Were Fairy Tales Originally for Adults?

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Fairy tales are stories involving fantastic forces, usually with a moral theme. They feature fantasy characters like fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, giants, and talking animals. Today, fairy tales are considered children’s stories and are a beloved part of childhood. But were they always meant for kids?

The History and Evolution of Fairy Tales

To understand the original target audience for fairy tales, we need to look at where they came from. Fairy tales grew out of oral folklore and storytelling traditions. For centuries, tales were passed down and adapted across generations.

Folk Tales and Oral Tradition

Long before fairy tales made it to the page, folk tales were shared orally. Storytelling was a popular form of evening entertainment. These folk tales were enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Their magical elements appealed to children, while their metaphorical life lessons resonated with adults.

In the 16th century, Italians like Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile started recording and publishing collections of folk tales. These stories featured classic fairy tale elements but were intended for adult readers. The gruesome violence and sexual references throughout showed they were not meant for children.

Literary Fairy Tales Emerge

In the 17th century, a new literary genre emerged – the literary fairy tale. These tales were original stories inspired by folklore rather than direct translations. Many French aristocratic women wrote fairy tales, often publishing them in handwritten manuscripts or reciting them in literary salons.

Madame d’Aulnoy coined the term “fairy tale” (conte de fée) when she published a collection of original stories in 1697. Other pioneering fairy tale authors included Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Henriette-Julie de Murat. Although they pulled ideas from traditional folklore, their fairy tales featured more refined language and were tailored for a sophisticated audience.

The Oral Tradition Continues

While literary fairy tales were developing, oral storytelling remained widespread among peasants and the lower classes. Nurses and servants told folk tales to the children in their care. The oral tales continued to incorporate magical elements but maintained a regional flair.

As society industrialized in the 18th and 19th centuries, rural communities began breaking down. There was a renewed interest in gathering and preserving oral folklore before it was lost. The Grimm Brothers took on this mission in Germany, painstakingly collecting tales from storytellers across the countryside.

When they published their first collection in 1812, they marketed it as a scholarly text. But the magical, imaginative stories also appealed to children. Subsequent editions softened some content to make the tales kid-friendly.

When Did Fairy Tales Become for Children?

The question of whether fairy tales were originally for adults depends somewhat on the time period. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the first literary fairy tales were intended for adult readers. The oral folk tales they were based on were shared across generations.

It was in the 19th century that fairy tales shifted more decisively into the children’s domain. Several forces influenced this transition:

The Invention of Childhood

Philosophers like Locke and Rousseau put forth the idea of childhood as a separate phase of innocence. There was an increased focus on instructing and protecting children. Fairy tales were seen as tools for moral education. Writers like Hans Christian Andersen tailored their tales toward a younger audience.

Puritanical Standards

As fairy tales migrated from oral to literary tradition, they were subject to puritanical standards. Sexual references were removed or romanticized into chaste kisses. Violent retribution was replaced with justice and happy endings. Tales took on a more didactic tone with explicit lessons attached.

Rise of Children’s Literature

Children previously had little literature targeted specifically toward them. The firstpicture books and primers appeared in the late 18th century. By the mid-19th century, a booming children’s publishing industry had emerged. Fairy tales were repackaged with colorful illustrations to appeal to young book-buyers.

Victorian Idealization of Childhood

The Victorians idealized childhood as a time of innocence. Fairy tales became sentimentalized as the fantastic childhood adventures middle-class children could dream about, but never experience. The stories were still filled with evocative imagery but cleansed for youthful minds.

So while fairy tales originally included both adult and child audiences, the late 19th century saw them co-opted specifically for children. The original adult themes fell away in favor of lighter children’s versions.

What Were Fairy Tales Like Before? Darker, More Bawdy, More Violent

Modern fairy tales have been sanitized and simplified into pleasant bedtime stories. But what were they like in their earlier forms meant for adult audiences? Fairy tales of the past were often…

Darker and More Violent

Folklore scholar Maria Tatar notes fairy tales originally abounded with “murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and incest.” For example, early versions of Snow White describe the queen demanding the huntsman return with Snow White’s liver and lungs so she can eat them.

Characters faced brutal punishments like being burned, blinded, scalped, dismembered, or sealed alive in a barrel full of nails. Violence was treated in a frivolous, playful tone rather than being scary. These details were later softened for kids.

Sexually Suggestive

Fairy tales frequently contained explicit sexual references or innuendos. Rapunzel’s prince impregnates her in the tower, leading to her exile. Sleeping Beauty is impregnated while asleep by the married King. Red Riding Hood escapes the bed of the cross-dressing wolf. Tales abounded with suggestive symbolism that was likely deleted or romanticized for young readers.

Full of Bawdy Humor

Earlier fairy tales often poked fun at taboo topics like sex, scatological functions, and societal class. Rumpelstiltskin wildly brags about his ability to “expel wind” for comic effect. Much of this humor is lost in today’s polite retellings. Roald Dahl was one modern writer who resurrected the tradition of irreverent fairy tale humor for comic effect.

