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Fairy Tales don't have to have Fairies - MIX Session 24/02/2016

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Fairy tales aren’t necessarily tales of fairies.

"It doesn't matter about being born in a duckyard, as long as you are hatched from a swan's egg" "The Ugly Duckling"


Today we bounced from futuristic speculation to the oldest of European traditions in a flash.

A few minutes in, we were sent a message – “Sorry, can’t make it today, still in the office” – and it was received on B’s new Apple Watch which she had got as a Valentine's present. . . . . Now that’s love!

Well I’m not so sure about that gadget. It looks very stylish on B’s wrist but I can just imagine it getting easily smashed on mine. The screen is too small to type so you can only write texts using speech recognition. We had a bit of fun trying to get it to recognise English – I write texts every day in two languages, if I forget to change the language it comes out as gobbledegook  – but I expect it can deal with that if you program it properly.

This reminded me of a scene from an old 1980’s Star Trek film where Captain Kirk and his crew travel back in time to the 20th century (from the late 23rd century). They are in America in the early 1980’s and Scotty tries to speak to the computer . . . this was considered very funny at the time, classic humour . . . .  but here we are now, actually in the future . . . talking to our watches.

Earlier in the day I had been talking to a Romanian friend about the well-known fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea”  and apparently it is just as well known in Romania. So I spent the rest of the day pondering on this shared European culture . . . we know all the same stories.

So I asked if it was well known in Spain also . . . it was, but first we had to argue about exactly how hard a pea is (presuming that drying them is the preferred way of preservation).  – someone had never heard it, so I told the tale. It was not well received, it was deemed ridiculous . . . and why is this called a fairy tale if there were no fairies?

It was of course one of the Fairy Tales written by Hans Christian Anderson from Denmark in the early 19th century. He was a contemporary and a friend of Charles Dickens.

Anderson wrote many of our well known tales, “The Snow Queen”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “Thumbelina”, “The Little Mermaid”, and one of my favourites . . . . the saddest story ever told “The Little Match Seller”  . . . and let’s not forget “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Someone hadn’t heard of this last one either, so I told it too . . .  because I believe it is more than just a children’s story. It is a cultural reference and a metaphor with common usage. This also bought up lots of useful vocabulary like weaver, to con and be conned, swindler etc. (Yes . . . I told fairy stories . . . and I’m going to make you guys tell me some back.)

"The Emperor Wears No Clothes" or "The Emperor Has No Clothes" is often used as a metaphor in political and social contexts for any obvious truth denied by the majority despite the evidence before their eyes, especially when proclaimed by the government. alone lists 17 works with one of these two phrases in the title, and that doesn’t include newspaper and political magazine articles.


Actually, this story has a Spanish origin. Hans Christian Anderson based this tale on a story found in The Tales of Count Lucanor from 1335    -  a medieval Spanish collection of fifty-one tales with various sources such as Aesop and other classical writers and Persian folktales, compiled by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (1282–1348). This man really was ahead of his time – although written in 1335, the Tales of Count Lucanor was first printed in 1575 when it was published in Seville. It was again printed in Madrid in 1642, after which it lay forgotten for nearly two centuries. Note that this is a collection so we can assume the stories are even older than the 14th century.

We wondered about other Spanish tales and we came up with “El Ratoncito Pérez” . This character was created in the late 19th century by Luis Coloma in Madrid. In the Spanish speaking world this little mouse does what the Tooth Fairy does . . . he's a tooth dealer, he sneaks in at night and leaves money in exchange for the fallen tooth. My children were given a choice of a fairy or a mouse, I seem to remember . . . . . . would you rather have a fairy or a mouse in your bed?



And so, although I suspect that the tales we all know so well have an origin more ancient than Europe itself, we can see a shared culture.

Many were written in the 19th century, like Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi from Italy, and H. C. Anderson’s tales from Denmark.

Even Oscar Wilde had a go with “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant”

But the real wealth of old folk tales, the tales that we all know, comes from collections of traditional stories –


 - Joseph Jacobs  was a compiler and publisher of English folklore . . . . .  stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk", "Goldilocks and the three bears", "The Three Little Pigs” and "The History of Tom Thumb". [stories HERE]

 - In Germany, The Brothers Grimm were academics, linguists and authors who together specialised in collecting and publishing folklore during the 19th century. They passed on to us such gems as "Cinderella", "The Frog Prince", "The Goose-Girl",  "Hansel and Gretel", "Rapunzel", "Rumpelstiltskin", “Sleeping Beauty”, and "Snow White". [Stories HERE]

 - But even . . .  more than a century earlier in France some of these stories were collected by Charles Perrault (1628 –1703)   . Perrault was the man, a pioneer of the age of enlightenment . . . He was an author and member of the Académie Française. He laid the foundations for the then new literary genre, the fairy tale. Working from pre-existing folk tales he gave us “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Puss in Boots”, “Cinderella”, “Bluebeard” and “Sleeping Beauty”. [Stories HERE]

- And Romania, they know all about "The Princess and the Pea" - but they also have their own stories. [Stories HERE]

Spain, France, England, Germany, Italy, Romania . . . but as I said, these stories are so much older, older even than Europe itself . . . as we shall find out next week.


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