The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Modern Origin of Fairy Tales


FROM the moment in which the general attention of scholars was directed to the treasures of the lore living among the people, theories were not wanting to explain the origin and importance thereof.

The fault inherent in every new undertaking, viz., of mixing the elements promiscuously, and attributing to every branch of the new study the same origin, was conspicuously felt in the new study of folk-lore. Once a theory was adopted, say for customs or myths, it was immediately applied to superstitions, tales, or charms, as if these were all of the same age, and derived from the same source. This general explanation is still in force, although, as I think each branch of folk-lore should be studied separately, endeavouring to prove the origin of each independently from the other; afterwards we may try to ascertain the relationship which exists between each. Thus a theory which holds good for superstition, is by no means fit for fairy-tales, &c. Just as our knowledge is a knowledge formed by many strata, one upon the other, so also the knowledge of the illiterate is not a homogenous element, but one which has been acquired during centuries, and it only appears to us to form one indivisible unity. There may be elements in folk-lore of hoar antiquity, and there may be on the other hand other elements relatively modern, which we can trace even to our own time, growing, so to say, under our own eyes, as, for instance, all the popular etymologies and the stories invented afterwards to explain them.

I thus entirely separate the inquiry into the origin of fairy-tales from all the other parts of folk-lore; the more so, as there is no more striking instance of quite opposite views and opinions, than those concerning their origin.

There is first, the mythological theory; then the theory of migration; thirdly, the prehistoric, and I could add as many theories more as there are collectors of fairy-tales, each of whom has his own explanation and view of the matter.

In order to decide this controversial point, I will for once adopt the methods of chemistry, and ask: Can we now-a-days make a fairy-tale? Or, as the result obtained in this way might appear doubtful to some who would detect its artificial nature, I will put the question thus: Can we watch the rise and growth of a fairy or popular tale in modern times, and pursue it from the time when it was no popular tale through all the vicissitudes and changes it underwent, till it became a genuine popular tale, gathered afterwards from the lips of the illiterate? If we are able to do this, then I think we may well attempt to explain in a similar way all, or nearly all, other fairy-tales, especially when the conditions are the same as those of the tale studied.

The next step would be to ascertain how this change was effected? what parts were eliminated in this process, and what elements were introduced? The last question would then be: Is the story a genuine, national, aboriginal, or a foreign story, one introduced in historical times? and further, whence are the elements derived? Are they genuine, or do they owe their existence also to some other influence, which can be traced back to its origin and cradle? Before I enter upon the fuller development of this my view, I will first meet the other now prevailing mythological or prehistoric one, which sees in the fairy tales chips from old mythology, preserved under this disguise, and thus helping us to reconstruct the forgotten faith of—of whom? Here begins the real difficulty, for nearly all the European fairy tales and some of their counterparts in different countries and amongst different races of mankind bear such a striking similarity that we must admit an absolute mythological unity for all mankind,—a thing which nobody can take seriously, seeing that the older an element is, the more it differs from primitive elements, in another country or at any distance of time. I take as a best example language, which, even in the different branches of the Indo-European race, offers such variety that the primitive unity passed unobserved for centuries, and only the philologist is able to trace the European languages back to the same root. The fairy-tales are, more or less, entirely the same, the changes being relatively slight, when compared with those which differentiate one language from another.

Unless we admit a remarkable stability for tales and mythology alone (amidst the great and sweeping revolutions the nations of Europe underwent in the course of centuries), and unless this unity of mythology is accounted for, the similarity, or, better, identity of fairy tales remains a puzzle.

But even admitting the unity of mythology, this could only serve to explain the fairy tales of the ancients, if we had any, which is not the case; whilst new nations arose in Europe out of the mixture and amalgamation during the great migration period and throughout the Middle Ages.

How could these new nations quite different in creed, as also in race (Turanians and Aryans) come by amalgamation to just the same mythological results and to the same system of mythology possessed by their predecessors?

