Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

Folklore and Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature Historical Overview: The Modernity of Childhood. by Philip Kaveny

Folklore and Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature

Historical Overview: The Modernity of Childhood.


Part 1:


Copyright Philip Kaveny 2015

The interrelationship between folklore and fairy tales and the field of children’s literature is complex and not easily defined.  This is the case for a number of reasons.  The most significant is that folklore and literary fairy tales predate the modern euro‑centric conception of childhood by centuries and, in the case of some folklore and fairy tales, even millennia.  Thus fairy tales particularly were obviously not originally intended only for children.  The emergence of the relatively modern concept of childhood is of course linked to a myriad of social and cultural transformations that were also expressed on the level of infrastructure, socio-economic substructures, superstructures, and the family.  In the not-so-distant past, childhood meant little to an individual who was a member of the laboring or agricultural sectors.  Such people worked twelve-hour days, six-and-a-half days a week, from age seven until the end of their short lives. This is particularly true if that life was lived in an urban setting before public health measures were established.  There is strong evidence that the modern concept of childhood, at least for the laboring or agricultural sectors, emerged after the mid-point of the 19th Century and in some cases not until the early 20th Century, according to numerous oral and family histories.

The evidence to support the modernity of childhood is extensive.  French demographer Philippe Aries, in his monumental work Centuries of Childhood, worked qualitatively through literary and artistic evidence to make a strong case that childhood as a stage in a developing individual’s life is a very recent concept. One must note that, by the 21st Century, at least in the West, childhood has become a critical stage of life which itself is divided by experts into several critical stages.  These are accompanied by age- appropriate children’s literature for each, as evidenced by the examination of any number of publisher and library catalogs.  This is not to say Philippe Aries work is definitive.  But it has, to a large extent, been supported by others using quantitative methods and drawing from histories of daily life, research into penal codes, and overwhelming evidence from 19th Century British Parliamentary and United States Congressional hearings. This progression to an awareness of childhood led to the passage of child labor laws and compulsory education mandates in the 19th and 20th Centuries and throughout most of the Western world.  It is interesting to note that the appearance of a specific genre of children’s literature, which incorporated and utilized the fairy tale, may have facilitated the spread of both the concepts of reform and the of modern childhood.

However the concept of childhood emerged approximately two centuries earlier for the European upper class.  Even at that time, the literary fairy tale was not a part of it.   Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was a politically powerful luminary poet and prose writer at the court of French King Louis XIV, who collected some two hundred and fifty fairy tales in last decades of the 17th Century.  He is best remembered for his collection of fairy stories for children, Contes de ma mère l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose, 1697).


The Fairy Tale has existed in Multiple Reiterations

Historically, fairy tales have existed in multiple reiterations as the stories traveled across time and space. First they existed as cultural artifacts only by virtue of telling and retelling. Then, as they were collected by such individuals as Perrault (in the late 17th century)  and the German  Grimm brothers (in the early to mid 19th century), and after an extensive mediating process involving ideological appropriation in order not to offend courtly sensibilities, fairy tales became a high-art literary form.  Their publication in this form also made them inaccessible to the illiterate masses, who might nevertheless later hear them in oral form. These literary forms offered competitive alternatives to reproductions of classical, Baroque narrative forms which dominated the early portion of Louis XIV’s reign (in Mid-17th-Century France). There is a certain ironic link between the literary fairy tale and an emergent modernity, which seeks to shatter the constraints of classical hegemonic aesthetics in the process of evolving a modern national identity. This is to be a recurrent theme in the history of the fairy tale into the 21st Century.

 The European Enlightenment


Though clearly  the scholarship of Adorno and  others in the  in the second half of  the 20th  Century has deprived  the concept  of the European Enlightenment of some of its luster, nevertheless  the concept has a certain utility as we examine the relationship between  childhood and fairy tales, and the emergence of children’s literature. The notion of “childhood” developed as a distinct part of life for the European nobility and bourgeois about two centuries earlier, at some time in the mid ‑17th Century, than it did for the general population.  The European Enlightenment came to embody the worldview that knowledge, progress and improvement of the human condition were possible through reason and education.  Then parallel to the emergence of the concept of childhood, there emerged a distinct body of literature directed towards children as well, at least in the West and within its colonial spheres.

The Historical Functions of the Literary Fairy Tale From the 17th to the 21st Century.

Children’s literature has historically performed a number of functions, among them to entertain and edify.  But perhaps most importantly, at least to its advocates and proponents, is its perceived ability to contribute to the moral, spiritual, and educational development and citizenship and civic virtue of this new class of readers during the early years of their lives. It should be noted that even such Enlightenment luminaries as Jean‑Jacques Rousseau (The Queen Fantatisque 1758) and Voltaire (The White Bull 1774) worked loosely within the fairy tale mode. However as fairy tales moved into the field of children’s literature, their utility was not universality accepted, particularly within the British Isles and Colonial America, or other geographical areas where the Protestant Ethic seems to have been more prevalent.

