Friday, November 11, 2016

From the Archives: Max Luethi on Fairy Tales

I find the book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales by Max Luethi to be really helpful. He analyzes fairy tales from a literary standpoint, and explains fairy tales as a separate literary genre. Modern people are often familiar with fairy tales, but more modernized versions, often novels and movies, which are very different than the original oral tales. When the modern reader approaches the classic versions of fairy tales, if he or she didn't grow up with those versions, they can seem surprisingly stark, odd, and morbid. So it helps to approach them with different expectations than other literature, and to understand more about fairy tales as a whole.

Luethi lists several characteristics of fairy tales:

1) Concentration on action-fairy tales are not big on descriptions, leaving characters and settings vague, but in such a way that the reader can fashion his own ideas into the story. Luethi notes that if we read descriptions such as a witch with a "long, crooked nose," it's most likely an addition of the storyteller and not in the original.

2) Emphasis on extremes and contrasts-fairy tales are known for being black and white. Not only are the characters opposite in terms of complete good or complete evil, but fairy tales concern themselves with "dreadful punishments and splendid rewards, giants and dwarfs, mangy skull and golden hair, good and evil, handsome and ugly, black and white."

3)Preference for solid, unchangeable objects-gold, silver, glass, and crystal-in a way that forms an imperishable world. Yet significant fairy tale objects are also often those that have been fashioned by man-rings, swords, knives, and not just things found in nature.

4) The tendancy to show inner journeys through outwardly visible signs. Fairy tale characters do not wax poetic about their feelings at any time-their grief is represented by tears. Their love is represented by a symbol between two people, etc.

5) Delight in repetition. Events often occur in groups of threes, with the wording even repeated exactly for each event. Other significant numbers in folklore include multiples of three (especially twelve), seven, and one hundred.

6) Danger is averted only at the last possible moment. This heightens the tension, but also "fulfills the fairy tale's great need for precision."

The effect of all these characteristics together is that of an imperishable world beyond that of our own, "a timeless world. In so doing, we by no means place a negative evaluation on the fairy tale." It is important to remember that differences in genre do not mean that the fairy tale is necessarily inferior to a novel-their purposes are different. The patterns in the fairy tale can be reassuring and even theraputic, and Luthi concludes that "every fairy tale is, in its own way, something of a dragon slayer."

Luethi also helps to show what a fairy tale is by comparing it to what it isn't: he uses the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty as a contrast to local legends and saint's legends that also deal with supernaturally long periods of sleep. The saints and local legends are centrally focused on the miracle that occurs in the long sleep, which is meant to fascinate/frighten. These versions are intended, on some level, to be believed in, and refer to specific dates and places to aid in their authenticity. Also, in these versions, once the sleepers wake and learn how much time is passed, they perish-time is still the unconquerable foe.
John Duncan

Yet in contrast, the miracles that occur in fairy tales, such as the hundred years' sleep, aren't regarded with extra attention at all-characters show no fear or surprise when encountered with talking beasts or any number of supernatural phenomenon. Sleeping Beauty isn't meant to be regarded as historical, although some tellers of the tale throughout history may have meant for it to be regarded as true. And the hundred year's sleep has no negative affects on the Princess-authors such as Perrault used the situation as a source of humor, but folktale versions display no problems with waking up after a century.

But again, these things are not problems with the genre-just a different way of telling stories. With more readings, one can grow to appreciate more authentic versions for what they are.


  1. PSA: The German Umlauts ä, ö and ü are transcribed as ae, oe, and ue. Substituting umluts for vowels can sometimes change the meaning of a word. Sorry it's just a pet peeve of mine ;)

    I can really recommend Luethi's books, he's one of those talented people who not only know a lot, but manage to make that knowledge understandable to laymen. His books are not only informative, but short (which also means cheap) and easy to read. A great introduction to studying fairy tales.

    1. Thank you for letting me know, I had no idea! I know there's a way to type out more letters and symbols in other languages but I've been too lazy to bother trying to figure it out...

  2. I love this book, too! It has great flow, and offers some really unique points. There's a part where he discusses fairy tales as being relegated to the playroom, and how their purposes and the role of the storyteller changes over time. I wish I had brought my copy to Japan with me now!