Used as Social Commentary

The first fairy tales arose from French salon culture and contained veiled commentary on aristocratic life. Their fantastical format was a safer way to mock societal hypocrisy. Tales by women satirized gender relations and patriarchal institutions like marriage and primogeniture. Later tales used fantasy as social criticism of industrialization and the bourgeoisie.

Full of Moral Lessons

Earlier fairy tales always incorporated some type of moral or warning. Rather than tacking on an explicit lesson, it was woven into the plot. Characters faced consequences like death or mutilation for misdeeds – excessive vanity, curiosity, laziness, etc. Magic objects served to reward virtue. Fairy tales enforced community values through extreme didactic retribution.

So before becoming cozy bedtime tales, fairy stories commonly contained dark themes and morally instructive lessons within bawdy, irreverent humor. Their original provocative content is far cry from today’s family-friendly adaptations.

Do Darker Versions Still Have Value for Kids?

Given the grimmer content of traditional fairy tales, a question arises – do these darker versions still hold value for children today? Or are contemporary kid-friendly adaptations the best approach? There are merits to both perspectives:

Darkness Encourages Imagination and Coping

Children exist in a world of wild emotions and lurking dangers. Maurice Sendak believed scary or sad parts of fairy tales help kids conquer fears and work through anxieties via fantasy. Tales of monsters, violence, and death can help children cope through metaphor before confronting real world problems.

Darkness Teaches Resilience and Problem-Solving

Facing the trials of fairy tale heroes can build resilience and confidence. Kids see characters overcoming adversity through cleverness and determination. Tales rife with danger force children to think critically about how to avoid threats or undo damage through quick wits.

Darkness Provides a Moral Education

Original tales provide strong moral lessons through visceral examples. Characters swiftly suffer cruel consequences for acting unwisely, selfishly, or maliciously. These stories communicate values of charity, kindness, and humility in memorable ways that stick with children.

But Some Content is Too Disturbing for Kids

However, some fairy tale content is excessively gory or horrifying for children. There are creative ways to build nerve and teach lessons without exposing kids to disturbing content at young ages. Complete sanitization is not necessary, but curating age-appropriate adaptations has value.

Kids Still Require Protection and Comfort

Childhood remains a special time of innocence that should be preserved. While fairy tales can address fears, harsh original details overwhelm childlike sensibilities. Kids deserve to keep their sense of magic and wonder intact. Happy endings, justice, and comfort remain essential.

Parental Guidance is Key

Rather than eliminating darker themes altogether, parents can guide children through challenging material. With support, scary tales become manageable. Open discussion builds critical thinking skills to process stories. Monitoring content is preferable to heavhanded censorship and allows kids to gradually handle more.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides. Fairy tales certainly need not be all sweetness and light. But a balance is ideal to both nurture imagination and avoid overburdening youthful psyches. Parents can work with children to thoughtfully curate collections that stimulate and stretch them appropriately.

Do Adults Have Anything to Gain from Fairy Tales?

While fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery, many argue they still hold substantial value for adult audiences:

They Are Culturally Important

Fairy tales offer a glimpse into cultural history and mythology. They provide insight on how past societies made sense of the world and communicated beliefs. Being familiar with classic stories confers cultural literacy. Knowing origins enriches modern pop culture references.

They Reveal Archetypes and Symbols

Fairy tales operate as metaphors that act on the subconscious. They contain archetypal characters and symbols representing mental struggles and growth. Jungian analysts study tales for insights into relationships, personality integration, and the human condition.

They Are Playful Wish Fulfillment

The fanciful nature of fairy tales allows for escapism and wish fulfillment. Imagining magical worlds and justice being served satisfies desires and alleviates anxieties. As G.K. Chesterton noted, believing in impossible things exercises mental flexibility and creativity.

They Provide Moral Commentary

While less violent today, fairy tales still function to communicate moral truths. The metaphors make these life lessons more palatable than dogmatic lecturing. Fairy tales convey that integrity, humility, and perseverance are rewarded in lasting ways.

They Are Sophisticated Literature

Modern tales by authors like Angela Carter are complex, genre-crossing works of fiction. They strategically employ fairy tale elements while critiquing conventions and addressing adult themes. Their playful construction challenges readers.

So while adults may pass fairy tales on to children, they remain dynamic, culturally rich stories with wisdom to unpack. Passing them off as silly or insignificant underestimates their lingering importance, depth, and artistry.


Fairy tales have evolved substantially over centuries of retelling. While modern versions cater to children as comforting bedtime stories, the original tales were unflinching accounts aimed at adult audiences. Understanding their more bawdy, violent history reveals much about human beliefs and cultural values across time. Fairy tales remain deeply ingrained in society, but their flexibility illustrates the timeless way fantasy helps both kids and adults interpret the world around them. Ultimately, good storytelling provides meaning to listeners of all ages. Although fairy tales have changed, at their core remains their power to spark imagination, impart wisdom, and reveal the truths of the human spirit.

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