Genre definitions

Difficult as they are to develop, genre definitions for folklore and fairy tales are both necessary and useful in order to better understand how they have influenced children’s literature and the evolving concept of childhood. Though the terms ‘folktale’ and ‘fairy tale’ were frequently used interchangeably, critical distinctions must be made because the terms have distinct etymologies.  The term ‘fairy tale’ may refer both to a category of oral folktale and a genre of prose literature depending on whether folklorists or literary scholars are studying it. ‘Fairy tale’ is frequently used by folk narrative scholars when referring to “magic tales” listed under tale types 300-749 in the Aarne-Thompson Multi-Volume Tale, Type Index which, for over a hundred years, has served as an essential tool for the comparative study of the folktale Within this context, the term ‘fairy tale’ is reserved for any tale derived from an existing oral tradition and is generally the term of choice for folklorists and anthropologists.


 Literary Scholarship

Literary scholars use the term ‘fairy tale’ to refer to magical stories which may or not be based on an oral tradition. In the early 21st Century, specialists in the history of print culture have presented strong evidence to indicate that at least some fairy tales have vacillated between print and oral modes of transmission since the advent of the printing press. The advent of the Internet and online catalogs through worldwide web in the late 20th century have made evidence available that was bibliographically invisible to the majority of critics in the print environment.  Broadsheets, chapbooks and other ephemera that were cataloged locally can now be accessed from anywhere in the world.  Thus additional fuel has been added to the mono- versus poly-genesis controversy at the heart of fairy tale criticism.  The controversy hinges around the specific, versus the universality, of the origins of some of our most cherished tales. In fairness to previous generations of scholars, it must be noted that these findings were not new but did in fact help confirm patterns of behavior which historically allowed fairy tales to move back and forth between literate and folk culture.

Since the literary fairy tale first emerged as one of the four main oral genres of folklore, fairy tale, myth, and legend, the fairy tale has historically received the most critical attention within the field of folklore scholarship and clearly holds the lion’s share of popular interest.  Perhaps this is because the fairy tale is more malleable than folklore, myth and legend in its ability to exist in both literary and oral forms and in the manner in which it may be made to conform to the collector’s pedagogical agenda.  That is to say, the original collectors sought to teach moral and social lessons as they collected, transcribed and transmitted fairy tales.

Pioneer collectors & Critical Distinctions

Though history is not necessarily progressive, one can identify trends and important individuals.  However, pioneer collectors of folk narrative cast their nets broadly to avoid missing potentially significant material due to the subtleties of genre classification. Subsequent generations of scholars found it useful to define fairy tales in relationship to myths and legends, although in present-day, ordinary language the concept of myth seems to have lost at least some of its cachet.  And in some cases it has been reduced to a pejorative. However, as one moves into the past toward the origins of myth, these types of stories assume truly significant and beautiful proportions, until one reaches creation myths which encompass the metaphysical origins of the universe in their Norse, Middle Eastern, East Asian, Native North and South American iterations.

Myth, Folklore & Legend

Myths are narratives set in the distant past, which at their time of generation were believed to be true.  Concerned with elemental forces, gods and or supernatural beings that operated on a plane different than that of human existence, they existed outside of time and death as humanity understood them. Nevertheless, although the mythic plane in its totality was inaccessible to human perception, at least a part of it served a moralistic pedagogical agenda. Further some contemporary scholars have argued that in a profound sense it is the fairy tale which carries the mythic or even religious content, camouflaged as it must necessarily be to survive, into the modern world. Folklore works somewhat differently in the not so distant past: sometimes great events were merely reduced to human proportions.  For example, even the great events such as the air battles and bombing of The Second World, have been and reduced from the level of international geopolitical conflict to a kind of folklore, as they have become stories told in American neighborhood working-class taverns for the last sixty years. It must be noted that, if all the claims are true, then famed American (old blood and guts) General George C. Patton, had at least ten thousand different jeep drivers. Legends, on the other hand, were the stuff of the daily life of ordinary mortals, including their contacts with the supernatural.  For example, gaining musical skills by winning a fiddling contest with legba (an Afro‑ American demon at the crossroads), or perhaps a chess game for one’s soul with the devil.  Both folksongs of the fifties and the legend behind it make the truth-claim that a three-year-old Davy Crockett killed a bear.  Legends do have an inherent truth claim, but there is a tacit agreement by all the parties concerned that it should be taken with a ‘pod’ of salt (Old Russian unit of weight equal to about fifteen kilograms). Fairy tales, on the on the other hand, are assumed to be untrue in any literal or mimetic sense.

