Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Were Fairy Tales Ever Believed to be True?

In Andreas Johns' book on Baba Yaga, he answers the question of whether or not fairy tales were ever thought of as historical fact, at least as Russian tale tellers and listeners are concerned. But his discussion will, I think, shed light on similar practices of storytelling that went on in other countries.

The short answer is: often, yes. Nikolai Novikov believes that the Russian peasants used to see the folktales they listened to as fact, but the shift of seeing them as fiction happened towards the end of the nineteenth century. Dmitrii Zelenin "reports that tellers could not always make a clear distinction between truth and invention in the folktale, but most often believed in what they narrated." Zelenin says that belief in Baba Yaga was widespread, and tales about her often incorporated other historical figures such as Orthodox saints (although Johns later states that scholars debate over whether or not Baba Yaga was believed in by the Russian people).
Baba Yaga by Des Hanley

A storyteller's beliefs about the truth of their tales may be found at the conclusion of their story. A Frog Princess tale told by V. P. Monachkova in 1979 took place, she says, "during the reign of Nikolai Nikolaevich." Storyteller Agaf''ia L. Zaitseva believed that the events in the stories could have happened "in the old days," for "Why would the old people lie to us? What would they have to gain by it? There were dragons, knights, and sorceres. And I've seen witches myself."

Some of the evidence gathered about storytelling indicate that people believed that fairy tales themselves were a form of magic. Certain rules applied to what time of the day or the year tales could be told, because it was believed that the tales might produce affects varying from attracting spirits, to causing cows to get lost in the forest forever.
Ivan Bilibin, illustration for Afanasyev's "Father Frost"

Yet of course, to every rule their are exceptions. Other tales end with phrases that indicated that the teller and listener both know very well they are not true, historical facts, such as "That's the whole tale, and I can't lie any more," or "Well, I think this is all chatter. All of this really couldn't happen like that."

Fairy tales have a complex history, and you may come across people making contradictory statements; some claiming that historically, people used to believe the tales they told, and others maintaining that even hundreds of years ago people weren't gullible enough to believe all the details of a story. So both claims are true, and of course it varies from culture to culture. The reality is, many historical facts or legends probably evolved and became more fantastic and grew into fairy tales; other tales were pure invention on the part of the storyteller, embellishing on other tales and story motifs.
Mid-20th Century Cigarette Case from The Russian Museum

Johns points out that folklore itself has almost contradictory aspects of its nature-the stories are set in another, enchanted realm, distinct from the everyday; yet the stories are such that, when you strip the story of its magical and fantastic elements, at its core is a story of human conflict and struggle that we can all relate to. Fairy tales are at once realistic and unrealistic; they have truth in them whether or not that are seen as fiction. Linda Degh says that fairy tale narration is an ambiguous art, for "the teller uses all his or her artistry to make the listeners believe what they know is an entertaining lie." Even today when fairy tales are told, their long history and the level of awe we tend to have towards them makes even the most skeptical of us sometimes wonder about these tales that have captured human imagination for so very long...


  1. What a thought-provoking article.

    'tellers could not always make a clear distinction between truth and invention in the folktale, but most often believed in what they narrated.'

    I wonder about the 'could not.' Maybe it was a case of 'rather not?'

    We tell stories to children, that we know aren't true, and withhold our knowledge to allow them to learn from them.

    Whenever I read a short story or urban myth to youngsters, I deliberately take a neutral role so they can express their views about the themes and morals. Let 'em learn from the 'entertaining lie.'

    1. Thank you! I think that when it comes to telling children fairy tales or fantasy today they generally know which parts are the magical/impossible ones, yet often despite knowing that certain things couldn't happen, children want to believe that they could happen, and I find that longing to believe admirable. Learning and discovery is always about thinking outside of the box and imagining that more is possible than we already know, so even if the particulars of one story might technically be a "lie," pushing the boundaries of the unknown is definitely a truth!

  2. Great article!
    And yes in particular to that last paragraph. That bold sentence is wonderfully quotable (and I often end up saying a version of that to someone.)
    When I tell stories to kids I always try to include some fact and when asked "is that true?" I reply: "some of it is, the rest probably isn't, but I also know that I don't know EVERYTHING - nobody does - so more might be true than we know..." I always try to leave children open to the the possibility of the unknown - it's this exploration that makes our scientists, our inventors, our physicists and our writers and every other kind of innovator. They all start from the premise of "what if?"

    1. Amen! And yes, one time I was discussing Disney Princesses with some young girls and offered to tell them the "original story" of Beauty and the Beast (incorrect term, but I was younger then and didn't know) and one of them said, so excitedly, "so you mean it was TRUE?!?" and I felt so heartbroken having to tell them it wasn't exactly true...I forget exactly what I said. It's kind of the same as when the issue of Santa Claus comes up with kids...if they still think he's real and their parents are helping them think that I don't want to be the one to shatter the illusion, but I also don't believe in lying to kids. So now if asked if I believe in Santa Claus by a child, I've said something like, "well, there was a St. Nicholas who lived a long time ago and he was very generous, and ever since then most cultures have some kind of gift-giving figure..."

  3. And so, if asked, how many people would say they believe the bible is historical fact? There are always people gullible enough to believe in what they are told is true, as opposed to what they know to be true. The fact is both could be right. Just go to any Baptist church in the American south, they will tell you.

    1. Many scholars often compare fairy tales to religion, and there are for sure some similarities between them. But actually, I'm a Christian and I do believe the Bible to be true. One key difference between the Bible and fairy tales is that many intellectuals and scholars do believe in the Bible on some level-some see it as more metaphorical but still regard it as truth, but others believe key passages (esp. the Resurrection) are historical fact. Whereas you won't find anyone (except for maybe a few extremists) out there today who believe or try to pass off fairy tales as fact. I won't go into any details here but for people interested in how anyone can believe the Bible in this modern age, I recommend the book "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel, a lawyer and former atheist who wanted to get to the facts.