European Fairy Tales from the Renaissance to the Late Victorian Era

The Child of the Fairy Tale

by Mehrdad F. Samadzadeh (Author)
©2020 Monographs 290 Pages


This book explores the interplay of childhood and the fairy tale as they both changed character in accordance with the historical transformations of the mid-nineteenth century. While the fairy tale was instrumental in the social construction of childhood, the latter for its part played an equally crucial role in altering the narrative structure of the fairy tale. So viewed, the story of childhood is closely intertwined with the fairy tale, and both with modernity as it changed its focus with the changing direction of the civilizing process. The liberating potential of modernity emerges when a broad spectrum of the marginalized, including children, begin to assert themselves and gain recognition as independent subjects of historical inquiry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Child as a Historical Subject
  • 2 From Folk Tales to Fairy Tales
  • 3 The Changing Character of Fairy Tales from Straparola to Perrault
  • 4 The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and the Political Socialization of Children in the Age of Nationalism
  • 5 The Escape from Innocence: Contradictions of Modern Childhood
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The writing of this book was a long journey which would not have been possible without the support of a number of committed individuals. First and foremost, I would like to express my special gratitude to Professor David Levine for his invaluable scholarly inputs and constant encouragement. I am also grateful to Professor. Madhavan K. Palat, formerly of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the present editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Professor Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Research Professor in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University State, New York. Both kindly read an earlier draft of this book and offered invaluable critical comments and insightful suggestions. Professor Jack Zipes provided expert advice and kindly made available some of his own materials. I am also grateful to Professor Emeritus Dieter Misgeld and Professor Harold Troper for their valuable critical comments. I would also like to express my gratitude to my friend Dr. Hormoz Khakpour who helped with the editorial part of this book.

Finally, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to all members of my family, my wife Soheila Nikzadeh, my son Mehrtash Samadzadeh and his wife Noran Fishir, my daughter Mahsa Samadzadeh, and my step-daughter Pegah Kavianpour, who all inspired and encouraged me in every step of the way throughout this long journey.


As a child listening to my father’s wonder tales by the fireside on cold winter nights, I was fascinated by their magical and supernatural features which had no boundaries. I always wondered what these features, so integral to the tales, signified and what the moral of the stories was. I was particularly interested in getting into the mind of the female protagonist in the story of “A Girl Who Renounced the World”, whose character and personality intrigued me greatly. She was a young beauty who chose a reclusive life and was determined not to ever marry. Yet, being a warrior, she was very much engaged with her surrounding world and in constant dialogue with men, whom she despised. But contrary to her intention, she fell in love with a prince, whom she encountered in a combat, and with whom she ultimately unites in marriage. The captivating female warrior had to cast aside her sword in favour erotic love.

There were dozens of other tales with intriguing plots which I still remember, but I could not make sense of them at the time, and when I asked my father what these stories could possibly meant, his answer was always moralistic: “If you be good and do well in school, you, too, will be a prince”. He was right. This was in the second half of the twentieth century when education still had a magical effect not only as a means of upward social mobility, but as an empowering experience, firmly entrenched in social and political awareness.

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But years later as an adult and a student of the Humanities, I began to read more into my childhood tales than what they outwardly revealed. They seemed like real historical events that had happened in the past and would also happen in the future, though never in the same fashion. Each character was the representative of a particular class or ideological current and the tales themselves carried the imprints of the historical period in which they were written. This is true of all tale types, including fairy tales which can be read not just as pleasant bed-time stories, but as an important source of historical inquiry.

The present book is an endeavour in the above direction, with a view to demonstrating the nature of the relationship between childhood and the fairy in the period from the Renaissance to the late Victorian era. While the fairy tale as a new literary/secular genre was instrumental in advancing the modern concept of childhood, the latter on its part played an equally crucial role in altering the narrative structure of the tales. Their interaction was subjected to the historical mutations of the period that gave birth to two opposing cultural and ideological currents: one that was embodied in an oppressive view of childhood and the other that endowed it with a liberating potential.

Viewed from this perspective, the story of childhood is closely intertwined with the fairy tale, and both with modernity as it changed its focus with the changing direction of the modern Western civilization. Thus, in the period from the late seventeenth century to mid-nineteenth century both childhood and the fairy tale were used by the power elite as instruments of social control targeting not only children, but also women, the underclass, the social outcast, and the colonized as they all were deemed “incompletely human”. From mid-nineteenth century on, however, childhood began to evince a liberating potential in tandem with the changing direction of the civilizing process.