A Contested Field

There is no simple consensus among the experts within the fields of literature and folklore studies as to the origins folklore and fairy tales.  However fairy tales seem to have evolved later and embody elements of myth, legend, and folklore. Further, certain scholars have argued that they convey within them essential elements of the deepest religious and metaphysical experience and thus serve a very powerful cultural and community good in the process. Historically, scholarship within the field of folklore has made what modern critics would call a contested field rich with classics and revisions, and of course post‑modern interpretations of the field, particularly in the last decades of the 20th and early 21st Century. With the fragmentation of the bipolar world of the Cold War, the re‑emergence of repressed national identities during it, and a post-colonial consciousness, these areas continue to be of global significance. Significantly, there is almost no scholarship which trivializes fairy tales and folklore, as it does for some of the other literary genres. The terms are so pervasive that they transcend genre and media boundaries and are used to represent the positive outcomes of events as disparate as a political campaign, a horse race, a baseball season, or an opera.

Key Individuals


The French Court and the English Nanny

When considering the process of f transmitting the Fairy tale over the last three hundred years it is important to be aware of the names of certain key individuals.  The French courtly- phase lasted only a score of years but the fairy tale progressed through several reincarnations from 17th to 20th century.  Such individuals as the English Sarah Fielding (1710–68), in her book The Governess, or Little Female Academy (1749) created the first English novel written solely for girls.  She structured it around a number of fairy tales made suitable for children.  Their purpose, like that of Perrault, was to serve the moral development of girls. Another important figure, Mme Leprince de Beaumont (1711‑1780) was French expatriate who came to London in 1750.  In 1758, she created the first English magazine for children called Magasin des Enfants (Warehouse of the Children or Dialogues of a Wise Director with its Noble Disciples). Over the next twenty years, under her direction, a number of important French fairy tales were translated and made consistent with the expressed pedagogical goals of the magazine. At about the same time (1768), the English firm of Newbery issued the first edition of Perrault’s Contes solely in English, indicating that a market for fairy tale as Children’s literature was and would continue to develop.  Many other translations and editions were to follow as more publishing houses opened.

The German Brothers Grimm

The work of The German Brothers Grimm Jacob (1785-1863) and William (1786-1859) in the field of Children’s literature is foundational. Even in the 21st Century they have enough name recognition to warrant the production of a highly fantastic, English language, motion picture premiering in 2005.   Though the picture was a failure on number of levels, it succeeded in conveying the power of the fantastic in ordinary early 19th Century life. But for our purposes it is enough to say that the Grimms were among the first to a modern methodology in their study of Germanic-language and fairy tales, to which they devoted their lives work.  These tales first appeared as Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, v.1, 1812; v. 2, 1814). This work went though seven editions until it reached its final form as a collection of 200 stories in 1857, the edition upon which most English translations are based. Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of the Brothers Grimm is to understand that functioned as collectors and transmitters of the literary fairy tale as part of the growing field of children’s literature which was evolving around the emerging concept of childhood after the midpoint of the 19th century. But one must also remember that the Grimms did not treat fairy tales as found objects but rather used professional storytellers, mostly female, as informants. And it must be mentioned that the Grimms have sometimes been superficially and unfairly criticized for being politically conservative, yet their personal politics, and the content of most of the stories collected, is about change from a less to a more desirable state.

Andrew Lang


From such sources as the Grimms, Perrault, and others, Scottish Academic and author Andrew Lang, (1844-1912) collected and edited twelve books of fairy tales in the period from 1889 until his death in 1912. While a published writer on his own, and to his frustration, his rewritten fairy tales in these famous collections were remembered long after his other work.  His books, with lavish illustrations, are identified by the color of their covers and appeared in this order:  Blue Fairy Book (1889), Red Fairy Book (1890), Green Fairy Book (1892), Yellow Fairy Book (1894), Pink Fairy Book (1897), Grey Fairy Book (1900), Violet Fairy Book  (1901), Crimson Fairy Book (1903), Brown Fairy Book(1904), Orange Fairy Book (1906), Olive Fairy Book (1907), Lilac Fairy Book (1910), and Rose Fairy Book (1913), appearing shortly after his death. His work carried the fairy tale well into the 20th century and into the world of competing media. Lang had direct contact with a number of important literary figures of the 19th Century, including Robert Lois Stevenson, and nearly every English language children’s author who worked in the first half of the 20th Century, including C. S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, who made ample use of fairy tales in their work.

