Thursday, February 26, 2015

Madame D'Aulnoy: The Origin of the Term "Fairy Tale" and How It Spread like Wildfire

In one of his latest books, The Irresistable Fairy Tale (2012), Jack Zipes builds on what he discusses in his 2006 book, Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. I haven't read "Why Fairy Tales Stick" but the former is at my public library so I've gotten a chance to peruse it recently. In both books, Zipes seeks to look into and answer the question of the undeniable long-term popularity of fairy tales. Although they have changed over the years, evolving and adapting according to each culture, fairy tales have managed to remain in public general knowledge and popularity for an impressive longevity. In fact, really the only other thing I can think of that compares to fairy tales in its universal human appeal over completely varied human cultures is religion.

Zipes discusses the science of memetics, or to use a term most people are familiar with, "memes." Memes can be more than pictures of cats with funny captions-a meme is anything that captures the public imagination and spreads in popularity. Memes generally rise and fall over time, but fairy tales have stayed afloat for hundreds of years. What makes a meme stick with us is its relevancy. Therefore, general human consensus for most of known history would indicate that we find fairy tales relevant to our lives. Zipes points to the fact that fairy tales start in conflict, as do our real lives. Although I might point out that basically every story has some form of conflict, so there has to be some other common thread that indicates why fairy tales and not other literature remain so prevalent.

However, tracing the history of fairy tales themselves is incredibly difficult. Zipes says, "Almost all endeavors by scholars to define the fairy tale as a genre have failed. Their failure is predictable because the genre is so volatile and fluid." Not only that, but he goes on to mention that the term "fairy tale" never existed until Madame d'Aulnoy coined it as the title of a book in 1697. Her collection of stories about fairies prompted a trend with far-reaching impact she could not have imagined at the time. For now we use the term to cover a multitude of stories, but most of them don't actually involve actual fairies. How did that specific term explode to cover the undefinable genre we now call fairy tale?

(Fun fact: the original French, conte des fees, was originally translated into English as Tales of the Fairies in 1707. Sound like a certain blog name?!? I wish I could say my blog title was a direct reference to this original French term, but it was really a quick decision made when I impulsively decided to make a fairy tale blog, and I thought the title should simply convey what I would be talking about. I wasn't very creative.)
Adrienne Segur
Illustration for "The Royal Ram" by D'Aulnoy

Although the French fairy tales were very influenced by the Italian collections of Straparola and Basile, those works were only self titled as "tales" and not necessarily associated with, or strongly featuring, fairies (although a few do make an appearance). Yet D'Aulnoy made fairies central characters and put the word in the title of her book, creating an association between a term and a genre that are inseparable today. Why fairies, and why all of a sudden? And what was it about D'Aulnoy's newly coined "fairy tales" that made them so popular?

D'Aulnoy lived in a time when women's rights were severely limited. She created a world of fiction in which human lives and destinies are governed by powerful female fairies-the fairies influence everything from fertility and birth, to arranging destinies and love. Some fairies are more evil and witch-like, others good and just, but they are all powerful and fearsome, and in control of the fate of humans. In a time when women had little to no power either in society or in the home, she created a world where women could vicariously live through fairies to have responsibility, supernatural powers, and control. D'Aulnoy and the other female writers who followed in her footsteps self-identified with the fairies and used them to create alternate ideals for society.
Madame D'Aulnoy

The human characters in the first official fairy tales turned not to government, or the church, to solve their problems-but to the fairies that were a throwback to old mythological dieties and goddesses. For the first French fairy tale writers, "the fairies in their tales signal their actual differences with male writers and resistance to the conditions under which they was only in a fairy-tale realm, not supervised by the church or subject to the dictates of King Louis XIV, that they could project alternatives stemming from their desires and needs."


  1. Great post! I've often wondered why "fairy tales" became THE term for wonder tales or Märchen. It still doesn't make huge sense to me that this became the descriptive term for the collective, unless it's to do with memetics. Perhaps people were more accepting of a wide range of tales if they felt they could be one step (further) removed from their lives and so felt more comfortable telling/spreading them. This tends to happen when an idea is intriguing but not considered threatening (despite the underlying principle being solid). Eg- people are more comfortable posting it on Facebook if a cute cat says something than if a religious figure says the same thing. I know if any writing had a whiff of political implication, especially in D'Aulnoy's time, you were gambling with your life and freedom if you repeated them so perhaps making them seem even more fantastical under this umbrella of "fairy tale" enabled their further dissemination? (I wish I had time to research this stuff!)

    I'm also wondering if the widespread use of the term "fairy tale" is more applicable with regard to literary and recorded tales in general because we still seem to call "less-collected" tales folktales (those tales which are not only less popular but less defined in terms of the story arc and motifs), even if they're not specifically categorized as folktales but fairy tales... And then of course we have the word "fairytale" which has a different meaning altogether. No wonder people are confused!

    1. You bring up a great point. Zipes doesn't go into detail in this chapter on how the term from France hundreds of years ago is still the defining term today (although he may do that later in the book). Especially considering the fact that Perrault's collection, now considered the most famous and definitive from that time period, was not called "fairy tales" but "Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals" or "Mother Goose." I think the English term may be traced back to the second edition of Edgar Taylor's translation of the Grimms. The German "Children and Household Tales" was initially released as "German Popular Stories." But in 1839, it was rereleased as "Gammer Grethel, or, German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories." Although of course, that begs the questions, why was "fairy tales" thrown into the second title, and how did that then become the defining term among the English speaking world? Speaking of which, what terms do other languages use?