The old, familiar stories handed down through the generations that have come to be known as ‘fairy tales’ are, more accurately, tales of enchantment and the supernatural; they are märchen, to use the German term, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent. These tales, which we now tend to think of as children’s stories, were not meant in centuries past for children’s ears only – or, indeed, in some cases, for children’s ears at all. Only in the last century or so have the complex, dark, sensual or bawdy tales of the oral folk tradition been collected, edited and set down in print in the watered-down forms we are most familiar with today: filled with square-jawed princes, passive princesses and endings that are inevitably ‘happy ever after’. For instance, most of us grew up with the story of Sleeping Beauty; but how many modern readers know that in the older versions of the tale the sleeping princess is awakened not by a chaste kiss but by the suckling of twin children she has given birth to, impregnated by a less-than-charming prince who has come and gone while she lay in ‘sleep as heavy as death’? How many know that it was Red Riding Hood’s near-sighted granny who cried ‘Oh my, oh my, what big teeth you have!’ to the wolf, who quickly gobbled her up – and then finished off Red Riding Hood for dessert, with no convenient woodsman nearby to save her? The old tales were about anguish and darkness: they plunged heroes and heroines in the dark wood, into danger, despair and deception, and only then offered them the tools to save themselves. The power in old fairy tales lay in such self-determined acts of transformation. Happy endings, where they existed, were hard won, and at a price.
Almost all of us grew up with fairy tales. Our first exposure to them these days is often in a somewhat light-hearted, ‘child-friendly’ form, where everyone lives happily ever after. But as we start to find the older fairy tales in their original form, things turn out differently. Blood and sex creep into the tales and good people come to bad ends. These stories were told to children not to comfort them as they fell asleep but as cautionary tales: warnings not to stray too far from home, not to go into the dark woods and not to wander down a lonely road at night. Stay at home, be good, mind your manners or something bad will happen to you. The Fair Folk might come and take you away. A common hallmark of legends that feature things we think of as ‘fey’ is a certain theme of deception or dishonesty. In some stories fairies are the ones who trick mortals, appearing to be things they aren’t, substituting their own young for human children or leading wanderers astray. In the old tales fairyland is indeed depicted as breathtaking but its beauty also terrifies. It is a land of deathless joy in gnarled gardens, and of mountains of half-gnawed bone. In Faerie (for so it is also called), forests, dark and primeval, writhe alongside the carcasses of a thousand sailing ships. Even the word ‘fairy’ has been sanitized in recent years. The idea behind it has been so far separated from the original meaning as to be wholly unrelated, just as the innocent image of miniscule, winged women is wholly disparate from the original conception of the denizens of Faerie. Originally the word ‘fairy’ came from fatum, a vulgar Latin name for the Goddesses of Fate – forces capable of drawing out or cutting short a human life with the smallest of efforts. The Fates were all-powerful and unknowable to mortal minds and in the old tales, to those unfortunate mortals who crossed their path, the Fey embodied the term just as well. They were demons, monsters and fiends, no matter how fair the form they wore.
In the past people took great pains to avoid the notice of the Fair Folk. Charms, talismans and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay and they were referred to by a series of pseudonyms so as not to risk drawing their attention. One still finds people in remote areas who refer to fairies as the Good Folk, the Wee People or the Hidden Ones… speaking quietly and carefully so the fairies won’t take offence. The Fey were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take insult and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Elfland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it seemed that little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops and barren livestock; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, or you will be trapped in the Land of Faerie. Avoid using a fairy’s name and don’t ever tell your own. Don’t bargain with the Fey or join their dances or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction. Some fairies can be alluring creatures, but woe to those who seek their kisses, for few amorous encounters between mortals and the Fair Ones ever come to good. A harp player named Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Fairy Queen under the Eildon Tree, then paid for each of those kisses with seven years of servitude in Elfland.
To understand the transformation of the potent older stories into the anaemic ones popular today and segregated to the children’s shelves, we must look at the history of fairy tales in the last one hundred years. It was during the Victorian years that fairy tales began to be widely collected and published. The versions of the stories popularly known in the English language today largely come from these editions: selected, edited and occasionally re-written altogether by middle-aged, middle-class Victorians to suit the tastes of their day. This resulted all too often in the pulling of the teeth of the darker old tales – and in that process I feel that something of their heart and lifeblood was lost to us as well. The ancient stories were not just for children – they related to and enriched adult life, then and now, providing a centuries-old human heritage that we should not lose or ignore. Fairy tales, like myths, are a part of the cultural legacy passed down from generation to generation, connecting us to the dreams and fears of those who have gone before us. It can therefore be argued that it diminishes our culture – and perhaps the fairies themselves – to replace the powerful ancient tales with lifeless, simplistic simulacra that are a mere echo of a much older, if far darker, truth.