We all know a little bit about fairy tales and folk stories. I am not a theorist of fairy tales or literature, I am a narrator, a storyteller. Nevertheless, working in this field practically for eight years already I have noticed that to many people it is not clear what a fairy tale is in its essence, when and how it began to develop, how it has advanced and changed, and where it is now. Likewise, there is varied interesting information about this literary genre which is available, and which in one place, here, I would like to share with you, just some, because there is a lot.
The first encounters with folk tales and beliefs, as well as customs and games, originate from our immediate surroundings. Over time, we become acquainted with fairy tales from books which perhaps, if we’re lucky, are read to us by our parents. We have fairy tales, storytelling and folk tradition in our primary school curriculum and this is the time when we are officially introduced to fairy tales as a literary genre. As we mature we slightly abandon fairy tales and consider them as childish, unreal, sometimes we can even hear about fairy tales in a negative context in the media and public places. However nowadays, more than ever, the marketing industry relies on stories, fairy tales and storytelling techniques. Nevertheless, fairy tales also have a much greater significance than the values that we come across and recognise that they have, and they are: the psychological development of children, a therapeutic effect, the belief in the victory of good and justice, the development of moral values, etc. Apart from these, fairy tales have values which are no longer familiar to us in the modern world. The very fact that they have been transmitted to every corner of the world for millennia, tells us that they are intuitive, symbolic stories that our psyche is capable of perceiving through symbols and motifs, and recognise their hidden meaning.
The journey of a fairy tale is long, it stretches deep into our collective history, and just as fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time long ago….” so they too began. It was long, long ago that fairy tales began to be told. There is no reliable or certain information about when or where.
Let’s start with the definition of the Croatian word for fairy tale “bajka” because it is still unknown to many today, although they use the expression “bajka.” So, what is “bajka”?
According to the Croatian Encyclopaedia:
“The word “bajka” (derived from the Old Slavic verb “bajati” in an older assumed meaning to narrate or speak) means a short spoken or written, folk or artistic, narrative (especially prose) type of firmly structured plot, with a recognisable group of characters and an unpretentiously analysed space of events. The plot is characterised by a linear movement from an initial lack of something via a series of obstacles to its remediation, wherein the characters attract as much attention to their traits as the function, which in such a plot they carry, allows them. From the stark division of a fairy-tale space between a castle and a hut, a courtyard and a forest, the local ambience and a distant foreign land, an antithetical organisation of a group of characters also holds out hope. In it, alongside the young and old, the noble and the common, clever and stupid, evil and good characters, beauties and monsters, appear fairies and witches, giants and dwarves, magical objects, plants and animals, dragons and underground beings. Formed on the boundary of the real and magical, this world and that world, of the burden of survival and ease of the world of desire, a fairy tale does not equalise / balance, rather it reconciles the opposites in a peculiar way. This has made it both attractive and resistant to many theories and attempts at explanation.”
After this definition it is clearer to us what a fairy tale is and how it has developed, as well as the place and time of its creation, the first fairy tale, the first narrators, remain hidden, distant, obscure and mystical. And yet here we are in 2020 and we still tell, pass on, narrate, write, read and listen to fairy tales.
So, we come across fairy tales in folk tradition, and in that way, they have been passed on for centuries. We know that fairy tales were told in ancient Greece, Egypt and amongst all ancient peoples across all continents. Of the most well-known written collections, there are those by the Brothers Grimm from the 18th century, although there are earlier records. In collecting the tales they noticed that there were similarities in the fairy tales of various and distant peoples, i.e. variations on the themes.
This led them to an interesting fact and the thoughts that all fairy tales have one or the same source. They began a geographical search for fairy tales, the most famous results are that the tales originated in the Indian Vedas, however, in the end, it was not confirmed, which brings us back to the beginning. Where did fairy tales come from? The answer is “Once upon a time, long ago over seven hills and seven seas…”, as fairy tales also often begin.
In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung began to get involved with the symbols in fairy tales. His analytical psychology was influenced more by art, literature, religion, anthropology and history, due to his archetypes to which he came to by studying the myths and symbols in people.
The archetype is an unconscious psychic factor that cannot be transmitted into a conscious language and that does not lose its meaning. This is why we demystify it from our personal psychological experience as well as from the comparative studies so that we illuminate the whole network of associations in which the archetypical images appear are networked. C. G. Jung brought a fresh approach to the investigation of fairy tales because be explored the symbols and themes that we also find in dreams, legends and the myths of ancient peoples. So a conclusion can be made that fairy tales, as well as myths, are a form through which collectively unknowingly speaks to a person and so transmits the accumulated experience and wisdom of humanity to them!
We come to the conclusions that the process of interpretation of fairy tales is a very similar process to the interpretation of dreams. This means that it is difficult, but not impossible, to interpret fairy tales.
The events in a fairy tale are according to its archetypal images that each person encounters during life. The way in which the main hero or heroine deals with problems represents a model of the correct act in various situations in life. It means that fairy tales tell us about the various situations in life when awakening, change, strength and a different way of acting are necessary. Similarly, on a collective level, they depict the path of the human soul towards liberation and the fulfilment of our true nature.
For centuries, fairy tales have changed, and although it is difficult to get to the original of some well-known fairy tales, there do exist elements that are common to all fairy tales. And so we have the initiators of the plot, the main heroes, the tasks that they must fulfil on their way, the helpers, magic objects, opponents, etc.
In recent times even feature films have taken on the structure of fairy tales. There are many film adaptations of classic fairy tales, as well as powerful applications of the elements of fairy tales in other cinematic genres where there is a characteristic fusion of science fiction and fairy tales. A good example is the films by director George Lucas.
We conclude that behind a simple plot in fairy tales there hides an inexhaustible source to which we have been connected since ancient times. Children love fairy tales because of their simplicity, however, I am, from the perspective of a storyteller who is in the immediate process of storytelling, delighted every time with the reaction of each individual child or adult, I feel and understand that the fairy tale is an expression of life itself.
Therefore, read fairy tales to your children, bring them to a storytelling event if one is held near you, or visit Ogulin – the Homeland of Fairy Tales, a special place in the hearts of every lover of fairy tales.
The symbols in fairy tales are an especially interesting theme which we will cover in one of the following writings.
Translated by Martin Mayhew