To say again, as some do, that fairy tales are the primitive property of mankind is now impossible, since apart from the undeniable fact that, except two or three Asiatic tales (as Amor and Psyche, &c.), no old tale is mentioned in classical literature. I do not now speak of the Egyptian, as I am confining myself to the origin of European tales, which perhaps, when the mechanism of their development is shown, may throw some light also upon oriental tales. As I have said, we have no trace of ancient tales in Europe; on the other hand, the great similarity between the tales compels us to dismiss theories as to their primitive origin; and, instead of seeing in fairy tales remnants of old, forgotten mythology, I see in them the last and modern development of folk-lore. The modern origin explains why they are so much like each other, as in the case with the fabliaux, novels, and jests, current in Europe from a fixed date, and now common property of all nations, although brought to Europe at a well ascertained period and dispersed only during the last five or six centuries.

In fairy tales we not seldom come across supernatural personages, such as dwarfs, hobgoblins, &c. These are the last refuge for the follower of the mythological theory, as these figures are said to be the old gods and goddesses dethroned and changed into satanical personages. As will be shown hereafter in my analysis of the constituent elements of the tales, far from being old or even aboriginal, nearly all are of foreign Christian, and thus also of modern, origin. Perhaps some traits may be older, but these are insignificant, and only a special inquiry made in the line of thought I shall indicate will help us to rescue them out of the surrounding sea of foreign elements

The next system of explaining the origin of fairy-tales is that known under the name of migration, which attempts to derive all fairy tales from India only, where they originated, and whence they wandered unchanged from land to land till they reached the western-most shores of Europe. The time of this migration is supposed to be about the tenth century. The foremost representative of this theory, the late Prof. Benfey, carried it out in his famous introduction to the German translation of the "Pantchatantra." Although I incline so far to the theory of migration as to believe that popular lore is in constant interchange between nations, I cannot accept the wide principle laid down by Benfey and his successors, that everything is imported, and that our European fairy-tales came as such and all of them, entirely developed, from India to Europe.

Benfey fell into the same fault of generalization, as the followers of the above-mentioned theory, of applying, namely, to the whole body of folk-lore the results true only of one branch; here novels and fabliaux can be traced back in historical and literary continuity to the Orient. But what may be true for these is not necessarily true also of tales, customs, superstitions, games of children, or nursery rhymes. For if we compare our fairy-tales with those of the ancient Indian literature, the alleged identity or similarity is far from being so clear as one would assume, accepting what was put forward by the followers of the migration theory. Such identity as exists is only with the modern collections of Indian tales, a fact which has hitherto been overlooked to the great damage of this study.

There might be found two or three old stories which can be compared with our tales; and if we limit the importation to this number we shall be nearer the truth than by postulating the introduction of tales whose existence at that period and in the form they actually have is not proved.

Nobody will compare fairy-tales such as, say the Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, with any story in the "Pantchatantra." No resemblance whatsoever can be traced; in vain do we squeeze all the European tales in Indian moulds, it is a fruitless attempt.

I do not hereby deny all Indian Oriental influence; the history of Lyndipa and Pantchatantra in the European vernacular would easily discomfit me; but we must accept many more influences besides this Indian one to explain the origin of fairy-tales, a question I am now approaching.

In the study of tales I make a decided difference between the plot, or story, and the incidents, or means by which the plot is carried out. The former is the skeleton, the latter the surrounding flesh, blended, not born together, that is, the tale is composed of two elements, one stable, ancient, and unchanged, to a great extent, at least, throughout the migration period, the other changeable, derived from various sources, and national. This element the former acquires in its journeyings in various countries and under various circumstances.

Let us now study the first element, the plot. When we compare different fairy-tales throughout the world, their similarity consists in the identity of this element. I make abstraction of the slight differences, omissions, interchanges, combinations of two, or three, to one, only too natural if one considers how these tales are propagated before they are fixed by a literary form. Is this plot ancient or modern? When speaking of the mythological theory, I proved that mythology could not be an ancient possession of mankind, seeing that it is the same in nations who are themselves modern, and that it could not possibly resist the influence of time and place, and remain unchanged amidst the great changes the world has passed through. But it is not even necessary to essay a psychological refutation of such an assertion, as closer inquiry into the nature of this element gives us a satisfactory answer, with but few exceptions; chiefly of the animal-fable class, it is a regular story, novel, or fabliau. Indeed, these alone show when comparing those of one nation with those of another nation, a similar identity, the want of any radical change.

Once the plot of a tale is reduced to a novel, we have gained firm ground for further inquiry; we know, more or less, the epoch of its introduction into the lore of European nations, and can fix therefore the date of tales as posterior to the time when fable and novel were brought from the Orient, mostly in a literary form, i.e. as a book which was translated and widely circulated, and thus became in time common property of the nations.

