The Archetypal Looking Glass: Folktales and Representation (An Introduction)

People’s opinions on fairy tales vary widely, and even the question of terms—what qualifies as a fairy tale or a folktale, and whether there’s any difference in the two—is highly debatable. However folktales, to use a more general term, are unquestionably a major part of pretty much any culture. My interest in folklore is partly due to my upbringing—many days spent watching Faerie Tale Theatre and The Tenth Kingdom, and reading  books like Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko’s The Paper Bag Princess and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles left me with the impression that fairy tales could be comforting, empowering, and a little frightening. Then there were the Renn Fairs, the music my parents listened to, and the general love of books and storytelling that filled my house—fairy tales are comfortable for me. Beyond that, though, as a writer I have long been interested in language, not only in literal meanings, but also in connotations. A lot of connotations come from folklore, the archetypal stories that became integral to their particular culture.  From archetypal stories we get archetypal tropes, characters, even images—all the things that are so important to storytelling. And storytelling, after all, is exactly what this blog is about: the stories that we tell, the stories that we listen to, and how these stories both reflect and influence our world and our perceptions of that world. Stories are a mirror in which people can view their society and their humanity, and one can learn a great deal about a culture by looking at the stories they tell and the way they tell them.

And so this post is the beginning of an exploration I will be doing on this blog of folklore. I will mostly be looking at European fairy tales, as those are the ones that are most often adapted—or at least, their adaptations are by far the most prevalent in American culture (and, I believe, other European or formerly European cultures). I will look at folklore from other cultures, though, and I might be looking for some guest posts at some point—I’ll talk more about that in a later post.

I’m going to start by talking about agency and sexism in American and European fairy tales—how do our modern perceptions of fairy tales compare to the older stories, and how does context affect stories now and in the past? The issue of agency is often brought up with fairy tales, particularly Disney’s adaptations, and female empowerment and the fear of said empowerment figure strongly in character archetypes like the witch. But are all fairy tales full of bad witches, evil queens, and helpless princesses? Do they really all reflect the same damsel in distress dynamic as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty? The short answer is no, they don’t—but if that is the case, why are those archetypes so strongly associated with this kind of story? Over the next several posts I’ll look at some old stories as collected by people like Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers, and some adaptations of these stories, such as Disney’s princess films. I’ll also be looking at the first book in a recent series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente.

Before I close this post, though, I want to go back briefly to the question of definitions: For the purpose of this series, I’ll include in my definition not only archetypal folktales, but also some more modern stories that are sometimes referred to as “modern fairy tales,” either due to their explicit use of archetypes or through their entrance into canon. Stories like The Wizard of Oz, for instance, have been adapted and retold so many times since their inception, and have become such an ingrained part of the cultures of their creation that it seems worthwhile to examine them alongside traditional folktales,  and to see what archetypes they might incorporate or create. In addition, recent stories like the aforementioned book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, while not necessarily adaptations of any one specific fairy tale, examine tropes and archetypes both explicitly and inexplicitly, and as a result they also have a place in the discussion.

One last unrelated announcement: next Friday I’ll be posting something for Blogging Against Disablism Day. I’m hoping to make two posts, one here about disability representation in Doctor Who, and one on my other blog, Scribbling on Seashells, about my own experiences.

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