Evil stepmothers and witches, terrifying giants, lurking wolves, royal characters and candid fairies have lured us for centuries and centuries through fairy tales. What is so enchanting about them? Are they still relevant in the XXI century? How do children benefit from working with them in class?
Fairy tales might be the most popular literary genre: they entertain, inspire and present undeniably rich material for linguistic production. Harmer and Puchta (2018) approach story-based language teaching through theory and a range of hands-on activities. As they mention, alongside the linguistic aspect, there is a realm of benefits for children’s development for when fantasy transcends logic.
But the question still remains. How do these stories come to be? According to scholars, it is impossible to trace their “exact” origin since they come from oral tradition and were passed down and remodeled from generation to generation throughout time. However, relevant records show that in the XVI century Europe, fairy tales were aimed at adults, who would gather, after dinner, to listen to stories of cannibalism and heinous crimes. The tales were cruel because life at that time was filled with violence and extreme poverty- that is why food is central to so many tales. In the same century, these stories began to be collected in written form.
As time went by, those stories were sanitized in order to address children. In the XVII century children became a target audience and many of the tales mentioned above were adapted for them, showing that retelling is not a contemporary practice when it comes to Fairy Tales.
The History of Literature has Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault (1697), published in verse, in France, as the first collection of children’s tales. It has 8 stories collected from people’s memory: Cinderella; the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood; Little Thumb; Puss in Boots; Riquet of the Tuft; BlueBeard, The Fairy; Little Red Riding Hood.
Expanding to Germany, around 100 years later, The Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) were reputable linguists and, in careful research, collected oral tradition stories. They had the fundamental contribution from a peasant named Jeannette Hassenpflug, who came from a French family and was close to them and also from Katherina Wieckmann, who had a prodigious memory. The brothers were responsible for smoothing the tales even more, cutting out extreme acts of violence from the stories. They formed a collection in which its more popular tales are Sleeping Beauty; Snow White and the seven dwarves; The little red Riding Hood; Bremen town musicians; Hansel and Gretel; Cinderella and Rapunzel.
Hans Christian Andersen, in the XIX century, not only collected, but also created tales that speak to children from the heart, showing life ordeals and poverty but emphasizing that it is possible to overcome them. Predominantly fairy tales present happy endings, but many of Andersen’s tales have poignant passages and not so happy endings, probably under the Romantic Movement influence. A good example of a sad ending is The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which depicts a sequence of setbacks faced by the protagonist: the one-legged toy comes to a home and falls in love with a paper ballerina, but fate will be cruel to him, having him knocked to the street, placed on a paper boat and then swallowed by a fish before being brought back to the same home, where he is thrown into the fire. On the following day, in its place a lead ball in a heart shape is found. The importance of transformation is the bottom line (Parreira, 2008). Among Andersen’s most popular tales are: The Little Mermaid; The Emperor’s new suit; The Red shoes; The Ugly Duckling; The Nightingale; Hansel and Gretel.
Knowing how the tales travelled in time seems to add even more charm to them, but how do they affect children?
Vladimir Propp was a Russian linguist who analyzed the basic plot components of selected Russian fairy tales in order to identify their simplest, irreducible narrative elements, summarizing them in 31 functions. They represent a core framework of the hero’s journey.
Rodari (1982), an important Italian children’s writer who made significant contributions to Reggio Emilia schools in the 1970’s reduced the functions to 20 “cards”, as an experiment to work with the children there: prohibition; infraction; punishment or guilt; hero’s departure; mission; encounter with the donor; getting a magical item from the donor; antagonist appearance; antagonist evil powers; battle; victory; return; arriving home; the false hero; difficult tasks; task is resolved; hero’s recognition; false hero is exposed; antagonist punishment; wedding.
They illustrate a core plot as well as difficulties children may suffer in their development process. These stories briefly present existential dilemmas, allowing children to learn the problem in its most essential form. This way, children can relate to the stories through the characters who face the same difficulties, such as conflicts, dreams, family issues, social exclusions. They need to fantasize, to have symbols in order to deal with unconscious matters and balance inner and outer life.
Fear, for example, enables human beings to survive and create strategies for living. Experiencing fear while being connected with an adult is invaluable for children’s development. And then ogres, villains, witches and monsters can stay in the stories they belong to. One of the most important things about fairy tales is that they unveil common human struggles and the solutions found in them.
Bruno Bettelheim (2010) made an important contribution by outlining the importance of the fairy tales through his deep research. According to the author: “The fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child were it not first and foremost a work of art. Fairy tales are unique, not only as a form of literature, but as works of art which are fully comprehensible to the child, as no other form of art is.”
As in quality literature, children will deal with the multilayered text and apprehend what they can, at the stage they are. And ultimately, through fiction, they feel safe to live and develop the ability to read the world in a critical way.
As adults, we can provide and value the experience that literature offers: the bond that is developed during the storytelling and the conversations that good stories yield. It is important to emphasize that the psychological content does need to be elaborated and symbols do not need to be deciphered. They work in silence.
There are those who seem not to be under the fairies’ spell and question whether these stories are resonant with contemporary issues. They claim fairy tales perpetuate moralistic and misogynist lessons: women are passive and can only be saved by men, having marriage as the ultimate reward, revealing in this way disempowering relationships. Another argument is that there is a lack of racial and physical diversity. A classic example can be The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen whose female protagonist gives up her voice for a prince.
Turning a blind eye to these points is not realistic, considering fairy tales contain clear outdated content. A great deal of topics approached overtly mismatch important transformations put forward by relevant movements in contemporary society. On the other hand, cancelling them all seems too definitive. What if these traditional tales were used as authentic literary texts, explored in their original historical context with discussion and questioning of the values they convey, but all this under the light of contemporaneity?
Another way to explore the richness of traditional tales is through adaptations. Artistic illustrations, surprising endings, humor, stories told by a different perspective and updated setting can be subversions that work as elements that foster critical thinking. Asking students to recreate fairy tales can be an engaging activity and for example, with an intercultural approach, other elements can be recreated, such as taking out eurocentrism, giving, this way, room to real diversity and meaningful representation. Adaptations of fairy tales can breathe new life into them, at the same time reflecting what in our humanity is timeless. It is worth mentioning how hilariously The True story of the 3 little pigs twists the point of view by giving voice to the wolf to tell his version of the story. It is a great book to get children and even adults thinking and forming their own opinions. Here’s a video with the author reading it aloud.
In the end, most of the time, the little and weak wins, and children can feel safe, because the same can happen to them. These tales show that it is possible to be hopeful of better days and trust the future. Although the most important thing in fairy tales is not the description of the happiness pursued, ‘living happily ever after’ can be quite comforting, mainly in harsh times as the one we are living now.
to download material with suggestions for working with this wordless book which retells, through illustrations, the story of Hansel and Gretel.
• BETTELHEIM, Bruno. The uses of Enchantment: The meaning and importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage, 2010
• COELHO, Nelly Novaes. O Conto de Fadas: símbolos, mitos, arquétipos. São Paulo: Paulinas, 2008
• HARMER, Jeremy; PUCHTA, Herbert. Story-based language teaching. Helbling, 2018
• PARREIRAS, Ninfa. O brinquedo na literatura infantil: uma leitura psicanalítica. São Paulo: Editora Biruta, 2008
• PROGRAMA Acadêmicos – 2ª Edição – Dia 2: Contos de Fadas: origens, transformações, contemporaneidade. 2 de dez. de 2020. TV Brinque-book. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=pwgOHEWovfc> Accessed on Jul.25, 2021.
• RODARI, Gianni. Gramática da Fantasia. São Paulo: Summus, 1982