Along with these novels there are immense stores of tales of far deeper influence and far greater popularity, but curiously enough not at all taken hitherto into consideration, whence popular fancy has drawn the richest materials, the best-known figures of fairy-tales and romance: I mean the great hagiologic literature of the Middle Ages, the lives and legends of the saints. Many of these offer most interesting material, and were indeed eagerly seized and worked up, the saints thereby becoming changed into heroes of tales from heroes of religion.

It is not difficult to recognize them under their disguise, once our attention is directed to this well-spring of folk-lore.

It is out of place here to enter into a detailed inquiry (which I hope to undertake somewhere else) to show further the enormous influence exercised by the canonical and uncanonical writings by the bible as we have it and by the apocalyptical and pseudo-epigraphical literature joined with the bible in the Middle Ages, full of wondrous and remarkable feats and adventures of the holy personages, be they patriarchs, apostles, or Christ himself, which entered into the soul and mind of the people, enriched their knowledge, and furnished them with the best means for further spinning out the tale.

To better understand how this literature could hold sway over the people, we must remember that for centuries the only instruction was that given by the clergy in the church, and that the books they had access to were religious books: the bible, the spurious writings already mentioned, and the legends of the saints; the same story or the same legend was thus read to the people from the pulpit year after year, and century after century. Add to this the feasts on the day of the saint, the performances or drawings bearing on his life and death, and it is only to be wondered at that until now this influence could have been so totally overlooked; and that instead of searching for the right explanation through the medium of the literature and spirit which ruled Europe with such a lasting influence, it was rather sought in mythological or similarly airy speculations.

I find a third source of information, but more confused and not likely to have exercised any great influence in this direction, in the vague knowledge of the scattered remnants of classical antiquity, seen and acquired in those times merely through polluted channels and imperfect renderings. What penetrated even more was the romantic tale, tinged and changed by the medium it passed through; nevertheless it cannot be totally excluded from the summary of the multifarious elements which contributed, among other result, to the originating of fairy-tales.

None of these, however, make the origin of fairy-tales older, because they began to influence only after they were translated into the vernacular, and the homilies of the saints, as well as the tales of Greek or Roman mythology were understood by the masses, whether they were communicated to them from the pulpit or by the troubadour or minstrel singing the exploits of ancient and modern heroes in the popular tongue.

These are the manifold materials from which the elements of the tales are drawn, and yet the number of the latter is so small that we can reduce the whole extent of fairy-tales to some eighty formulæ, very much akin to the primitive elements of chemistry, which also form innumerable combinations, and produce new and unexpected results.

These tales, containing only the simple plot, are carried from land to land by many ways, especially by soldiers and caravans of travelling merchants; and whosoever has had the opportunity of seeing the life of the Orient, not through the mist of distance, but on the spot, will be astounded to notice how quickly news spread through Asia and Africa—how any great event which occurs in Europe, for instance, is immediately talked of in the bazaars of Kurdistan, as well as in the interior of Africa. He will also see how these events grow till they reach a gigantic development, and how the garment in which they are wrapped changes from place to place, and from mouth to mouth. It is active folk-lore which can be thus pursued through the different shapes the story of a historical event assumes in a short time if spread over a wide surface. The soldiers who fought at Tel-el-Kebir or in Burmah, when returning home, will be also authors of wondrous tales, relating the adventures, the customs of the nations they fought, and they will always have a great and obliged number of listeners gathered around them.

Under these circumstances, if there is anything to wonder at, it is that that the number of formulæ is only such a small one, which, on the other hand, explains also their wandering so far. The stock being small, they were often repeated.

But for a novel or a story to become a fairy-tale one essential character had to be added, the supernatural element, something which is extraordinary, either such an object to be acquired, as water of youth, descent to hell, or the hero is helped by the interference of an unexpected and unaccounted-for assistance, coming from a part whence he never suspected it, thankful animals, saints, &c., or the hero fights a supernatural enemy (dragons, giants, ghosts, who haunt deserted houses) intermixed with various similar incidents.

This is the part I consider to be of a totally independent origin, and only later on blended together with the simple novel, or story or jest, changing it into a fairy tale (conte). This exists previously in the mind of the men who tell fairy-tales, and is derived from different sources, at different epochs, representing the residuum of the knowledge acquired by the upper classes, and which in time penetrates into the lower regions of society and imbues it with vague ideas and some outlines of real knowledge. This mixture is therefore different in different countries, and represents, when studied separately, the national and local colour assumed by the tale when accepted by the people.