This ushered in an alternative concept of childhood inspired by the shared characteristics between the medieval and modern child that finds expression in the works of distinguished literary figures of the Victorian era. What then followed was an entire movement towards the recognition of children’s rights and status that set the context for the growing interest in childhood as a subject of historical inquiry in the twentieth century.


The fairy tale and childhood are both independent subjects of historical inquiry that came into their own in the course of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, respectively. Whereas the fairy tale was established with the Brothers Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales (1856),* childhood was academically recognized mostly with the publication of Philippe Ariès’ provocative book, Centuries of Childhood (1962). Ever since, numerous studies have appeared on the two subjects, ranging from psychoanalytical to historical.

What is not fully explored, however, is the interplay of childhood and the fairy tale in a manner both consistent with and opposed to the imperatives of modern discipline. This is evident in the changing concepts of childhood in the Western society in different phases of modernity. While until the late nineteenth century the literary construction of childhood for the most part reflected a repressive culture and ideology subservient to the power elite**, thereafter it acquired a ←1 | 2→liberating potential to redeem not only children but also women, the underclass, the unlettered, and the colonized, just as it had earlier been used as a discourse of domination against the same categories of people. It is at this historical juncture that the medieval and modern concepts of childhood are juxtaposed to present an alternative philosophical view of humanity in keeping with the emancipatory message of modernity.

These are the themes I intend to pursue in this book. In doing so, I choose Norbert Elias’ seminal work The Civilizing Process as my theoretical framework. The choice has to do with the overarching nature of his socio-historical approach, which provides a comprehensive account of the epochal changes in Modern Europe. Childhood is a cultural manifestation of these changes that was emblematic of diverse forms of social differentiation. Neither the Marxian theory of class nor the Weberian notion of power is adequately equipped to explicate the manner in which childhood came to be associated with the culture of the socially marginalized groups, who, like children, were placed under surveillance. For beyond class and status, there was always the subtlety of intellectual rigour and cultural refinement that gave currency to the superiority of a select few over the rest of society. Although Elias does not directly address the issues of childhood and its metaphorical use against the oppressed, he nevertheless provides us with a perspective to explore them. Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood is the logical conclusion of Elias’ main argument, in that he links childhood with modern discipline. It provides a theoretical perspective to explore the social construction of childhood in the initial phase of modernity. But as we begin to enter the later phase, Ariès’ explication of childhood as the by-product of modern discipline ceases to be of relevance, thus compelling us to explore the existing literature of the period.

This book consists of five chapters that cover a wide variety of related themes. Chapter 1 provides a background to the understanding of childhood as a historical subject. It begins with a secular initiative in historiography which was part of the recognition of human agency in history. It brought to the fore a broad spectrum of socially marginalized groups to demand representation. Within this general context, the notion of the child as both the subject and agent of history ←2 | 3→gained currency. Though by no means a unified group in socio-economic terms, children share features and aspirations such as the tendency to break free of social barriers, which characterize them as conceptually unique. At the same time, viewing children as historical subjects opens the path to the recognition within each adult of the repressed child striving to redeem itself. Here, I introduce a particular level of historical agency associated with childhood which is hidden or unconscious, and therefore in need of being unveiled. This chapter is primarily based on the views of other scholars and thinkers on the subject, which together help us to arrive at an understanding of childhood agency.

In Chapter 2, I explore some of the major events in modern European history in order to provide a historical background to the emergence of the fairy tale as a new literary genre. Paramount among these events are: the formation of absolutist states leading to the future nation-state, the expansion of trade routes and money economy, the civilizing process, the invention of the printing press, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and a new scientific and anthropocentric worldview. These processes irreversibly set apart the modern from both the medieval and ancient worlds. The separation is marked by a disruption in the affinity between humankind and the animal kingdom, in the mixing of ages, and in the interplay of the elite and popular cultures, which had been characteristic of pre-modern societies. A new social elite with its predominantly print culture increasingly superseded oral culture. Hence, fairy tales became the literary expression of the changing world that not only echoed the will of an aspiring middle class, but helped disseminate its moral and cultural values in an indirect and yet powerful manner. What is more, they also acted as a medium of socialization, especially as their authors appealed to both parents and children as their target audience.

Chapter 3 examines the emergence of fairy tales as a literary genre as well as the manner in which they change character over time. The focus is on the distinctly secular aspect of the genre in its historical trajectory as the narrative structure of the tales shifts from one secular issue to another. I begin with the Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (ca 1480–1558?), author of La Piacevoli Notti (The Pleasant Nights), arguably the pioneer of modern fairy tales. His tales were markedly different from any previously written fables or folk tales, in that they conveyed the prospect of a better life for an aspiring middle class. Such a prospect would have been inconceivable in the pre-modern world where social status and prerogatives were inseparably interlaced. Characteristically, Straparola’s rags-to-riches stories carry the imprint of a new era of commerce and industry that signalled the erosion of old privileges, while at the same time giving rise to new opportunities and new paths of social upliftment.

