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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.

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Literary Fairy Tales

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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 amuse the hierarchy of the medieval Christian church, so the book was banned in many places in Europe. Although Rabelais published the book pseudonymously, using the pen name “Alcofribas Nasier,” an anagram of his own name, he was identified as the author, and found his own life in peril. He was able to find personal safety only because of the protection of his patron, Queen Marguerite de Navarre, author of The Heptameron.

The nation most indebted to the tradition of literary fairy tales is Germany, which is also the nation most closely identified with the fairy tale genre. Almost every German writer in the past three centuries has written literary fairy tales. Many of those tales were banned during the Nazi regime in the 1930’s and 1940’s; the Nazis preferred to create their own filmic fantasies, based on their close imitation of Hollywood films.

A final example of the literary fairy tale is George Orwell’s transparently satirical twentieth century novel, Animal Farm (1945). A critique of the centralizing tendencies of twentieth century governments, the novel is an allegorical story of a farm gone bad, the institution having been taken over by the animals. At least one contemporaneous ruler, Joseph Stalin, found the characterization of the pig Napoleon too familiar for comfort, so he had the book banned in the Soviet Union.

Children’s Fairy Tales

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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 collection methods of the brothers and the editing of the stories from the original volume to the much more widely distributed later editions. From the beginning the Grimms viewed their collection as an Erziehungsbuch, or instructional book, and not as a volume of tales amusing to children. Beginning in 1815, when Wilhelm Grimm took over the majority of the brothers’ editing duties, numerous stories were abridged, edited, and expanded. In one of many examples, the little girl in “The Frog Prince” was changed from an ordinary German girl into a princess of a kingdom. In that manner, the Grimms altered the stories to make them conform to their own notions of class and nationhood, with the aim of instilling similar values in children.

In Germany, in the 1920’s, fairy tales once again became a political topic, as the education and socialization of children became an overt object of all the major political parties. Writers associated with the left wing of German politics voiced disapproval of the conservative social values exhibited in the stories of the Brothers Grimm and in those of later writers such as Hans Christian Andersen. Instead of arguing for censorship, however, a group of writers led by Hans Dominick and Sophie Rheinheimer constructed an alternative set of tales, poems, and plays, which they considered to be both more progressive and more liberating. This movement came to an abrupt halt, however, with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the advent of Nazi rule. The Nazis banned all such writing as communist propaganda and substituted their own nationalistic canon of tales. The argument was finally settled during the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II, when all fairy tales were banned briefly because the Allies feared the nationalistic implications of the tales and their effects on the German citizenry.


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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.

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