Fairy Tale / Märchen

Taken literally, the term fairy tale and its French counterpart conte de fées refer to “a tale about fairies” (OED). While that definition may still have applied when the genre was established in the French salon culture of the late eighteenth century, many of the most popular fairy tales today—think of “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” or “The Ugly Duckling”—do not contain any fairies. In German and Dutch, the diminutives Märchen and sprookje refer to oral, spoken tales. The origin of fairy tales in oral narratives is disputed, however, and so is the criterion of length (Haase 2008, 323; Zipes 2002, 27–29). Perhaps the diminutive should rather be taken as an indication of the belittlement of fairy tales by the literary establishment. Fairy tales have been considered to be trivial narratives that may entertain simple people like children or commoners but do not count as proper literature. Yet propagators as varied as Romantic philologists, psychoanalysts, and esoteric philosophers have lauded fairy tales for capturing the essence of humanity in writing. By all means, fairy tales have proven to be particularly resilient narratives and currently count as some of the oldest stories that many children still read and enjoy today.


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