Once upon a time...
And not so very long ago, when little children went to bed, their mother (or perhaps their father) would tell them a fanciful tale, or read one from a book. In fact, some parents still do read these fairy tales, as they are called, to their children before they go to sleep—and at other times as well. What is a fairy tale, you ask? Well, that’s not so easily answered!
To be a good fairy tale, a story should be brief and to the point, and not at all like those ponderous thick books read in schools, where it takes pages to describe ordinary people having ordinary conversations. No indeed! It should be the sort of tale that can be told in fifteen minutes or so, because that is how long it takes an average child to fall asleep. And in order to entertain the child, it should set at least one foot into the child’s own world, filled with magic and fantasy and beauty and terror. There does not strictly have to be fairies in the story, but they often do put in an appearance, as do other magical creatures such as elves and mermaids and dragons—not to mention talking animals. The setting is usually a good fair time ago, in fact so long ago that we reach the indefinite static past which lives in the back of our cultural memory, also known as the Middle Ages—and that is why there are often kings and princesses and witches and woodcutters and such peopling the tales, and why everyone rides around on horseback. And lastly, as children don’t really like ambiguity, there should most definitely be a hero and a villain in the tale, the one wonderfully splendid and the other astonishingly horrible; and the hero triumphs by following a moral code, so the child will learn something useful from the tale, though grown-ups might call the whole thing nonsense.
So that is more or less a fairy tale. How long have they been around? Perhaps as long as language itself! In the old days, fairy tales were passed on from parent to child, from one generation to the next, by telling and listening, because most people could not write (and the people who could did not think fairy tales worth writing down). But about three hundred years ago an old Frenchman named Charles Perrault, who had worked for King Louis XIV, published a book of some fairy tales he had heard. He called it Mother Goose. Some of the fairy tales he wrote down are still told today—perhaps you are acquainted with “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood”? A while later, in Germany, two brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm went about collecting other fairy tales, such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White”. And then there was Hans. Hans Andersen was born in a small country called Denmark, about two hundred years ago. His father, who was a soldier in Napoleon’s army, died when he was a boy, and Hans was very poor. He worked as a weaver, a tailor, and an actor before he turned to writing. He wrote all sorts of things—poems, novels, plays—but what he turned out to be best at was fairy tales. He invented his own, Hans did, like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
And people are still inventing their own fairy tales, like the ones on the following pages. We hope you’ll like them. Sweet dreams!
- Joel Van Valin