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Bad Horse

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Fairy tales are random · 3:28pm May 20th, 2014

Looking at more examples of "fairy tales", I've noticed a strange pattern. A lot of the famous fairy tales that we all know (The Princess and the pea, Beauty and the beast, The little mermaid, The emperor's new clothes) are not folk tales at all, but recent inventions, many by Hans Christian Andersen. We know a few tales from the Grimm brothers, but those ones have all been modernized. Not just by taking out the blood and gore, but by taking out the randomness and digressions. Old folk tales for children usually have nonsensical elements that have been removed from their modern versions.

(Interesting how far back the idea goes in European tradition that sex is much more dangerous for children than violence. Those old stories never mention sex-- symbolically, they're about it all the time, but they never mention it-- but they're violent. Or maybe the Grimm brothers, etc., didn't write down the ones with sex.)

Some are things thrown into the plot that make no sense or have no justification, like near the beginning of "the brave Little tailor", where, on his way out of his house, the tailor grabs a piece of cheese and sticks it in one pocket, and grabs a wild bird off a tree branch and sticks it in his other pocket, for no reason at all, but these become important later. Or the different ways the witch tries to kill Snow White, none of which make any sense. Stories like Snow White, in which people could replace the nonsensical elements with ones that made sense, have survived. Stories like The Brave Little Tailor, where the nonsense was hard to replace, are not as popular today. But I bet kids would like them just as much, or better.

After reading a bunch of stories, I think these random elements were put there on purpose. They are the medieval version of the random tag. And if you've told stories to kids, you know they like the random tag. They're amused by things that make no sense, and may repeat them for hours on end.

(There are also a bunch of plot non sequiturs in folktales, like at the end of "the frog King", which suddenly introduces a new character, "Iron Henry", and tells a tiny story about how glad he was to see the frog King return. These are usually two distinct stories that were tied together by some plot element. I imagine storytellers just kept telling stories as long as the audience wanted to listen, and if they could find some way to segue from one story into another, that was a bonus.)

There are exceptions; "Cinderella" and "Jack and the beanstalk" look pretty similar in early versions to what we know today. Though Jack wasn't written down until the 19th century, and it is very unlike real folk stories in that it isn't moralistic, and I doubt that it's a real folk tale either.

I feel sorry for the people who lived in a world where those folk stories were all they heard as kids. The individual stories might be good, but collectively, they're all variations on Grug's stories in The Croods: "One day, there was a cave boy who saw something new, and he died!" Well, not that exactly. But they have a very limited set of interests. They're like fimfiction would be if the only stories anyone told were Human in Equestria.

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Comments ( 21 )

I started to recommend recommend Bruno Betteleim's The Uses of Enchantment, if you haven't read it already, but then I looked him up. Yeesh.

Yeah, kids do like the random tag and things that make little to no sense. Especially things that would never work in the real world. Just look at cartoons. Spongebob is a great example. One of my favorite episodes, Band Geeks, has a scene where two marching band fish twirl their batons so fast they turn into propellers, and the fish fly up into the air, crash into a blimp, and die in a big explosion. It's completely random and makes no sense, and we love it.

What, moon logic in fairy tales? :trollestia:

As for why the random elements, I guess it's more the curse of oral tradition than an intentional attempt at randomness; stories get changed, mixed, unrelated parts are added and necessary parts are removed, etc. I've never done proper research on the topic, but just reading, for fun, different versions of tales that weren't standardized by the likes of Aesop or the Grimm brothers can show how much such stories change, some times turning them almost incomprehensible.

There's also the fact that the original authors might not have been good authors in the first place. Plot holes are likely just as old as fiction.

I'm not sure if you've already come across this, but Pitt University has a really extensive online archive of fairy tales and folk tales. All of the Brothers Grimm and Perrault collection ones are are there, most of Hans Christian Anderson's, and a lot that can't be found in any of those. It also includes about a dozen different versions of all the famous ones, different versions from different time periods and different cultures.


It also has the version of Little Red Riding Hood where she totally eats her dead grandmother's teeth and then the wolf offers to let her pee on him.

Anyway, if you want to do serious study into fairy tales, you need to stop thinking of them as children's stories. The really early versions of most of these stories (like cannibalistic, hyper-kinky Little Red Riding Hood) weren't created specifically for children, but just as general entertainment.

I also expect some of those elements that seem random to us now would have made much more sense to the people who originally told these stories. For example, back when starvation was a very real possibility every winter and the average grandmother's life expectancy was only two weeks, eating your grandmother was probably much more of a tangible possibility.

There's a whole genre of nonsense-stories and nonsense-poetry for children, isn't there? I remember liking them quite a bit when I was younger[1]. Children like stories that turn the established order of things on their head and feature impossible things in impossible situations. The counter-intuitive nature of it... intrigues them, I guess.

Some stories, too, rely on references we no longer get[3], and some are just... bad. Wretched prose is not an invention of the modern age. Indeed, what with widespread literacy and everyone reading a lot more than in Ye Olden Times(tm) you might even expect it to be better today than long ago. A chilling thought, to be sure. :twilightsmile:

[1] I vaguely remember one called 'The Evening Elephant[2]' where an elephant falls down and proceeds to have a conversation with the concrete it fell down on in rhyming couplets. Now that I write it down though, I can't be sure that wasn't a fever dream. :pinkiehappy:
[2] Don't bother trying to find it. It's never been translated to English that I know of.
[3] Imagine what ponyfic might seem like to someone who's never even heard of My Little Pony[4].
[4] And isn't well[5] read enough to go "Oh, wait, this is about the Houyhnhnms, isn't it?"
[5] And is just poorly read enough that they don't note that Houyhnhms are not very much like ponies, what with being almost emotionless and all.


