Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a moral that needed to be taught, or a child that needed putting to bed, or a traveller who needed to be entertained. As long as humans have existed, we have crafted stories to tell to ourselves and to others; we are perpetually surrounded by them. When we are awake, we read, we watch, we listen. When we are asleep, we dream.
Fairy Tales are an undeniably essential part of human culture – you would be hard-pressed to find a story that was not in some way influenced by a Fairy Tale. In an article for the BBC from 2016, it was reported that research into certain Fairy Tales such as Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin, found them to be over 4,000 years old. Other pieces of folklore, such as the tale of a cunning blacksmith, are estimated to date back to the Bronze age, over 6,000 years ago, back when the Indo-European language was still spoken across most of Europe and parts of Asia.
But what is it about Fairy Tales that gives them the ability to prevail throughout time, to rear their head over and over again and seemingly never grow tiresome?
the story of Cinderella can be found all over the world in multiple different forms
One answer might be due to the extent of their dispersion. Over thousands of years, stories are bound to change, deviating from their original source material, spreading like wildfire through word of mouth with each retelling being different from the last. Alternatively, certain story tropes feel natural or instinctive, and might therefore appear without any prior knowledge of a similar story. For example, the story of Cinderella can be found all over the world in multiple different forms. In Greece, from around 7BC to 23AD, there was the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl who marries the King of Egypt. In China, there is the story of Ye Xian (from around 860AD).
Perhaps the story travelled halfway across the globe over the span of nearly 900 years – or perhaps there are tropes and archetypes within the story of Cinderella that are extremely versatile, and applicable to all cultures. If we examine the fundamental aspects of this tale, then we can see how, at its core, Cinderella is a story about a kind-hearted servant falling in love with a Prince, and being lifted from a destitute position to one of royalty. There is nothing within this story that is singularly specific to one culture or group of people. It is a tale that can be reimagined and spread around through all walks of life, endlessly adaptable.
However, this adaptability can often be exploited, as is the case within the film industry. Fairy tales make for recognisable, familiar stories, and an overall lack of copyright means that they are free to use in the public domain. Probably the main perpetrator of this trend is, of course, Disney, firstly with their animation of classic tales such as Snow White (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959), or the story of Rapunzel in Tangled (2010), but then more recently with their plethora of live-action remakes like Mulan (2020), Aladdin (2019) and Beauty and the Beast (2017). It’s easy to take certain characters or ideas and put them into a new, unexpected setting – for example, A Cinderella Story (2004), whereby the titular “princess” is now a high-school student hoping to attend prom, working in her step-mother’s diner. The classic ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ leaves much to be explored; it’s something that shows such as Once Upon A Time (2011-2018) take great artistic liberty with.
Sure, not everyone can live happily ever after, but fairy tales allow us to believe that we can – that maybe we’ll be different
But, to move away from the commercialised element, fairy tales often contain or relate to stories of our earliest fears. As we have urbanised, modernised, become more remote from nature and superstition, folklore and fairy tales remain to remind us of where we came from. There is something in every story that attracts both adults and children alike – a careful balance between the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel narrative, and the often shockingly dark series of events that make up the predicament the main character finds themselves in (abandonment in Hansel and Gretel, death of one’s family in basically every fairy tale ever, attempted murder in Sleeping Beauty, to name a few). And yet, fairy tales offer solutions, morals and lessons, frequently emphasising the importance of bring brave in the face of adversity, of being kind to both yourself and those around you, and of being true to yourself and knowing your own self-worth. Sure, not everyone can live happily ever after, but fairy tales allow us to believe that we can – that maybe we’ll be different.
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