To borrow a figure from the fairy tales, I should like to compare it with the mantle of the witch composed of thousands of patches, which when the charm is broken represent each a ground, or a house, or a garden. So is it also with this accidental element, composed of thousands of patches, of which some may be older, others more modern; some taken from religious literature, others from romantic, and again others from classical literature.

Much more difficult is the study and investigation of this composed element; each part or parcel belong to a totally different origin than the next one, clustered only here by popular fancy round an equally different centre.

The most conspicuous amongst these elements are the fairies, and all that belongs to this aërial kingdom. They were and are almost generally considered to be of great antiquity, and in them the mythological school recognised the darkened reflex of the old goddesses dislodged from their Olympia or Walhalla, and changed to spirits of evil under influence of Christianity.

It would carry me now too far to enter here into any detailed research as to the origin of these beliefs among the peoples of Europe suffice it to say that in the form they appear in the tales and in the superstitions they are not older than the tenth or eleventh century, and can easily be traced back to their oriental and Christian sources. Not only they were not banished, but even they were actually introduced into Europe through religious movements, which however were not always in accordance with the ruling Church, and therefore persecuted. Whosoever has compared the northern elves with the Slavonic vilas, the neo-Greek καλαι αρχοντισαι, that is, the beautiful adies (the right translation of faye, hence fairie), and has followed out their connection with the legend of Herodias and her daughters, will see that they are of modern origin.

The zoological notions of miraculous animals together with other strange stories about curious dwarfish peoples (hence dwarfs and pigmées, &c.), are mostly due to the romantical history of Alexander the Great, and other similar works, as the Letter of the priest John and the Image du monde, together with the legends about St. Andreas in India and St. Macarius in his travel to the gates of Paradise. Of no less importance was the Physiologus with its tales of the peculiarities of animals, now-a-days the common property of all nations of Europe. Astrological and other superstitious creeds, as well as medical cures and charms and amulets come on the crest of a mighty cultural wave, and the study of the decisions of the various councils in Orient and afterwards in Occident show us clearly their steady spread over the vast area occupied now by them, and the means employed to eradicate them, the lecturing and prohibiting from the pulpit have done more to propagate them, as they were thus brought continually to the knowledge of the masses.

I could easily increase the number of sources for the second and accidental element which enters in the composition of a fairy tale, showing clearly that it is independent of the former and is only afterwards used, when the change from tale (conte) to fairy-tale is undertaken.

This reveals to us the mechanism of how the construction is performed, and enables us now to study and pursue the origin of the fairy-tales from a point of view totally different to those accepted hitherto.

The proof of this historical theory as I term it would be to show that the facts correspond entirely with the hypothetical and theoretical statement.

We have at hand not only the positive, but also the negative proof, viz., that whenever the fairy-tale is divested of its array, it turns back to its original plot. I begin with this as it is, it does not want an elaborate development, and it gives us the clue for the assertion uttered now very often and not explained, that the fairy-tales are fast vanishing. Do they vanish indeed, or are they undergoing a change which can be detected only by an exact comparison between fairy-tales gathered from less cultured countries, with those gathered in countries where modern critical knowledge and better judgment as to the causes of natural phenomena is much mr>re general? The difference to be observed between the two is, that we witness just the change noticed above. The accessorial element based upon medieval knowledge and vague poetical ideas gives way to more accurate and less fanciful descriptions. The fairy-tale loses its supernatural character and becomes again the fable it has been before. We need only compare the Contes Lorraines with Russian or Albanian fairy-tales to mark this decided and distinct difference.

Another proof lays in the fact that we very often cannot exactly draw the line which excludes a simple, witty tale from a fairy-tale, and there is no collection where apologues and fables are not published together with fairy-tales under the same heading. They are often enough invisibly passing from one into the other, and vice versâ.

The positive undoubted proof is lastly given by the fact I put at the beginning in form of a question, viz. that we can actually follow step by step the change from a tale or apologue or religious legend into a well-known and far-famed fairy-tale.

