Fairy Tales and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

The fairy tale, or a tale that features some prominent supernatural element, is a common narrative form throughout the world. Though each country’s tradition of tale-telling bears recognizable differences, enough similarity in structure exists for scholars to create categories and patterns that cross cultural boundaries. Of these, the creation of types of subgenres of tales is the most common. The term fairy tale has been interpreted to include all types of tales, from fables to miraculous legends, to anecdotes. The most-censored varieties of fairy tales fall into two categories: the literary fairy tale and the children’s fairy tale. Of these, the children’s tales are much better known and more popular, but each has a long history of censorship, almost as long as their existence in print.

Literary Fairy Tales

Literary fairy tales are as old as the print medium. That they have a close relationship to censorship is not surprising: Scholars have theorized that the genre developed partly as a response to censorship. Writers have long recognized the possibilities of safely changing the human objects of their criticism into ogres, animals, and other nonrealistic and fantastic forms.

Literary fairy tales also allow their authors to tap into the stories of popular culture, which are often political or utopian in nature. The most popular narratives of the Middle Ages were often compendia of folk stories placed in the framework of larger narrative structures, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre’s The Heptameron.

The single most-popular work of the late Middle Ages, Gargantua and Pantagruel, written by a former monk and medical doctor, François Rabelais, is the tale of a family of giants who experience a series of outlandish and often obscene adventures while traveling throughout Europe. Based on popular French folk stories, the book went through numerous editions and sequels. The text begins as a parody of medieval miracle stories, with the birth of the hero Gargantua through the ear of his mother, the giantess Gargamelle. Rabelais notes that such a thing is in fact possible in reality, arguing that the Bible does not strictly eliminate such an occurrence from happening. This logic did not...

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Children’s Fairy Tales

The idea of a separate literature written by adults and directed specifically toward an audience made up entirely of children is a relatively modern idea. Much of the credit for the invention of children’s literature can be given to European literature, and the ideology that sprang up around Enlightenment- and Romantic- era ideas concerning culture and children. Children, the argument ran, are essentially different from adults, and therefore must be treated differently—either educated, according to Enlightenment ideas, or protected, according to Romantic ideas. The result of both practices can be seen in the anthologies of children’s stories written and collected in Germany beginning in the early nineteenth century.

The first important anthology of folk writings collected in nineteenth century Germany was Clemens Brentano’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805-1808), or The Boy’s Magic Horn, a cycle of folk songs. Brentano was the acquaintance of two brothers, Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, whom he encouraged to compile a similar volume of stories. The result was the famous first volume of the Nursery and Household Tales in 1812. The text was soon banned in Vienna under the pretext that it was a work of superstition, but more likely because of its celebration of German nationalistic folk culture.

Though the work of the Brothers Grimm was in fact banned in Vienna, recent scholars have been more concerned with the...

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Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) is the standard work on the psychology of fairy tales. John Ellis’ One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) takes a different sociological approach. Ellis is highly critical of the methods of Brothers Grimm in the collecting and marketing of their famous tales. Allen Dundes’ Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1982) presents a far-ranging examination of this one well-known story. Two works by Jack Zipes focus on the often troubled history of fairy tales. His Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (New York: Wildman Press, 1983) is probably the best work on the political history of the fairy tale. Likewise, his The Brothers Grimm (New York: Routledge, 1988) presents much little-known material on both the Brothers Grimm and the reception given to their tales.