The OF Blog: What led to the rise of the fairy tale?

Friday, May 22, 2009

What led to the rise of the fairy tale?

Interesting article posted the other day by The Guardian, where a folklorist, Ruth B Bottigheimer, disputes the notion that fairy tales rose whole cloth from oral culture. While at first I was tempted to disagree vociferously with her claims, after a bit of thought there is something to it. Robert Darnton in his classic 1984 cultural history, The Great Cat Massacre, explores the complex relationships between popular and elite cultures in 18th century France, including a chapter on the rise of folklore and how stories such as Little Red Riding Hood changed over time. In that book (which I wholeheartedly recommend that others read, along with Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre and Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller, in order to grasp some of the arguments for microhistories and new cultural history methodologies), Darnton touches upon the various ways that print and oral culture of the 18th century influenced one another. While he doesn't spend much time on it, one could argue that he was leaning toward the stance that "oral culture" was quite influenced by the dissemination of ideas and storytelling motifs (poverty, social relations between rigid classes, etc.) that was brought about by the printing revolution and by the revival of long-distance trade that started after 1200 CE.

So while I probably wouldn't go as far as Bottigheimer apparently does with her arguments, I would have to say that there is something to the notion that it wasn't until print culture and widespread international exchanges of stories emerged that the folk tales and fairy tales began to develop their familiar forms. After all, consider the international influence of a Fafnir or a Reynard and I suspect trade patterns and print distribution might play a role in those legendary characters crossing cultural bounds that had begun to be established after the 12th century.

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