Well I’ll be!

So, you know that German paper I wrote in grade 13? I wrote it on a comparison of literary and folk-fairytale. The latter is the true folktale (Volksmärchen, in German), originating in the oral tradition, passed down through the generations, whereas a literary fairytale (Kunstmärchen, or art-fairytale) is an original story written by one particular author (Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales are probably the best-known examples of the latter). The stories I used for my comparison were the Grimms’ “Die Gänsemagd” (“The Goose Girl”) for a folktale, and Clemens Brentano’s “Das Märchen von Rosenblättchen” (“The Fairytale of Little Rose Petal”) as an example of a literary fairytale.

So then earlier today I’m looking up “Snow White”, the English translation of the Grimm’s tale. The one I have in print is the version from 1819, which was a later edition of the tales; a good translation is here: “Little Snow-White”. In the notes, it mentions the differences to the first version from 1812, so I looked for that one, and came on this page: Little Snow-White and other Aarne-Thompson type 709 tales. The story is translated by the same scholar as the other one, D. L. Ashliman, and includes a number of other fairytales that follow the same pattern. (The Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index is a classification system for fairytales, extremely extensive. The Wicked-stepmother-sends-girl-into-enchanted-sleep plot is type #709.) And there on that page, a few stories down from “Little Snow-White”, is an Italian tale called “The Young Slave”, recorded by Giambattista Basile in Il Pentamerone in the early 17th century. And you know what? It’s “Das Märchen von Rosenblättchen“! The very story I used as my example of a literary fairytale is, in fact, no such thing.

Here I thought Brentano, who was a contemporary and friend of the Grimms, had written an original story, but all he was doing was translating and adapting an old Italian folktale which had already been written down by a tale collector 200 years earlier. And that’s a known fact; his story comes from a collection called Italienische Märchen (Italian Fairytales). I suppose if my grade 13 teacher hadn’t found fairytales too low for literary studies, he might have known that. And you’d think I would have figured it out myself from the book that I took the tale out of – but in those days (the late 1980s), research was done with paper books; the information that took me just a few minutes to find through Google and internet links today would have been far harder to get at back then. If it wasn’t written right in the front of that book I got from the library (and I guess it must not have been), there’s no way I could have found it.

Brentano did adapt that Slave Girl story, added to it and made it a bit more “literary-fairytale-ish” (so some of the points I made in that paper still hold true). But one of today’s lessons is that the line between literary and folk-fairytale is spongy at best. I had decided to stick with folktales for this study, somewhat condescendingly staying away from the “artificiality” of literary tales – but I rather fooled myself with that. You can’t neatly sort fairytales into the two groups, it just doesn’t work.

Where does a story leave off being “literary” and become a “folk”tale? Everyone today knows the story of the Little Mermaid – first originally written by Hans Christian Andersen some 150 years ago. But the story we “know” is, thanks to Disney, not the one Andersen wrote. In the book, the mermaid dies. The prince marries someone else, and the mermaid turns into the foam on the waves, because that’s what happens to mermaids when they die. Really! Go look it up. (I’m sure Project Gutenberg has a free ebook version you can read.) But in the folk version of the tale, in the story it has become by now that is being told over and over, the mermaid doesn’t die. She marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. The literary tale has become a folktale; and the folktales that were written down are, in a sense, literary tales. Even the Grimms, for all their claims to have written the stories down just as they heard them, made some adaptations.


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