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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 26 is “Tell a Fairy Tale Day" or Do You Tell Fairy Tales?

Painting - by Edward Robert Hughes
You can buy this at
I was asked, "Do you tell Fairy Tales?"  
My answer: Definitely.

I tell "stories from around the world and back through time."  The second part of that includes my various historical reenactment programs.  This question fits into much of the first part of my storytelling mission.

At the risk of becoming a "blahblah" blog of opinions, I want to consider the role of fairy tales and folktales in storytelling.

One of the Tuatha De Danann from
When I talk about "stories from around the world" it does not mean all those are exclusively fairy tales. Technically fairy tales are wonder tales: stories of magic, of happenings and creatures beyond the ordinary.  I prefer to call books in the Dewey Decimal Classification of "398s" "folk tales" even though Harry Potter made magical elements more popular. The "wonder" tale with its magical elements doesn't suit some listeners, but need not eliminate all folktales. Using the term "fairy tale", too often listeners pictured and rejected tiny girls with wings and a magic wand.  (How different from the powerful denizens of Tir Na nOg!) It also conjured up stories where all "lived happily ever after", unlike reality.  Yet that very ending may explain our need for fairy tales!  Some listeners rejecting fairy tales often accept American tall tales and spooky stories from anywhere. Tir Na nOg points to the fun of exposing groups to Celtic tales where fairies are anything but tiny. Tolkien's elves and dwarves were nourished in such ancient traditions and many modern fantasy writers clearly drank from the same fountains.  If Tolkien sources interest you, go to Sources of Lord of the Rings which is part of the huge Internet Sacred Text Archive.  Despite using exclusively female illustrations, the Wikipedia article, "Fairy" gives a good introduction to the wealth of fairy lore and variety of personalities. The Discussion tab broadens the topic, showing it's international aspects. 

Folklore is an important aspect of our own culture and of other lands.  Nations and ethnic groups have a folklore that can help us understand each other better.  It needs to be brought to as many people as possible.  If ever I doubted how little folklore is known, I just recall when a local television station had a reading program where kids were supposed to read in various categories, including Fairy Tales.  That's when I realized even the parents didn't know what a Fairy Tale was.  One mother asked if Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit was a fairy tale!

Probably the most accurate and broadest name would be Traditional Tale, which certainly includes material told by adults, but eliminates literary tales like either Potter, Beatrix or Harry.  If I want to tell a story with a Disney version or even some other version fairly well known, but I'm telling a variant, I let my listeners know this will sound a bit familiar, but to listen for the parts that are different. Fractured tales are popular now, but it pays to be sure the group knows the original or they won't appreciate it and catch the changes.

I like the comparison of a folktale to a stone smoothed by many people handling it over the years. Folktales have been polished to their essentials by years of telling.  This is why, when teaching storytelling, I suggest people start out with short folktales. 

If that's the case, why are personal tales so popular in festivals and story slams?  Are they better suited to adult audiences?

To understand, look at how U.S. storytelling festivals changed over the years.  At the beginning of storytelling festivals you could tape the stories since all were traditional tales.  Gradually performers personalized stories with music and other ways of making a story "their own", then began selling their tapes, so we were told not to record performances. Next came tellers of personal stories.  You might refer to something happening to a particular storyteller, BUT it was untrue, as well as unethical, to retell the story and claim such things happened to yourself and not the original storyteller.

The relatively short time permitted in story slam performance is also better suited to anecdotes.

A storytelling friend in Bristol, Tim Sheppard, talks about how in the U.K. storytellers tend to carry on the oral tradition by repeating the old tales.  He also says those carrying on the oral tradition are appalled or amazed at the way in the U.S. we tell people they have to take a tale, change it to make it your own, or to take several versions of it and craft a new version.  He has two sections about traditional stories: Traditional Storytelling and then The Cultural Traditions of Storytelling in his huge website of Storytelling Resources for Storytellers.

In my own view, our litigious society here in the U.S. has led to fear retelling the very folk literature able to help us understand other cultures.  Is it any wonder many cultures don't want their tales told except by storytellers steeped in the culture they are representing, if a teller is going to change it that much?

Perhaps Tim also mentioned a better way when he said: that doesn't tend to mean actually changing the tale. It means bringing the tale to life and inhabiting it, so that it's an authentic expression from the heart. It's just that all that can be done without interfering with the tale.

In my own consideration of all this, I believe copyright limitations and a desire to stand out from other tellers led to so many personal stories.  Some storytellers question if it might also have something to do with the American psyche? Perhaps, but major tellers who give personal tales usually weave humor into their stories if they want to keep me listening for very many stories.  I question the durability of most of these stories lasting long enough for anyone to remember them when they finally become old enough to reach Public Domain.

Just as pop culture, like the Harry Potter saga, has started to accept fairy tales, some storytellers have started to stand up for the fairy tale.  Not all storytellers approve of the rejection of fairy tales.  A great place to catch storytellers at play with the concept is The Fairy Tale Lobby. Questions and characters there might even get you thinking about how fairy tales still belong in publications, conferences, festivals and the repertoire of storytellers, whether professional or amateur.  After all, the root of the word "amateur" is "love." 

I believe there's still a need for folk literature, including the fairy tale.  If people don't know their own culture with its folktales and don't learn the folklore of other cultures, we will degenerate into a land of the mass media and misunderstand anyone who isn't the same.

Thank you for considering all of this.  I hope you, too, will Tell A Fairy Tale, and not just on February 26.  I also warn you to read this discussion only once or twice.  Feel free to tell others, but be careful as John D. Batten warned on August 29, 1891:

Hmmmm.  There are many Battens, including ancestors of mine, but it's a story that might put you to sleep like that warning.
LoiS(tepping down from my soapbox, but not from telling traditional tales)

P.S. Looks like there may be other ideas to add as we near the 26th.  Just saw this and think it deserves adding, 8 Reasons Why Fairy Tales Are Essential to Childhood .  Additionally fellow storyteller and friend, Karen Chace's blog, "Celebrate with tell a fairy tale day!", gives a wonderful assortment of links to tales, curriculum ideas, and crafts.  She kindly just linked to this blog, but her "heads up" back on January 31 gave me a nudge to add this extra blog article since I usually stick to publishing just once a month. 

I've long loved the Einstein quote mentioned in the "8 Reasons" . . .
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 
― Albert Einstein
Because I think this is truly important, other articles on this important topic coming my way may also be added.  Then again, it may need an additional article here.  Just can't get enough of these.

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