This is a post about how the word fairy tale came to be, and what it’s turned into. I would like to start off by warning you: I am no friend to the bridal industry. That doesn’t mean marriage: that means the commercialization of marriage. And what that commercialization has done to fairy tales. Here’s a preview: The following image is from Disney Bridal. They name all their dresses after fairy tale heroines. You can, in fact, even buy matching brides maids and flower girl dresses. This one is Giselle:
…okay. Anyways. To start with: Haven’t you ever wondered why the heck we call these things fairy tales? Many of them have no fairies in them at all…especially (my favorites) the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Where did the term come from? Who originated it? And why ‘fairy tales,’ for pete’s sake?
Well, the term was originally coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baronne d’Aulnoy, a French Baroness who was a great figure in the Salon culture of the late 1600s. She was the first person to coin the term “fairy tales.” In French, the term is Les Contes des Fees (tales of fairies).
Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales were – shall we say – not exactly for children.
But that is beside the point. There is no question that the term ‘fairy tale’ originated in France, although the genre itself originated in Italy with the works of Giambattista Basile and Straparola. Straparola was the earliest western fairy-tale writer. He modeled his tales off of the Arabian Nights. But he did not call them fairy tales – “Le piacevoli notti” translates roughly as “the facetious nights.”
Once French fairy tales emigrated over to Germany, the name changed to Märchen. A Märchen is a tale, a narrative, a story…but a Märchen can also be a lie or a falsehood. The original word is the Old German Märe, meaning news. The Germans liked to play around with this word a lot…we get Zaubermärchen for a magical tale, Kunstmärchen for an artistic, romantic tale, and the homey “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (Nursery and Household Tales, the title of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection).
In Spanish, the colloquialism is “cuento,” which is very akin to Märchen – it means both a tale and lie.
If you think about it, we have this idea in English, too. It’s not for nothing that Bill Clinton compared Obama’s policies to a “fairy tale.” The word is potent – it can mean ‘pie in the sky,’ unrealistic, a “mere” dream.
What does the word mean in our culture? What shouldthe world mean in our culture?
Too often, the world is tied up in a consumerist culture. We have “fairy tale” weddings, we have “fairy tale” relationships, we have “fairy tale” endings that often involve things like expensive wedding, large houses, lots of things. Too often, fairy tale is a synonym for perfect. And I have problems with that. There are so many fairy tales with problematic endings! There are so many fairy tales that are about death, so many bloody, violent fairy tales, so many fairy tales where there is no happily ever after. My favorite example of this is The Three Snake Leaves. It’s okay to click the link – the translation’s legit. But seriously – read this fairy tale. And you tell me – does it have a happy ending?
I think it’s time that we liberated fairy tales from their consumerist fetters. That we reclaim our right to have lives where thing go wrong, where we haven’t yet found our endings. And by recognizing that fairy tales in and of themselves aren’t perfect, we’ll be able to recognize that’s it’s okay that we’re not perfect, too.\\
And they are making millions off of the fantasy.
I mean seriously people! Disney has an entire operation dedicated to fairy tale weddings! Let’s let go…let go of the obsession with fantastical perfection that doesn’t even exist in the literature that we use to justify it. Let’s rise up! Fairy tale lovers everywhere…unite!!!
…what a weird rant, huh? You know, come to think of it, I’m gonna post a rant one day about the fairy-tale wedding industry. You’d be surprised what Disney has done, my friends…you would be surprised.