Tabitha “Tabby” Aykroyd was servant and friend to Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Branwell Bronte for more than thirty years. Having been born in Yorkshire in the late 1700s, she was a faith-filled Christian woman with at least one foot deep in the lore of moor and wood. Her fireside tales enriched the lives of her brilliant young audience. (We have her to thank for adding fairy tale zest to their future literary works.) Tabby was an eager storyteller from a county brimming with tales to share.
According to some, every dale in North Yorkshire had its own hobgoblin. These small, furry creatures of semi-human form were thought to attach themselves to a particular location, or particular family. Sometimes they could be helpful, carrying out household tasks or farm work in return for a daily jug of fresh cream.
A well-known story from Hart Hall Farm in Glaisdale tells how one such creature worked through the night to complete a task that had defeated the farm workers earlier in the day. It unloaded an entire hay cart that had become wedged between stone flags and was too heavy to move. When the creature was spied working naked at midnight, the workers left clothing out for it. But the clothing was refused and, offended, the hob disappeared forever. Hobs had to be placated but could easily become malicious if slighted. If that happened they could transform into a boggart.
Katherine Clements, “Folklore of the Yorkshire Moors”
Then, as now, women past their sexual prime were too easily dismissed. But as Tabby toiled by the fireside she also wielded a powerful weapon: the spell that is cast by a well-told tale. It could be argued that she had the greatest influence on the children, Emily in particular. In pre and semi-literate places and times, women, and their voices, were a potent force.
Spinning a tale, weaving a plot: the metaphors illuminate the relation; while the structure of fairy stories, with their repetitions, reprises, elaboration and minutiae, replicate the thread and fabric of one of women’s principal labours–the making of textiles from the wool or the flax to the finished bolt of cloth.
Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde
Documenting the history of the fairy tale has proven to be thornier than expected. Literary fairy tales owe their existence to the people, mainly men, who gathered story crumbs from previous publications, friends, family, neighbors, or by way of serendipitous chats with spellbinding people. The age of these tales has also been in question. But the evidence suggests the phrase “Tale as old as time” is apt.
Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.
They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.
The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Durham University anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani said “Jack and the Beanstalk” was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.
Analysis showed “Beauty And The Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to be about 4,000 years old.
A timeline (not necessarily the timeline) of recorded European tales is as follows:
- 1550s Italy: Giovanni Francesco “Straparola” (stories include: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Puss in Boots,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Golden Goose”)
- 1630s Italy: Giambattista Basile (stories include: “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella”)
- 1690s France: Charles Perrault (stories include: “Bluebeard,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Donkeyskin”) and Madame d’Aulnoy (stories include: “Cunning Cinders,” “Princess Rosette,” “The Little Good Mouse,” “The Imp Prince”)
- 1819 Germany: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (stories include: “The Twelve Brothers,” “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Briar Rose”)
- 1888-1916 Britain: Joseph Jacobs (stories include: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Mr. Fox,” “The Fish and the Ring”)
Scholarly ambitions and patriotic zeal may have guided the Grimms in the early stages of collecting, but once their tales were in print they began to modify their vision for the collection. As reviewers weighed in, the brothers began to realize that what they had produced had a limited popular appeal in market terms. One early critic lamented the vast amounts of “pathetic” and “tasteless” material…By 1819, the date of the second edition, the collection had received more than a face-lift. Eighteen tales had been so heavily revised, redacted, and rescripted that they were almost unrecognizable…
Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm
“Fraud, Part One” examines fraud within story content: some characters are fraudsters while others become their victims. In the case of earlier tales being censored and edited by literary masters, the net of victims is perhaps more widely cast, the persons caught once flesh and bone, like us.
This is how many women’s teaching tales about sex, love, money, marriage, birthing, death, and transformation were lost. It is how fairy tales and myths that explicate ancient women’s mysteries have been covered over too. Most old collections of fairy tales and myths existent today have been scoured clean of the scatalogical, the sexual, the perverse, the pre-Christian, the feminine, the Goddesses, the initiatory, the medicines for various psychological malaises, and the directions for spiritual raptures.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
Straparola’s prince impregnates sleeping beauty; Perrault’s chaste nobleman doesn’t even kiss Beauty’s still lips. Different times and places call for different measures of blood and bone, lust and ecstasy, death and rebirth. It isn’t necessarily bad, as long as we are free to indulge in a reclamation of sorts. And we are living in a fairy tale Renaissance: spin new tales, re-wind old ones; the magic sweeps up people of all walks.
Fairy tales give voice to unspecifiable longings for happiness, growth, success, justice. They reflect deeply rooted psychological aspects of existence, such as the attitudes that many have towards their parents and siblings, such as the relations between men and women (i.e., who is the rescuer, and who is rescued), such as the place of humans within their environments, within those selfsame woods. They have served as a medium for some of the greatest creative endeavors of the human imagination: in literature, art, music, dance, and other forms. Yet they have stood the risk of being abandoned not only because Disney and others pushed them into the nursery, but because a facile examination of them will not, cannot satisfy the longings that they evoke.
Helen Pilinovsky, “Spells of Enchantement: The Fairy Tale Cycle”
Don’t be deceived: familiar fairy tales are more mysterious than you think. Dig a little deeper, into the leaf litter, and you’ll find a smudge in the earth, the remnant of an ancient path. Follow it a while and when you come to a fork, choose wisely. In one direction, brightly lit, a golden carriage awaits to help you on your way; the other is dark and smells of fungi and rotting matter and you will have to traverse it foot by weary foot. Both will reward, but in different ways. And both will take you somewhere new, though, perhaps, only one will take you where you need to go.
First Image by Pezibear at Pixabay.com
Second Image by Prawny at Pixabay.com
Third Image by addesia at Pixabay.com