Some examples may now be adduced for it, and I confess that I feel rather the difficulty of a choice, as there are examples innumerable. If we read the Laïs of Marie de France with the annotations ot R. Köhler, or the Gesta Romanorum in the edition of Oesterley, or any of the great collections of the early romances, or the History of Fiction of Dunlop, in the German translation of Liebrecht, my views are then fully confirmed. I confine myself only to few of them, being ready to extend this investigation over the whole extant materials.

One of the very famous legends of the Middle Ages was the legend of Amys and Amylion, where two friends help each other to the utmost of their power, when one falls ill of leprosy, and as the angel says to Sir Amys in a vision: If Sir Amys, on the festival of the Nativity, would cut the throats of his two children, and anoint the leprous sores with their blood, the disease, which was incurable by all other means, would instantly disappear. Sir Amys follows the advice given to him, and cures his friend, but this act is rewarded by a heavenly miracle, for the slain children are revived. This story is based upon the old medical superstition as to the symbolical influence of blood; and the legend tells of a similar cure proposed to Constantine the Great, who, however, at the admonition of Pope Sylvester, refrains from this wicked deed, and is cured from leprosy through a bath in holy water instead of blood. Very numerous are the other parallel stories and legends current in the Middle Ages, till they are crystalized in the above-mentioned romance. From the romance it passed into the fairy-tale, where we meet regularly two friends, and not only one, as in the old legend. So we find it in Germany (Grimm, 6), Greece (Hahn, 22), Italy (Pentamerne, 39), Russia (Affanasiev), Roumania (Ispirescu 10), cf. Benfey, "Pantchatantra," i. 415-418.) Comparing the fairy-tale with the story or romance, we easily detect the characteristic embellishments which produced that change. The exploits of one friend are now of a different fantastical character. The way how the other learns the fate to which he is doomed is not by means of an angel's voice, but he hears a bird (or something else) predicting it to him, and through a dream the cure is announced to the survivor; for the friend is not leprous, but transformed into stone. Closer inquiry shows further that the parallels in different countries are at variance just in the choice of the exploits or the prophetic bird, viz. the accessorial element is local and national.

Another example is the history of "Rhampsimit's Treasure," told by Herodotus, but unknown in Europe before the thirteenth century, when it became incorporated into the Syntipas, and thence spread over Europe, and became a richly developed fairy-tale. We can here positively ascertain the date of its first mentioning, and pursue it till it became a popular tale.

The whole group of persecuted mothers, whose children were substituted at their birth for animals, and afterwards restored, can easily be connected with the Cresentia, Hildegarde, and Genevefa group, and thus with the miracles of the Holy Virgin.

Another similar group is that where the children are lost immediately after their birth or in their youth; the mother is separated from the father until after manifold adventures they meet marvellously again.

Here we can trace the literary source back so far as to the first century A.C., for the biography of Clement, first (legendary) bishop of Rome and friend of St. Peter, is such a romantic story, preserved in his "Recognitiones," book vii. seq. The same story is afterwards attributed to another saint, Eustache Placidas, and as well in the Orient as in the Occident parallels to it are innumerable.

Comparing now these tales with each other, the same result will always be obtained, viz. that the literature of romance and novel, be it a religious romance or one of chivalry, has passed now-a-days to a great extent into the literature of fairy tales, and that, far from being the basis, the fairy tales are the top of the pyramid formed by the lore of the people. They are the outcome of a long literary influence, as well as an oral one, which was exercised upon the mind and soul of the people during centuries.

The story of Fortunatus is the source for a great number of tales, where wonderful objects and the vicissitudes their possessors pass through are the chief contents.

To the Descent to Hell of the apocryphal writings (the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Apocalypse of St. Paul, &c.) nearly all the tales can be reduced, where the hero goes to the other world to bring something back and sees while journeying many puzzling things, to which answer is given there.

The biblical history of Samson, of Jephthah and his vow, and other recitals served also as a model for some tales.

At the head of numerous tales stands further Belphegor, ascribed to Macchiavelli and Brevio, the prototype for "the Doctor and Death."

The travels of the Prophet Elijah with a Rabbi, or an angel with a hermit, repeated in the theological literature over and over again, gave the idea to similar travels of saints or God himself in various tales.

Not a few of the novels even of Boccaccio or Cinthio were changed into tales, as, for instance, Griseldis, whose change into a Russian tale was followed out by R. Köhler, step by step, and so on. The examples can be infinitely multiplied.