Children’s Fairy Tales
Introduction to the Meaning and Function of the
Fairytale to Children
How the Fairytale
Came to be Children’s Stories
When the Brothers Grimm began to collect fairy tales they
did not intend that these stories would become children’s tales, they where
instead trying to collect the wisdom of the Germanic folktales. It was the
Grimm Brothers intention to have these stories help people feel cultural pride
and to engender value based learning. As Zipes asserts in his book “The
Brothers Grimm” they even made some major edits in order to make the tales fit
their moralistic view of the culture at the time.
This changing of the fairytale to fit modern purposes is not
new, nor is it difficult because fairy tales are motif stories. In other words
the fairy tale stories are structured in a loosely based plot system which is
easily changed. (For more information on the fairy tale stories plots system
see Propp’s Fairy Tale Structures). Such changes the Grimm’s Brothers made at
first where meant to speak to the adults of the time period, and so much
confusion has risen up about the meanings of fairytales because it is often
presumed they where children’s stories. However they where not.
So how is it that these stories became children’s stories?
One of the biggest contributing factors to the fairytale stories becoming part
of the children’s literature was that with so few stories geared for children
the fairy tales where something interesting they could read that was relatively
easy to understand in a basic sense. What’s more the fairy tales written down
by the Grimm Brothers where intended to be a means of preserving the stories,
morals, and cultures of the past. Fairy tales in general are good means by
which to transmit a cultures values to children, and so they become children’s
tales to do this. Finally fairy tales like much of children’s literature
depicts more fantastic yet simple settings then books intended for adults
normally do. We as a society associate much of the most fantastic and
imaginative ideas with children, so fairy tales fall into the children’s
category in part based on their fantastic nature.
What Fairy Tales Mean
to Today’s Children
It is difficult to assert or presume any single meaning
which fairy tales hold for children, for there are thousands of fairy tales
each with their own messages and stories. Further each fairytale has many
versions Disney’s Fairy tale movies are quite different from Paul O. Zelinsky’s
picture books. However fairytales now are intended for children and so their
meanings are often similar to those which adults wish to transmit to children.
In this then fairy tale stories have become a means of socializing children
into the culture which the story was written by (not the one it comes from).
This means that the messages of Cinderella is indeed that
anyone even a poor girl can come to succeed. At the same time however the
success within this story is not worked for, this in general is a serious
problem moralistically, though within stories it is something we as a society seem
to enjoy. Perhaps this is because most of us are average, but by being good and
kind and dreaming we hope that success will in some ways come to us despite our
being average. This then is what Cinderella and in a similar way Snow White
teaches children, that no matter how horrible things might seem if they
continue to be good they will get better. These then are not work hard stories,
they are rather stories about not lashing out hatefully at those who abuse a
Little Red Riding Hood despite all its past meanings in
modern times too is a means of transmitting the message that one should not be
trusting of strangers. Hansel and Gretel strangely enough has come to mean the
same thing, for the children where foolish to trust the witch. This story meets
with complications however for these children truly were alone in the world,
they had no choice but to trust someone, their survival depended on it. Though
young children might not understand this as they get older they will begin to
understand that these children had no options thanks to the fact that their
parents banished them. In some ways we must come to grips with the idea of the
evil stepmother in fairy tales, as many children now have stepparents.
Certainly the children in fairy tales always triumph over their stepmothers,
but is this necessarily a good thing? Many teens and children hate parents and
stepparents wrongly, giving these children the opportunity to triumph over such
stepparents could lead to social problems.
One could however make the argument that the evil
stepparents within modern fairy tales show kids what an evil stepmother would
be. In other words such stories could work to help make the stepparent seem
less evil by comparison. Further the fact that in many cases the children find
something worse away from the stepparent (such as the witch in Hansel and
Gretel) or that the children must endure to make their dreams come true
(Cinderella) the meanings of the stories could be that it is often better to
endure and forgive, depending on the version of course.
Going beyond the more obvious meanings of fairy tales we
find that fairy tales are in many ways a comparison between the evil of the
villain and the main character. “In the Witch Must Die” by Sheldon Cashdan,
Cashdan states that the witch or villain represents the evil parts of the
protagonist or the potential evil of the reader or listener of the fairy tales.
While much of what psychologists have said about this is exaggerated it is true
that the villain is in many ways the meaning of the story for they are truly
evil. The death of these villains helps to show that what they where doing was
truly evil. The story of Red Riding Hood lets children know not to become a
wolf as much as it teaches them not to talk to strangers. The story of
Cinderella teaches children that by being wicked as the step mother was they do
truly harm others.
Stories such as fairy tales such as fairy tales teach
children empathy by asking them to step into another persons shoes. With this
empathy comes an understanding how those who wrong the protagonist are indeed
wrong. The moral of the fairy tale then is often not so much that which the
protagonist shows, but the opposite of that which the villain does. In Snow
White the moral is not to become obsessed with how one compares to another,
that vanity is negative. For Little Red Riding Hood it is that selfishness and
greedy forms of gluttony can cause harm, in the Three Little Pigs the moral can
be not to take advantage of others weaknesses, as much as not to be lazy and
Fairy tales ultimately are a way by which the adult world
brings children up to think. Their meanings are crafted to be that which the
adult who edited and rewrote them wanted them to be.