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This secular aspect permeates the works of later authors who address the most urgent issues of their time. The fairy tales and Contes de fée of Madame d’Aulnoy (1650/1651–1705), a dissident French aristocrat, bear witness to this continuity. Central to her stories was the emphasis on social reform, perceived primarily from a proto-feminist perspective. This was the time when culture became an essential aspect of upward social mobility with male and female authors vying with one other to determine its trajectory. Here, upward social mobility was licenced through civility and virtue as they became ever more important attributes and a mark of noble status.

Although the effect of these socio-cultural variables was limited by class and gender, given the elite/male dominance over the civilizing process, Aulnoy’s fairy tales still had a significant impact. What she achieved was to propagate a new concept of female power and nobility based on virtue and civility, respectively. This was her weapon of choice against the patriarchal system which she used to exercise her influence as a female writer over the course of the civilizing process. Hence, in almost all of Aulnoy’s stories, male characters appearing as poor fellows or accompanying animals but courteous to women ultimately emerge as real princes. By the same token, the female protagonists who appear to be virtuous, moralistic, and kind-hearted turn out to be displaced or bewitched princesses. Charles Perrault’s faity tales, though equally embedded with civility, had different agenda. They were, first and foremost, geared toward the reversal of the female power and the establishment of a modern patriarchal system. This is the time when fairy tales became identified with children, as they were used by Perrault as a grand socializing scheme for the creation of obedient subjects. This is also the time when the modern concept of childhood began to emerge in the Western world.

Chapter 4 begins with an overview of German history in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, which intends to provide a historical background to the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers. In Germany, the quest for cultural identity and national unity brought together diverse social groups and classes around a commonly shared language, thus setting the tone for the multi-class character of German nationalism. Here, language represented a common cultural patrimony as the most distinctive feature of nationhood that encompassed all those living within its linguistic and geographical boundaries.

Hence, the notion of an authentic German national identity, culture, and ideology, all perceived as pure and natural, blossomed with the image of the child firmly lodged in the popular imagination. The child became the primordial example of an imagined nation and the microcosm of a real one aspiring to excel in its cultural and moral endeavours. All this set the context for a Romantic concept of ←4 | 5→childhood that was neither the exclusive by-product of a myth of national origin nor limited in its scope and application to a specific age group. Yet, childhood, though seemingly a virtuous and much valued concept, served a repressive culture and ideology that excluded all those whose eccentric behaviour or distinct identity would divest the nation of its cultural purity, or children of their childlike qualities. The latter were placed under surveillance as the image of the innocent child gained currency, an image that had to be preserved through a strict medium of socialization.

In Chapter 5, I explore an alternative view of childhood that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and challenged its projected image by a predominantly adult/male elite. This is where the liberating potential of modernity begins to assert itself at different levels. I demonstrate this by analysing selected works by such literary figures as Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and Hans Christian Anderson, who in varying degrees depart from the Romantic notion of childhood. Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield offers a distinctly novel concept of childhood. It is a significantly enlarged concept that presents a mixture of the medieval and modern view of childhood. Dickens’ child of fiction is a labouring child with middle-class aspirations, who shares the adult qualities of the medieval child as well as the childlike characteristic of the modern child. It is also a child hero who in his struggle to break free of the repressive world of adults is entrusted with the task of redeeming women, the underclass, and the socially marginalized.

Next is an interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from historical and philosophical perspectives. It is a turning point in the history of childhood as it marks a significant break with the Romantic image of the child. The break is manifested in Alice’s personal attitudes towards the anomaly of Wonderland and the orderly structure of the real world she descends from, both of which immensely shape her perception of herself as a child. This takes the form of a new adult-child economy that on the one hand recognizes the adult qualities in a child, and on the other instils childlike characteristics in adults. Alice is the personification of this phenomenon in Carroll’s imagination; she not only mediates between the medieval and modern concepts of childhood, but also by virtue of being a female redeems women and ultimately humanity.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 290 pp., 16 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Mehrdad F. Samadzadeh (Author)

Mehrdad F. Samadzadeh earned his Ph.D. in European social history from the University of Toronto. He earned a M. Phil. in modern Iranian history from Jawahar Lal Nehru University New Delhi and an M.A. in modern Indian history from Jawahar Lal Nehru University.


Title: European Fairy Tales from the Renaissance to the Late Victorian Era