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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
First half: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52617
Second half: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52618
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
- Le Piacevoli Notti (sometime translated as The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights) by Giovanni Francesco Straparola
- The Well-Laden Ship by Egbert of Liege
- The Heptameron by Margaret, Queen of Navarre
- The Tale of Tales (also called The Pentamerone) by Giambattista Basile (published posthumously just outside period in 1634)
- 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
- A Fairy Tale from before Fairy Tales: Egbert of Liège’s “De puella a lupellis seruata” and the Medieval Background of “Little Red Riding Hood” by Jan Ziolkowski – Medieval Academy of America article
- Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say – BBC News Article
- How Old Is The Oldest Fairy Tale –
- BrainStuff – HowStuffWorks BrainStuff – HowStuffWorks youtube video
- Three Funny Tales From The 14th Century – podcast by The Medievalist
- Featured Image: Web Gallery of Art, 2020 June 28; Boccaccio: Decameron 1450-70 Manuscript (Ms. Holkham misc. 49) Bodleian Library, Oxford
-  Society6, 2020 June 28; Codex Manesse art print by Ouijawedge
-  Project Gutenberg, 2020 June 27; The Canterbury Tales manuscript, Frontispiece. Cambridge MS. (Gg. 4. 27). Prol. 326-34
-  Wikiwand Anne Anderson (illustrator), 2020 June 28: ‘Cinderella,’ by Anne Anderson
-  Wikipedia Little Red Riding Hood, 2020 June 28: Untitled illustration from Les Contes de Perrault, an edition of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Dore, originally published in 1862 (source).
-  Maggs Bros. LTD Rare Books & Manuscrips, 2020 June 28: title page woodcut print of Le Piacevoli Notti
-  British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, 2020 July 01; Unfinished illuminated initial ‘N'(octiam) with a drawing of a seated man (possibly Bede) writing at the desk holding a quill and a knife
-  Wikiwand Beauty and the Beast, 2020 June 28; painted portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus