Fairy Tales, Frame Stories, and The Quarantamaron

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Picture of Sigga practicing calligraphy.

Good gentles, readers and listeners of stories, I pray make yourselves comfortable. My name is Sigga kausi Geiradotter, from the Shire of Midhaven, Kingdom of An Tir, I have a story which I would be so honored to share with you.

It begins first with a study of the sometimes ancient roots of fairy tales. It continues with a brief overview of a narrative type known as a ‘frame story’, which many manuscripts in period utilized to present collections of short stories. The culmination is my personal project to create an original piece which mimics period texts and styles, while bringing inclusion and diversity to the tales and, my great hope, to the audience as well.

There Once Was A Story

Fairy Tales Are Period, Period!

“Once upon a time,” words that usher in the modern idea of a fairy tale. But fairy tales are older than many people think, and some have origins older than we can fully trace.

While the term ‘fairy tale’ was first used at the end of the 17th century, the tales themselves often existed in earlier forms, passed on orally. Some are thought to be thousands of years old, and many of the elements of these tales can be found across many cultures, following linguistic trails or trade routes. Stories and elements found in well-known fairy tales can be found from China to Egypt, India to Rome.

Illuminated page from the Codex Manesse of a man seated top center with heraldry (a black bird displayed on a red shield), while a women writes on a scroll and a man writes on a wax tablet.
[1] The original “Word Processors”

While there are certainly stories we know were created only after 1600, the presence of tales which contain fantastical elements and even, yes, fairies can be found far earlier.

Stories like Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk have origins much older than the Brothers Grimm. The story The Smith and the Devil is thought by some to date back to the Bronze Age. And yet because of their oral nature and their informal place as stories told by “old wives” or around winter fires, it can be difficult to pin them down by time and place, even when we know they must have been there.

We occasionally get a glimpse of these tales in written form, or a reference to them, which allows us to follow the breadcrumbs back and see how the stories change across time and location.

The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes offers variants of selected tales, with brief commentaries on the common elements of each. Though several of these comparative tales are past our period, it offers insight into how similar stories could vary by time and place.

Conversely, in the third edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Wilhelm Grimm praises Basile’s recounting of tales in The Pentamerone, saying “[He] has not allowed himself to make any alteration, scarcely even any addition of importance…” which speaks to the potential for these tales to maintain their integrity across nearly two hundred years. Though this may, perhaps, be owing to them having been written, which could introduce constraints that oral tellings did not have to conform to.

Calligraphy from an extant page of The Canterbury Tales manuscript, middle English text.
[2] Portion of The Canterbury Tales manuscript

In the book Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies, Jan M. Ziolkowski explores even older possible origins of fairy tales, suggesting that for some, a character that was once a vengeful goddess became to later audiences an evil queen; the threat of a beastly husband became an actual beast; and the mischief of various deities and demi-gods may have become the meddling of faeries or the transformation of humans into animals.

The 11th century schoolbook The Well-Laden Ship compiled by Egbert of Liège offers an enticing peek at what might be a precursor to later Little Red Riding Hood stories, which themselves differ on a number of elements.

But this can also lead to the question: when is the story no longer that story? What is the core element that, if changed, makes it no longer a branch of that evolution? How far can one change a story before it isn’t that story anymore?

There is the Greek historian Strabo who wrote of the reportedly true story of Rhodopis, a woman living in Egypt whose sandal, stolen by an eagle, becomes the means of her marriage to the King. The Chinese tell a tale of the poor girl abused by her adoptive mother and half-sister, and with the help of a magical fish is married to the king via the loss of a golden shoe. And in Italy there is tale of a princess who kills her first step-mother, only to have the next step-mother and six step-sisters treat her even worse, then with help from a fairy tree she is, by way yet again of a lost shoe, married to a king.

Illustration by Anne Anderson of Cinderella running from the ball while courtiers give chase.  Her glass shoe is left on the tiled floor.
[3] You had one job!

So, can Cinderella still be Cinderella without a fairy godmother, helpful mice, and a pumpkin coach? What is the core of the story that, without, ceases to be the story? If traced back to Egypt, one can follow the evolution of the persecuted heroine who, with some kind of supernatural or animal helper and through the loss of a shoe, becomes married to a king. All other trappings become the flavor of the teller, the fleshed out fruit of a seed which makes its way across time and various cultures.

While open to a great deal of interpretation concerning what does or does not constitute a related element or a necessary aspect, we can apply comparative research and tease out a common thread that can teach us that ancient myth and medieval tale may not be as distinct as once thought.

Problematic Themes and Ridiculous Elements

While there are some near universal themes in these stories, some of the glimpses they provide into the past are pretty awful, and some elements have no business in our modern day, nor indeed in our “middle ages as they should have been.” These were often not intended for children, and sometimes they aren’t even appropriate today for an adult audience.

Some of the events that take place in these ancient and medieval stories can be very problematic for a number of reasons. Beyond the usuall leaving children for dead, unfaithful spouses, and murderous monsters, there are some story elements that should be seriously reconsidered, such as rape as a normalized act, the intrinsic association of beauty with virtue and ugliness/disfigurement with evil, or the use spousal abuse as a punchline.

Less of a problem of content but more of storytelling as an art is the sometimes delightfully ridiculous elements to many of these stories which seem to lack explanation. Plot points which are given no rationale, or resolutions that are a little too convenient. I always wondered how Rapunzel did not question that there was a different voice calling “let down your hair”; no one ever seems startled by talking cats; and just what did Rumpelstiltskin intend on doing with a newborn child, anyway?

Illustration by Gustrav Dore of Little Red Riding Hood in bed with a wolf dressed as her Grandmother.
[4] Seriously, girl, how can you not tell?

In his book Fairytale in the Ancient World, Graham Anderson compares later narratives with more ancient stories and myths, drawing parallels that might help to explain some of the more mysterious elements of the later stories. An element that might have once been deeply symbolic to one culture becomes a vestigial bit of tale to later generations, kept on as ‘that’s how I heard it’ but divorced of its original meaning.

Without that understanding, these elements can become altered, dropped entirely, or simply repurposed – such as a religious garment of red becoming instead a namesake riding hood. Our modern understanding of some tales may be an epic game of telephone down through thousands of years of retellings, with each generation of tellers having to keep the story relevant to their audience.

In this context, ‘meddling’ to present old stories to a modern audience, to drop the no longer relevant aspects or flesh out explanations for strange elements, may well be in keeping with exactly what has been done with these stories throughout their sometimes long histories.

The Frame Story

Allow me to pivot slightly away from the history of fairy tales and to the history of collections of stories. One well-represented style of compiling collections of short stories in written form is known as the frame story. A frame story creates an overall fictional context in which additional stories are presented to the reader as if being told by the characters within the frame.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the latter half of the 14th century, is a well-known example of this type of story, in which the author creates a fictional setting of a group of people making pilgrimage and all agreeing to tell stories to one another upon the road. The story creates a setting and a cast, and often serves to introduce or discuss the given stories.

Maybe the most famous modern example of a type of frame story is the movie The Princess Bride, in which the story is told in the context of the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson, offering chances to interrupt the narrative with observations or commentary.

The Canterbury Tales style was itself modeled upon the near-contemporary collection of tales, The Decameron, written in Italy in 1353 CE by Giovanni Boccaccio. The frame of this collection of tales was a group of 10 ladies and gentlemen who leave the city to escape the Black Death – giving a remarkably vivid image of that event in the first pages – and decide to pass their time in the country telling one another stories over a series of 10 days, making for a total of 100 stories within the frame.

Extant title sheet from the Italian La Piacevoli Notti (The Facetious Nigths).   Italian text "Le Tredeci Piacevoli Notti Del S. Gio. Francesco Straparola DA Caravaggio.  Libro Secondo.  IN Vinegia, appresso Domenico Farri. 1560" around an image of a winged angle standing upon a winged orb receiving light from above.
[5] I found the Snitch.

This frame story style is an old one, with examples going back to the 18th-16th centuries BCE in Egypt in a text known as the Westcar Papyrus which relates a series of stories being told to the Pharaoh. From India, there is the Mahabharata, with parts estimated to be as old as 400 BCE.

Other examples include One Thousand and One Nights by an unknown or perhaps multiple authors; Le Piacevoli Notti sometime translated as The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights by Giovanni Francesco Straparola; and The Heptaméron attributed to Queen Marguerite de Navarre and published posthumously in 1558. Continuing on past period, The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile also uses this narrative device.

The contents of the stories within these narratives, and the narratives themselves, varied greatly, from bawdy tales to stories of wit and mirth to the predecessors of some of our more well-known modern fairy tales.

An Original Reproduction?

So, where does all this leave the enthusiastic re-enactor who wishes to produce a period-appropriate but original work which draws on these elements and foundations? Unlike some other focuses, attempting to reproduce period writing is not quite as straightforward as reproducing, say, a garment.

Illuminated capital letter N with an unfinished sketch of a man sitting at a writing desk with a pen and pen knife.
[6] Not finishing your A&S projects is period!

One may, for example, find a thorough analysis of an extant garment and through much study and practice, research of the materials and stitches used, the dyes that might have been available in that time and place, and the overall construction and embellishment that is as close to an exact recreation as possible, thus having demonstrated a wide variety of skills, not the least of which is hand sewing.

As a bard, one may find great satisfaction in the research and performance of a period story, poem, or song, and demonstrate remarkable skill in those fields. Utilizing voice, music, and/or performance, one can bring a past piece to life for an audience and prove the rehearsals that have gone on behind the scenes.

But when it comes to creating such a piece as a body of written works, it is necessarily a different kind of approach. If one merely attempts to reproduce a period story as close as possible, one might show themselves to be literate, or at best a skilled translator. To be an author, however, one must necessarily embrace the creation of original works rather than simply the reproduction of period ones.

It is on this hill that I have chosen to pitch my tent and stake my claim. To understand the elements of these stories, their possible ancient origins, later influences, symbolism, the way they twist and turn from this region to that, from one time to another, and to produce a collection of original stories that yet feel like they have been drawn out of the midst of the middle ages.

The Quarantameron

We now come to the culmination of my ongoing research. I am delighted to introduce to you, dear reader, the long-term project that I have embarked upon to create a compilation of stories, based on and inspired by period collections of tales, awful in all the way period stories should be, while not being awful in the way modern stories should not. Inclusive, diverse, and entertaining – a story where many more people will get to see themselves as the hero, and many people can see others as the hero as well. Not to make them token inclusions but because they are real people and telling stories with and about them is important and interesting.

A disability or disfigurement is not code for an evil character; likewise, beauty is a trait distinct from goodness (and neither equate to pale skin). The princess can be her own rescuer, marriage is not the same as a happy ending, and the prince cannot be excused his evil actions just because he is presented as the protagonist.

Painted portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus, who likely had Hypertrichosis.  His face is entirely covered in hair, he is wearing a nearly floor-length dark (black or brown) coat with a red lining, partially open over what looks to be a black shirt or doublet with a white ruffled collar.
[7] When we turn people into “them”, we treat them as sub-human.

In making this statement I acknowledge that I willingly break many of the conventions of the stories I claim to want to emulate, but there is no benefit to be gained – for myself or for others – in the reproduction of harmful material or the further distribution of damaging stereotypes.

It started with a single though many years ago. A moment where I thought, ‘You know, this story would be way better if only…’ As I continued to mull on that thought, other stories that could benefit from some revisions came to mind, and soon I was pushing myself to think of all the ways I could reimagine these tales to bring new delights and unexpected twists, but presented in a way that still feels old, that still has that period flavor.

The project I am hoping to share at this first virtual Athenaeum is my very own “Quarantameron.” Or at least, an introduction to it. Still very much in its infancy.

Inspired by both the title and style of The Decameron, which sets the telling of the tales during the Black Death, I have chosen to collect and tell the Quarantameron as set during this latest outbreak of modern ‘plague’ that has driven us into our homes and offers a wonderfully apt setting for the telling of tales to pass the time.

I hope you will join me in the delightful exploration of these tales: as a topic of research, as a means of entertainment, but also as a way to throw open the doors and bring in the many protagonists and characters that have for too long been left waiting in the cold.

Heraldic badge: An African woman dressed in an ermine gown and blue tunic standing within an arch and holding in front of her an open book.  The Swedish phrase "svarta liv har betydelse" is written below.
My heraldic badge and the Swedish phrase “Svarta liv har betydelse”

I Wrote A Thing! Now What?

I have a three-fold long term project, in fact. The first is to write. I am aiming for 40 stories (inspired by the quarantine meaning of 40 days and the basis for the title Quarantameron being a double reference to both 40 and written during quarantine).

The second is to craft the frame story narrative to contain these 40 stories. I am currently aiming to model this on the Decameron by using this modern plague and the setting of the SCA to be the framework. That is, by some cautious blending of in and out of the game, to create a medieval flavor of the current COVID 19 shutting down of events and the mundane need to isolate within our households. Together, I hope to create a setting that we can identify with modernly but reflects the medieval reaction to the spread of the Black Death.

The third focus is, once the full piece has been written, to turn it from a created story into a physical book – with calligraphy, illuminations, and period binding techniques, to have a crafted a book that I can take off the shelf and say, “I did this!”

As a corollary to that third focus, I hope that I will be able to create a tiny library of the individual stories that can be given out as largesse, to not just have written the stories and the book, but to share them far and wide within the SCA, and perhaps even outside of it.

Serious Goals

Possible Topics of Discussion

Some Things I’d Love To Talk About

  • Period fairy tales
  • Period frame stories
  • Bringing diversity to SCA works
  • My Quarantameron project

Some Things I’d love To Learn More About Or Get Feedback On

  • Writing original works for the SCA
  • How to be original and period at the same time
  • Setting a story in the SCA itself
  • Feedback on the original writing excerpts


Period (and almost period) Books

Research Books

  • The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grim by Jack Zipes
  • Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson
  • Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies by Jan M. Ziolkowski
  • Fairy Tales: The Origins, History and Interpretations of the World’s Most Famous Fairy Tales by Gustavo Vazques Lozano & Charles River Editors
  • Fairy Tales, Their Origin and Meaning by John Thackray Bunce

Related Links

Image Citations

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19 Replies to “Fairy Tales, Frame Stories, and The Quarantamaron”

  1. I applaud your endeavor. This is quite a task to take on, but I like your attitude and look forward to reading the entire opus some day. I would love to schedule some time to talk with you about it.

  2. Reading this was quite exciting! I would be quite interested in discussing further, if I have the chance. I am also intrigued by the older tales, though I have yet to delve very deep. I have partial copies of a few of the collections that I have been able to download. Reading them as a bard, I try to imagine how they might have been orated and presenting them in that fashion. I am considering presenting a class on it for Grand Ithra, keeping in mind that some of the material would not be considered appropriate today. I do enjoy though the similarities some of the lesser talked about stories, like “The Booby,” have to other modern tales. I would also be interested in providing feedback on your project.

    1. I would love to discuss further with you and get additional feedback. If you haven’t already requested a one-on-one during the event (unfortunately the cut-off was yesterday), we can always coordinate discussions outside of the event. I would be excited to attend your Grand Ithra class.

  3. Really enjoyed reading through your presentation and your stories, thank you for sharing them!

    One area that fascinates me is the symbolism that permeated medieval common knowledge, and how animals and objects are generally viewed to have symbolic meanings that are less obvious to modern audiences than they would be to a medieval audience. I imagine that this medieval folklore — in addition to being highly amusing in and of itself — might be a rich trove of inspiration for your storytelling. I highly recommend the book “The Secret Middle Ages” by folklorist Malcom Jones as a great resource for this information (and King County Libraries has a copy: https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/item/show/282106082)

    1. Thank you very much! I will seek out that book, as it is exactly the kind of thing that I would love to get my hands on and gain a deeper understanding of. I agree that I am almost certainly missing references and symbolism. I read recently (or perhaps it was in a video?) that the idea of giving a fae creature clothing had a specific meaning, and helped explain things like the cobbler story with the faeries who made the shoes until the wife made them clothing.

      I am so glad you enjoyed my exhibit and the beginning of my stories.

  4. I loved your exhibit. While my strength is not in writing stories I am always interested in finding sources and actually have made stories part of my exhibit too. I just found the tail of the lion with a throne it it’s paw predates Aesop to Rome.

    The idea of your collection is a great one. I have a friend who had an accident and has to wear an eye patch and it is amazing how many kids are scared of it and think he is a “bad guy” when looking for good guys with eye patches he could tell them about lets just say Nick Fury was about all we could come up with. I can’t wait to read your stories.

  5. I find this an intriguing read and I love your inspiration. The trail though history and culture ties us to “our” past and ties us together. I would love to see the progress on this project, and the completion of the stories!

  6. This is not a project you see very often outside of academic circles and it is very interesting to be added to the Society. It makes me long for another reading of my favorite medieval story – The Song of Roland. I highly recommend taking a look at the Sheldon Casdan’s book “The Witch Must Die” and Bruno Bettelheim’s book “The Uses of Enchantement”. There is lots of material available for your research and inspiration – this topic is very much explored and learned about for the game and film industry. Kudos!!!!!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I will look for those books to add to the small library I have already amassed on the topic! I am loving everything I am learning! Even without writing my own, just the research side is so engrossing!

      1. In less turbulent times, I would open my crazy library collection for you to browse. Most of my friends when they say to themselves that there is nothing on a given topic end up on my doorstep to find the book/article they need. It is a bizarre little collection. I remember one acquaintance said there was nothing on Asian armor for women and low and behold I had a whole book on it. 🙂

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