent dies and is replaced by a stranger.

She flees an assassination attempt to find refuge with another people. The fact that they are depicted as dwarves (in the well-known European version) serves to emphasize the fact that they are not her own people.

There are further attempts on her life, but she is finally rescued by a passing prince and lives happily ever after.

Variations of this story crop up across Europe, Turkey, Africa, Asia and America. Whether these tales were passed from tribe to tribe and spread across the world that way, or were invented spontaneously in different parts of the world, it is unlikely we will ever know. It was probably a combination of the two. What is certain, is that they tend to be reinvented regularly.

Stories of mortals striking deals with supernatural beings (i.e. the devil) occur world-wide. What they all have in common is that either the human making it reneges on the deal, and usually finds a way to cheat the supernatural being, or, of course, the devil comes to collect his soul.

It is still a well-used device in literature. There is Goethe’s Faust, and since then many other popular novels on the subject, and we are still happily reinventing this story, as well as all of the other fairy tales, into new stories today.

In Britain, there are numerous folk-tales on this subject, usually concerning blacksmiths who either make pacts with the devil, or who are visited by him in disguise and realise who he really is (the comely maiden with the cloven hooves is often a bit of a giveaway). It usually ends with the devil being grabbed by the nose with red hot pincers and running off screaming. But again, these tales surface from all parts of the British Isles, and are set in times that are contemporary to the story teller. So the fellow telling the tale in an ale-house in a sixteenth century village would mention the blacksmith in a village twenty or so miles away – close enough to be particularly exciting to the listeners, but probably far enough away for there to be no one in his audience who might confidently denounce it as false.

And then, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

22 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. I would agree, Mick, that storytelling has been around as long as mankind. It seems a bit silly not to think so 🙂 I love the idea that oral stories perhaps spanned the world, tribe to tribe. How wonderful is that! I don’t distinguish much between fairy tales and the latest in adult fiction. They are all flights of fancy, forays into the imagination. I’ve been reading traditional fairy tales (old ones) to my grandson, and I’m occasionally shocked at the level of violence (I feel compelled to edit on the fly). Ha ha. Thanks for the fun post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, there is a lot of violence! I think that many of the ones we have now, or at least the versions we have inherited, are the ones that are warnings for children. Hence the threats of violence to keep them away from the wild woods, but also the reassurance that the bad old wolf will get hacked into little pieces by the good old woodcutter, although possibly not before lunching on the stray children.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder how that one will be viewed in a hundred years time, assuming that it is remembered? I just want to know which politicians have done that deal – it’s the only way I can think of to explain the success of some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ay, great stories have their origins in Stone Age caves, Mick. Cinderella has been with us since the start of recorded time. Sometimes her benefactor is a fairy godmother, sometimes a genie. And Cinderella wears many dresses. Occasionally, she’s a poor fisherman; other times a beggar. Do you think these mnemes – or archetypal stories – are recorded in our DNA? Very Jungian…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are they in our DNA? Well, I wonder. We all have certain hopes and fears in common – fear of the supernatural, a desire to be happy, a fear of being helpless. It would be natural for different peoples to come up with similar stories about them, and equally natural for them to take stories already in existence and re-tell them. I’m sure it has always been a bit of both.


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