A fairy tale illustration. Source: (gettyimages.com)
The Brothers Grimm are often credited with writing some of the earliest and best-loved fairy tales, but the truth is, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were cultural researchers and lexicographers who simply compiled the stories and folklore into a single collection in the 1800s. They were among the first academics to understand the cultural value of folktales and preserve them for analysis. They laid the foundation for the study of early fairy tales as a means to understand cultures who lived thousands of years ago. Let's look at how far back researchers have traced the history of fairy tales.
Fairy tales are a part of our culture. Source: (torontopubliclibrary.ca)
Collecting and Analyzing
While the work of the Brothers Grimm was a great start for those interested in collecting and compiling early fairy tales, it was far from complete. Historians still toil to collect, preserve, and categorize old stories from various European cultures. The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index, a repository of more than 2,000 different fairy tales from various cultures around Europe, has formed the basis of study of the development of modern languages.
The Indo-European Language Tree. Source: (mentalfloss.com)
The Indo-European Language Tree
Linguists have a pretty good handle on the Indo-European language tree. They can pinpoint when languages evolved from common ancestors or became influenced by the languages of invaders or immigrants with a consistent degree of accuracy. Armed with the Indo-European language tree, scholars began to take a critical look at the collection of fairy tales.
The study focused on fairy tales with an element of magic. Source: (mindlovemiserysmenagerie.wordpress.com)
Weeding Out the Fairy Tales
Because early fairy tales were shared orally, they are closely tied to the movements of language development. To begin their study, researchers first selected stories from one category with a consistent theme: magic. Included in this collection were some of the most enduring fairy tales we all know and love, such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Hansel and Gretel."
Fairy tales spread through storytelling. Source: (pintrest.com)
No Written Records Exist
There are no written records of the origins of some early fairy tales because of the nature of oral storytelling, but researchers estimated their approximate age based on their subject matters. Using language clues found in the oldest known versions of the stories, researchers looked for similarities, which can be used to plot points on the Indo-European language tree. It is a similar approach that biologists and evolutionists take to trace the ancient ancestors of an animal—they follow the branches of its family tree back to divergent points.
Fairy tales tell us a lot about the development of language. Source: (bbc.com)
Seeking the “Last Common Connection”
If a fairy tale appears in two or more languages, for example, the researchers can trace it back along the branches of the Indo-European language tree to find the last common connection. This would be the point when one language branched off from another.
European fairy tales may even be older than Greek myths. Source: (realmofhistory.com)
Fairy Tales Are Older Than We Thought
One of the more startling finds from this study is that fairy tales are much older than scholars originally thought. After plotting the stories on the Indo-European language tree, researchers were shocked to find that many of the tales are at least 6,000 years old. In fact, many of the stories that are still very familiar to us have been told for thousands of years. Why are these stories so universally popular?
Fairy tales have broad appeal. Source: (smithsonianmag.com)
A Good Fairy Tale is Relateable and Teaches a Lesson
After making this discovery, the researchers started to question why some fairy tales have such longevity. From their study of fairy tales with elements of magic, they've developed the theory that the stories that have stood the test of time are the ones that keep the magic to a minimum, using it only as needed to set up the story. These stories also tend to involve situations that create a feeling of cognitive dissonance—that is, discomfort caused by calling values and beliefs into question—among their audience members. More than anything, however, the longevity of fairy tales can often be explained by a very simple truth: the enduring relevance of themes like family, love, honesty, and loyalty. You might say they are ... tales as old as time.