Fairy Tale Archeology, or “The Seed of Dreams”

July 16, 2014 Uncategorized 0

Today I’d like to discuss what remains of fairy tales and how it was likely very different for the people hearing them. This explains in some ways the fascination I have with fairy tales and retellings. If you read an original fairy tale without embellishment, odds are you’ll come away thinking “That was strange. And boring.”

Let’s take the case of “The Goose Girl.” If you read the start of the Goose Girl, you’ll probably conclude that the story is told strangely, in a disjointed manner. Take, for instance the following sentence: “The princess’s horse was called Falada, and could speak.” That’s just thrown in there at the start.

No elaboration.

No buildup.

But think about what the fairy tales we have actually represent. The brothers Grimm traveled far and wide, listening to people. Wikipedia calls them “academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who collected and published folklore.”

Which is to say, folks told them the stories like this, and Jacob and Wilhelm wrote it down. And you can bet that many of the people they spoke to weren’t authors. Even worse, many of them weren’t storytellers. A great story teller takes something like The Goose Girl and builds on it. Embellishes and adapts it with every telling.

“The princess’s horse was called Falada, and could speak” –no story teller, ever.

Let’s take a modern day example. Transformers. And we’ll have it retold by my ten year old son, while I play a substitute Grimm:

“There are giant robots, who are also cars. One of them is named Optimus, and they blow up everything. Then Megatron comes and they fight. But Sam takes the cosmic cube, which could destroy the world, and kills Megatron with it. Everything blows up.”*

A hundred years from now, if that’s the only record we have of Transformers, we’ll know two things:

  1. Transformers probably wasn’t a really good movie.
  2. Michael Bay likes to blow things up.

*This is, to a ten year old boy, the equivalent of “They all lived happily ever after.”

The point here is that while my son may have seen Transformers, he’s not a story teller yet. He told the best version of Transformers he could, but it may be lacking a few subtle nuances over the original. And you can bet that the Goose Girl is suffering a bit from a similar telling.

When we use these stories for retelling, we get a chance to undo this. In many ways, the stories resemble a shriveled seed. They’ve lost almost everything that made them exciting to hear, but the bones are there. The essence is there, waiting to be given new life, new greenery, and new scenery.

So the next time you read a fairy tale, remember it for what it is: The remnants of a story which was told long ago. And the seeds of something that could be.

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