A Brothers Grimm Story Proven Right: Many Fairy Tales Stem from Ancient Oral Traditions
Many writers have speculated on the origin, antiquity and meaning of fairy tales. These fantastical stories often involve magic; strange, archaic situations; speaking animals; kings, masters and servants; naughty, disobedient children; witches, heroes and anti-heroes.
For example, in “The Wise Servant” story from the Brothers Grimm, Hans is an enigma who cannot be explained in modern terms. The story says
How fortunate is the master, and how well all goes in his house, when he has a wise servant who listens to his orders and does not obey them, but prefers following his own wisdom. A clever Hans of this kind was once sent out by his master to seek a lost cow. He stayed away a long time, and the master thought, faithful Hans does not spare any pains over his work. But when he did not come back at all, the master was afraid lest some misfortune had befallen him, and set out himself to look for him. He had to search a long time, but at last he caught sight of the boy running up and down a large field. Now, dear Hans, said the master when he had got up to him, have you found the cow which I sent you to seek. No, master, he answered, I have not found the cow, but then I have not looked for it. Then what have you looked for, Hans. Three blackbirds, answered the boy. And where are they, asked the master. I see one of them, I hear the other, and I am running after the third, answered the wise boy. Take example by this, do not trouble yourselves about your masters or their orders, but rather do what comes into your head and pleases you, and then you will act just as wisely as clever Hans.
That story may not be one of the oldest, but there is a worldview of a type in it, that some might say has left the world. After all, when the people who imagined fairy tales first spoke them, most of the world believed in magic. Why would it occur to a boy that he would look for blackbirds when he had been asked to find his master’s lost cow? But then how do you explain this?
An illustration of the story “Mr. and Mrs. Vinegar at Home” in English Fairy Tales, a 1927 volume. (Public Domain)
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The authors of a new study say maybe the Brothers Grimm were right after all when they theorized that fairy tales had their roots in a prehistoric Indo-European tradition that spanned from Scandinavia to South Asia.
Other scholars dismissed the Grimms’ hypothesis soon after they made it in the 19th century. But a new study by social scientist and folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamshid J. Tehrani, using a phylogenetic system, says their research of fairy tale origins confirms the claim made by the Grimms: The stories have their roots in unknown oral traditions that in some cases go back thousands of years.
Drs. Graça da Silva and Tehrani write in their highly technical article in the journal Royal Society Open Science:
“For example, two of the best known fairy tales, ATU 425C ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ATU 500 ‘The Name of the Supernatural Helper’ (‘Rumpelstiltskin’) were first written down in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While some researchers claim that both storylines have antecedents in Greek and Roman mythology, our reconstructions suggest that they originated significantly earlier. Both tales can be securely traced back to the emergence of the major western Indo-European subfamilies as distinct lineages between 2500 and 6000 years ago, and may have even been present in the last common ancestor of Western Indo-European languages.”
In The New Yorker magazine in 2012 Joan Acocella wrote an article that said there are two types of fairy tales. The first is literary. “The other kind of fairy tale, the ancestor of the literary variety, is the oral tale, whose origins cannot be dated, since they precede recoverable history. Oral fairy tales are not so much stories as traditions,” she wrote.
But Drs. Graça da Silva and Tehrani have tried to trace how old fairy tales are by applying a system, phylogenetics, to trace attributes of language in the tales to their origins. Phylogenetics was first developed to study relationships of organisms based on evolutionary similarities and differences. Later, it was applied to cultural phenomena, including politics, languages, marriage traditions, music and material culture, and now fairy tales, the authors write.
The table below, from their article, shows how far back the researchers believe some of these stories go. Note that at the top is the Proto-Indo-European language, which linguists say arose around 4,000 BC. The authors identified four stories back then, at the beginning, which were added to as time went on.
Table showing how far back some fairy tales may go.
In an article about the research on Phys.org, writer Bob Yirka explains the methodology of Drs. Graça da Silva and Tehrani:
“They started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories. Trees were then built based on Indo-European languages, some of which have gone extinct. In so doing, the researchers found evidence that some fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, were rooted in other stories, and could be traced back to a time when Western and Eastern Indo-European languages split, which was approximately 5,000 years ago, which means of course that they predate the Bible, for example, or even Greek myths.”
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An illustration by Walter Crane from Beauty and the Beast, 1875. (Public Domain)
In the book Folktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East by Dmitiri Nagishkin, A.P. Okladnivov of the USSR Academy of Sciences, it is written in the introduction:
“The similarity of subjects in ancient tales is striking. A lone infant, the hero-fugitive Azmun, sails from no one knows where to the land of the Nivkhs. Similarly, the Biblical infant Moses, whom the pharaoh’s daughter found in the bulrushes of the Nile, was a hero set adrift on a mighty river. … Of course the folktale world of Far Eastern tribes is only a brook flowing into the sea of world folklore. This brook is small but crystal-pure and fresh, filled with reflections of their distinctive life. And it would be a great mistake to try to reduce the contents of these folktales to common stereotypes. Each ethnic group has put into these standard tales its own specific content, has generated its own variegated, kaleidoscopic picture, its own local coloring.”
Ms. Acocella, a writer for The New Yorker, quotes a folklorist who might agree with Mr. Olkadknikov: “Oral fairy tales are not so much stories as traditions. In the words of the English novelist Angela Carter, who wrote some thrilling Grimm-based stories, asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball. Every narrator reinvents the tale.”
The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales are collected here: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/grimmtmp/
Featured image: An illustration by Gennady Pavlishin from the book Folktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East showing a little baby, Azmun, found on an island in the river, who grows up to become a hero. This type of foundling-hero story has been told worldwide. Source: Folktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East.
By Mark Miller