Who Owns a Fairy Tale?

The Brothers Grimm

Once Upon a Time, I thought the Brothers Grimm wandered their homeland, transcribing oral stories like some 19th century version of the depression-era Federal Writers’ Project - saving the folk tales from oblivion. I was this many years old when I learned that isn’t quite how it went down. Gather ‘round the fable as we talk about the truth behind the stories.

Storytelling Mission

The Brothers Grimm - Wilhelm and Jacob - were German academics who put stories such as Cinderella (“Aschenputtel”), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel on the map. They have been tagged as the Fathers of the Fairy Tale and their names are synonymous with the stories they shared. The goal behind gathering the stories was to preserve the story tradition of their land - a kind of national pride project.

Where did they find their stories?

To be honest, I never gave it much thought before. I’d heard they traveled about, listening to tales and writing them down, collecting the oral traditions of the region. Seemed plausible enough, right? But apparently, there is more to this fairy story. It seems many of the storytellers they turned to were women - women in their social circles who did not receive the credit for them. Wilhelm’s own wife, Dortchen Wild, was a key source of material for the Brothers. Her story inspired Kate Forsyth’s own novel, The Wild Girl.

Why the myth of the storyteller peasant?

Maybe the upper class women didn’t want to be associated with the tales. Maybe it was more romantic to say some withered crone in a (candy) house told them the stories as they wandered. Maybe they felt they didn’t need to identify the storytellers - I don't know for certain, but I would guess it might be a combination of all these elements. Scholars have put their minds to the topic though; you can check out books such as Valerie Paradiz’s Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales, or Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde. The question I have though is who ultimately owns a fairy tale? Can it have one author if it comes from oral tradition?

Tell me a story

If I rewrite a fairy tale - let’s say I take a new spin on Cinderella (which I did, for an upcoming anthology), do I owe creative credit to Dortchen Wild, the originator of Cinderella? What debt do subsequent authors owe to the original source material or is all derivative work unique? I would say part of the answer lies in copyright law - when does something become public domain and available for use in new works. Part of the answer comes from whether the new work was inspired by something or if it simply switches up names, like a fairy tale plagiarist. And part of the answer lies in the question of whether oral tradition can ever really belong to anybody. Did Dortchen Wild create Cinderella herself or was she taking bits from stories she had heard?

Fathers of Fairy Tales Still

Even if Wilhelm and Jacob weren’t totally transparent about the source material for these stories, fans of fairy tales and fantasy stories owe them a debt. Collated, polished, adapted - these stories might not have originated with them but they likely wouldn’t have continued to be relevant (and retold) two centuries later without them. The moral of this fairy tale though is - there is usually a story behind the story.

Thanks to Folklore Thursday for opening my eyes to this particular tale.

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