Much of what we suppose to be nonsensical may have been highly relevant to the audience. There were many stories and current events that didn't get written down, but just a mention was enough for the audience to recall the whole story. Sort of a code word.

Like if you mention "David and Goliath" to anybody in the west, they immediately recall a story of the underdog triumphing against an overwhelming opponent, even if they aren't familiar with the canonical story.

I'm sure you already know this. But I'm throwing it out there anyway. It's like we're watching 500-year-old Saturday Night Live. We don't get 90% of the jokes.

That said, kids DO love random stuff.

This makes me think of some of Ursula Vernon's annotated fairy tales. (If you don't know her, she is an amazing artist and author, probably one of my favorites.) They aren't exactly scholarly works, but they are a very fun exploration of some of the lesser-known stories from a modern creator's point of view.

How do we even know how old such oral folklore is? It may well be that without writing, you end up with a very different set of stories within a couple centuries. It's like playing a game of telephone, except you can't talk to the person who started it off, and for all you know, your parents might have made up half those stories on the spot.

Remember that the Grimm's original 1812 collection was entitled Children's and Household Tales. So it was understood from the beginning that these were not necessarily children's stories.

Also remember that the seemingly random elements may also be due to errors in the published text, errors in the Grimm's transcriptions or errors in the tales as told, through mishearing or misremembering.

EDIT--I strongly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the Brothers Grimm. It seems that their habit of bundling both children's and adult tales together in one volume created no little controversy, not only because of the sexual elements in some of the tales but also because of the violence in some of them. It all resulted in what I think was one of the first, if not THE first parental content warning in the history of mass media.

2128948 Darn it... I have to work in an hour... I read this post with 4 hours till work... :twilightangry2:
Darn tvtropes... :facehoof:

[3] Imagine what ponyfic might seem like to someone who's never even heard of My Little Pony[4].
[4] And isn't well[5] read enough to go "Oh, wait, this is about the Houyhnhnms, isn't it?"
[5] And is just poorly read enough that they don't note that Houyhnhms are not very much like ponies, what with being almost emotionless and all.


You call yourself a lover of footnotes, yet here you are, brutally abusing them again. If the footnote immediately follows the text it is footnoting, and especially when that text is itself a footnote and there is no further non-footnote text, what does it accomplish to insert a [4] [4] in the middle of your footnote?

You, sir, are not a footnote lover who appreciates them for their good qualities. You are a footnote fetishist. Footnotes tremble in fear of your touch.

Look, what I do with consenting footnotes in the privacy of my own post is none of your damned business.

That's not a sentence that was ever spoken before, I don't think.

Actually, I was going to add an additional sentence afterwards pointing out how much some ponyfic depends on context even deeper than the show to get a point across using some of my own writing to point out that a fairly trivial vignette depends on understanding My Little Pony, Yes Minister, and circumlocutions in common use in the British press. I was going to add it, but then I got distracted and didn't. In my defense I'm running a fever and am also dim as a ha'penny candle. These two things do not synergize well, I find.


what does it accomplish to insert a [4] [4] in the middle of your footnote?

It...it changes the time signature?

And how do you think I knew by heart the name of the trope for this kind of seemingly illogical element that makes sense in hindsight? :trollestia:

Not to mention a bit of Latin, Terry Pratchett, Tim Burton, and even rocket science[1], and that in just an one-shot :twilightsmile:

[1] Which I, luckily, understand a bit due to having something of a scientific[2] background.
[2] Engineering, actually, but close enough for most practical purposes.

I would like to retroactively change my answer to this, please. :twilightsmile:

That's me trying to be restrained with references, too. I really like my obscure jokes and nods—to all sorts of things. There's a reference to a video game in Whom The Princesses Would Destroy... that nobody has ever gotten because it is buried, like, sixty textual layers deep.

I read "cheese and a wild bird" and I think "flameproof boots, snake-charming flute, lion tamer's chair, and hunk of ricotta." The methods of storytelling may have changed, but the techniques aren't all that different.

Really, if "Somepony to Watch Over Me" had a darker ending, it would make for a perfect fairy tale. "Remember kids, your parents may seem overbearing at times, but if you try to prove you don't need them, the chimera in the fire swamp will eat you."

2131925 The difference is that in the fairy tale, the main character picks all that stuff up without having any idea that it was going to be useful.

2129286 There's at least one author who's well-known for writing nonsense for children. Sadly I don't remember his name offhand.

(Not completely sure if that was directed more at you, or more at BH. Oh well.)

As to [3], Days of Wasp and Spider. Yes it's in the exception-that-proves-the-rule category, no I don't care. 'Tis enjoyable sci-fi, oh and ponies.


Look, what I do with consenting footnotes in the privacy of my own post is none of your damned business.

I'm just picturing you saying that with a completely straight face, and I'm just... I... :rainbowderp:

This is why Boy Scouts are trained to always Be Prepared. Pick up stuff. You never know when it might come in useful. (Except the food. You're always going to need the food.)

That, and improvising with what you have on hand is widely considered to be The Way To Win.

Pick up stuff. You never know when it might come in useful.

Obviously the brave little tailor had played adventure games.

2133811 Ah, the days of Zork and other such games where moves were:
> get all
> north
> get all
> west

2129362 While reading the first I saw I couldn't help but think that somehow someone somewhere in the future would mistake the annotations for parts of the story.

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