The Fairy Tale in 20th and 21st Century Children’s Literature

Through reprinting, abridged retellings, partial editions and, not insignificantly, radio, television and film, the fairy tale collections of the Grimms, Perrault and Andrew Lang have made their way so significantly into the 20th  and  21st century literature of childhood that they have formed both the core and sounding board of much children’s literature.  Most children begin hearing “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Billygoats Gruff,” “Hansel and Gretl,” “Sleeping Beauty,”and other favorites read to them long before they can read.  From the transformational or moral tales of Perrault and Grimm, they have become an uncontested country of childhood, often sanitized, usually removed from their original meaning and condensed from what is seen as a simpler time, or no time, to a happily-every-after defined as domestic bliss and stability.    At least part of the magic of the fairy tale is that, although it exists in a secondary world, as J.R.R Tolkien pointed out in his essay On Fairy Stories, at their best they restore a balance.  After some eu-catastrophe, the balance is restored and the wrong is righted or the world made whole again. This is really not so different from what Vladimir Propp suggests in his The Morphology of the Folktale.

Fairy tale and children’s culture expert Jack Zipes has identified part of this process in Happily Ever After:  Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry as he examines, among other social uses of fairy tales, the Disney realization of classic stories in movies that speak to the maintenance of social convention and the promotion of consumer culture.  He also identifies another important trend for the larger field of children’s literature in the latter 20th century, that of rewriting these stories with alternative ideological content, much of it feminist. He notes that in the late 1990s, more than fifty fairy-tale books were published in the United States which “recreates traditional fairy-tales in order to address contemporary social problems.” (intro., p. 9-10).  Writers like Robin McKinley address such troubling issues as childhood-sexual abuse (Deerskin, 1993), and rewrite classic tales of female passivity like “Snow White,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” (McKinley’s Beauty, 1978, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, 1992).   Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird (Vivian Van de Velde, 1995), The Girl Who Cried Flowers and Other stories (Jane Yolen, 1974) and the collections of Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling both recreate and recover tales that originally described the power of women in positive terms, before they were rewritten by Perrault and his successors. Zipes’ own anthology, Don’t Bet on the Prince, combines the stories of established and new authors as they rewrite and reinterpret classic tales.  Even some books for younger children, like Yolen’s King Long Shanks (1998), transform the familiar fairy tale content. The classic tales of the “Frog Prince,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” become a story which valorizes the Queen’s loyalty as much as the king’s appearance.  These writers foreground of traditional fairy tales as sites of non-benign ideological content, thus alerting both adults and children to the power of this age-old literary form to both shape and interrogate social conventions.  They also remind us that these seemingly simple, timeless stories have been perpetually adapted to appeal to each successive audience, perhaps not in a basic plot such as leaving home as a child and returning as an adult, but in the often more-significant details of why we leave and what happens to us before we come home.  What we might identify as ‘classic’ fairy tales are revealed as historically-bound, rather than timeless, social myths, not unlike childhood itself.

Aries Philippe, Centuries of Childhood. Trans By. Robert Baldick.. NY: Vintage , 1965. Barthes, Roland.  Image/Music/Text.  Trans. By Stephen Heath.  NY: Hall and Wang, 1977.

Bettelheim, Bruno.  The Uses of Enchantment.  NY: Alfred Knopf, 1976.

Briggs,  K.M. Fairies in English Tradition and Literature.  Chicago, IL: U of Chicago Press, 1967.

Carter, Angela, Ed.  The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales.  London: Virago Press, 1992.

Coffin, Tristram Potter.  The Female Hero in Folklore and Legend. NY: Seabury Press, 1975.

Hartland, Edwin Sidney.  The Science of Fairy Tales.  Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968 (1891).

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno.  Dialectic of Enlightment.  Trans.  By John Cumming.  NY:  Continuum, 1994.

Huescher, Julius E.  Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales. 2nd ed.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.  1974.

Kors, Alan Charles.  The Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment.   NY: Oxford U. Press, 2003.

Propp, Vladimir.  The Morphology of the Folktale.  2nd ed.  Trans. By Laurence Scott, revised by Louis A. Wagner.  Austin, TX: U. of Texas Press. 1968 (1958).

Ragan, Kathleen, Ed. Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters.  London.  W.W. Norton, 1998.

Tatar, Maria, Ed.  The Annotated Brothers Grimm.  Trans. By Maria Tatar.  NY: W.W. Norton Co, 1004.

Zipes, Jack.  The Brothers Grimm.  From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World.  2nd ed. Palgrave/MacMillan/St. Martins Press, 2004.

_____.  Don’t Bet on the Prince.  New York : Routledge, 1989, c1986

_____. Fairy Tale as Myth/ Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington, KY:  U. Press of Kentucky.  1994.

_____.  Happily Ever After:  Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry.  Routledge, 1997.

_____.  Ed.  Spells of Enchantment.  The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture.  NY: Viking Press. 1991.

Philip E. Kaveny

By Philip E. Kaveny, MLS, Independent Scholar, Eau Claire, Wisconsin

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This entry was posted on August 13, 2015 by in Fairy Tales, Library Science, Literature and tagged , , .
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