Fairy Tales as a Cultural Phenomenon
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Fairy tales are a narrative genre of written and oral folklore; it is piece of prose, which is based on imagined story and which exists as part of culture belonging to different nations. They originated before literacy was introduced, storytelling was an oral form, which they took when passed from one person to another. Thus, they take roots in mythology, when the imaginary and the magic were not yet separated from everyday life. So, people used to live in a myth, while fairy tale needs to be told, and that is where the difference between them lies. However, although different from a myth, it has the same reference to the values that the people have. Overall, fairy tale is a part of folklore that transmits the basic cultural patterns and values from one generation to another.
The word “fairy tale”, in its modern meaning, originated in the seventeenth century, however, the phenomenon existed long before that. One has to differentiate between folk tale and literary tale, as the latter has a particular author who has written it. However, it is folk fairy tale that is the basis for all further genres, as it contains a range of basic patterns and elements for the plot and the character. Authors of literary tales, such as Grimm brothers or Andersen, used the folklore sources extensively in their writing.
Fairytales can be treated as a literary genre, but this would be very narrow because they exist in a framework of culture and history, and moreover, they are trans-cultural and trans-historic. One of the main functions that a fairytale has is transmitting information about the world. When a child is born, he or she needs to acquire certain knowledge and adopt rules according to which society functions. It is clear that it is impossible to deliver this information to a child directly, in a rational way. A child’s mind is structured differently, it relies more on imagery and symbolism than an adult’s mind. Besides, fairytales are a simple and comprehensive way to transmit knowledge about the basic patterns of the Universe: what is the past and what is the future, what is a family, how people communicate, and so on.
Another aspect, that is closely related to the above said, is a didactic role of fairytale. In other words, its function is to educate a child about what is right and what is wrong in the society he or she is going to participate in. This function is very important, because it means taking a part in shaping someones’ personal values, which later will result in behavior during interaction with society.
Speaking about the internal and external structure of a fairy tale, it is worth paying attention at several elements that they have in common. As researchers state, all fairy tales have a limited range of basic patterns, including the way in which plot and character works: “Fairy-tale themes are similarly simple: a rise from poverty to wealth, marriage above one's class, and a triumph of good over evil, or of apparent weakness over overwhelming strength. The episodes in fairy tales are formulaic: quests, tasks, trials, enchantments, curses, and travelling with supernatural swiftness from one place to another. The characters are rarely distinguished in personal terms: good girls and women are kind, beautiful and industrious; good boys and men are handsome, benevolent and equally hardworking” (Bottigheimer 14).
There are several character types that are most frequently found in fairy tales. According to Vladimir Propp, who researched fairy tales extensively, there are eight main eight character types in any classical folklore fairy tale. They are the following: the hero, the false hero, the villain, the helper, the donor, the princess or prize, the father of princess, and the dispatcher (El-Shamy 155). Each of the named types performs its own function in the fairy tale. For instance, the villain is always an antagonist who fights the hero, and has to be equal to him in his power or other qualities. Having an equal rival creates the balance of a fairytale, which reflects the universal balance between the good and the evil. These functions can be shared or transformed depending on the plot and the characters, but the principle remains the same.
Fairy tale reveals an idea that the evil is necessary for the good to triumph. Every fairytale is a story of personal development. It suggests that the hero should face a number of tests and hardships, in order, to pass his “exam” and be accepted to a new level. So, the evil and challenges created by the struggle is justified, as it serves the characters’ growth and transformation. By the way, magical transformation of a hero into another being always reflects either development, or degradation, or is a part of trial. In fairy tales the good is traditionally beautiful, and the bad is ugly, which is revealed through the characters’ appearances. However, sometimes, as a way of magical charm, characters can be either punished or awarded by becoming either ugly or beautiful respectively. This exposes a didactic function of fairytales, when the hero learns that real beauty is equal to being good. So, vanity and pride about appearances are always punished into learning a lesson that the true wealth is love, compassion and self-sacrifice.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that fairy tales are an important cultural phenomenon that connects the present to the past. It contains the basic patterns of culture, which are transmitted from one generation to another one. The main function of fairytales is to transmit knowledge about the world and the core values of humanity. Although, existing within a particular culture, the fairytales are also cross-cultural, because they share the same models and plots that are repeated irrespective of their origin.
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