The Cultural History of Fairy Tales

How have the fairy tales of different cultures changed over the centuries? What do they tell us about our fears and hopes?

In a work that spans 2,500 years these ambitious questions are addressed by over 50 experts, each contributing their overview of a theme applied to a period in history. With the help of a broad range of case material they illustrate broad trends and nuances of the fairy tale in Western culture from antiquity to the present.

Delve into the world of the marvellous and fantastical, and explore the Cultural History of Fairy Tales through the ages.

From Volume I: In Antiquity

Socialization: Fairy Tales as Vehicles of Moral Messages by Dominic Ingemark and Camilla Asplund Ingemark

Drawing on a range of examples from Greek and Roman literature, this chapter from A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in Antiquity explores the use of fairy tales in the ancient world to warn against moral failings such as greed, envy, and infidelity, as well as to convey politically and socially sensitive messages in a palatable form. One example of a message too sensitive to discuss in direct terms is the moral condemnation of rich and influential citizens of Rome, which was instead conveyed obliquely in Horace’s tale “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”. Many such stories are explored in this chapter, from writers including Apuleius, Xenophon, Livy, Horace, and Euripides.

From Volume II: The Middle Ages

Gender and Sexuality: The Beauties and Beasts of Medieval Romance by Dominic Ingemark and Camilla Asplund Ingemark

This chapter on medieval romance from A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Middle Ages looks at key tropes governing gender and sexuality in the genre. The four tropes surveyed include courtliness, virtue, the marvelous, and rape. Like a medieval tapestry, these tropes are interwoven in complex ways which are untangled by Shutters, who considers them both in isolation and in synthesis. She does so through reference to a variety of primary texts in medieval romance, a genre which was never defined at the time but is thought to have begun around 1100 CE and is associated with legendary settings, idealized characters, knights’ adventures, and the marvelous, magic, and love.

From Volume III: The Age of the Marvelous

Humans and Non-Humans: Animal Bridegrooms and Brides in Japanese Otogizōshi by Laura Nüffer

The Seventh Night numbers among a large body of tales from medieval Japan prominently featuring animals. The roles that animals play in these tales are many: they can be benefactors, foes, or allegorical figures—and sometimes, they can be lovers. This chapter from A Cultural History of Fairy Tales from the Age of the Marvelous explores medieval Japanese narratives of animal-human marriage, with a focus on the fraught and sometimes fatal relationships between animal grooms and human brides. Readers acquainted with Western fairy tales will find familiar echoes here—beauties and beasts, princesses and frogs—but the romances of these odd couples do not always develop in the direction Western readers might expect.

From Volume IV: The Long Eighteenth Century

Monsters and the Monstrous: Of Ogre Pyramids, Ruby-Eyed Dragons, and Gnomes with Crooked Spines by Kathryn A. Hoffmann

To read monsters in fairy tales of the long eighteenth century is to encounter giants with eyes on stalks, griffins, sphinxes, winged serpents, ruby-eyed dragons, and a bee-like apparition the size of a whale, its abdomen covered in crystal tiles. Because the vast bulk of eighteenth-century fairy tales were written in France from the 1690s on, this chapter from A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Long Eighteenth Century concentrates on French examples, with a few from Italy, Germany, England, and Russia. During this period, a particular kind of ludic monstrous explodes, producing innumerable works of imaginative literature of various and often intermingled genres.

From Volume V: The Long Nineteenth-Century

Space: Physical, Liminal, and Other by John Pennington

In George MacDonald’s 1895 fantasy romance Lilith, Mr. Vane admits: “I was lost in a space larger than imagination”. For the rest of his journey in this fantastical realm of the seven dimensions, Mr. Vane must lose his self by accepting the reality of this alternative world. Vane’s space that is larger than the imagination is an apt metaphor for the variety of spaces and places that are found in fairy tales. Fairy-tale writers of the long nineteenth century were equally consumed by timeless spaces and places in fairy tales. Three examples in this chapter highlight the importance of such spaces in fairy tales.

From Volume VI: The Long Modern Age

Power: The Archeology of a Genre by Kimberly J. Lau

Inspired by (but not limited to) Foucault’s theories of power and his archaeological method, this chapter by Kimberly Lau seeks to articulate the normalized logics at the heart of fairy-tale studies to explore what other(ed)—and thereby marginalized and overlooked—discourses reveal about genres, geopolitics, and the possibility for productive literary disruptions and cultural subversions. Of course, considerations of power are by no means new to fairy-tale studies. This chapter from A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Modern Age reads Helen Oyeyemi’s fairy-tale novels as examples of how racially inflected contemporary fairy tales might highlight, as well as attend to, such critical absences.

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