Searching for Once Upon a Time

on June 12, 2009

It always seem to be assumed that fairy tales are attached to no particular time and place — that they exist in an ideal land of make-believe that was invented for story purposes and never actually existed.

In fact, when I took a folklore course in college, the professor rather severely informed us that most fairy tales were written only a few hundred years ago, so they could not possibly retain any actual ancient elements.

I found that disappointing — but I also eventually found it unconvincing.

A story like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” after all, seems to have very little to do with the late medieval / early modern world of chivalry and tournaments, of grand cathedrals and fanatical witch-hunters, of feudal loyalties and dynastic marriages, of royal bureaucracies and emerging nation-states, of printing presses and merchant bankers.

Instead, they appear to reflect an older and simpler organization of society — and they do so far too consistently to be the result of mere happenstance.

For example, there’s the multitude of independent petty kingdoms with which the fairy tale landscape seems to be littered, along with the extended stretches of savage wilderness which separate them. That’s not at all medieval — but it does seem to be the way things worked back when kingdoms were first invented.

I remember reading some years ago about a certain area — Indonesia perhaps? — where until recently there was just such a multitude of small kingdoms, each one consisting of a royal city together with as much surrounding territory as the king could assert his rule over. Powerful kings commanded a wide area beyond their own gates — weaker kings not so much. And the wild borderlands between kingdoms, the woods and mountains where no king’s authority held sway, were the province of savage beasts and outlaws and other dubious personages.

Another traditional fairy-tale element that matches up with the way things really were in the distant past is the recurring situation where a king promises that if the hero fulfills some quest or other he will receive the princess’s hand and half the kingdom — and will rule the entire kingdom after the old king dies.

The usual explanation offered by the teller of the tale is that the king has no son of his own and is looking for a male heir. But the pattern seems far more reminiscent of an actual ancient custom in which sovereignty was passed down through the female line, and when a king died he was succeeded not by his own son but by the husband of the queen’s daughter.

(This, by the way, is why Egyptian pharaohs often married their sisters — it was the only way for a king’s son with ambition to become king himself.)

A third element in fairy tales that appears genuinely ancient is the general cultural and technological level — tidy little peasant villages, looms and spinning-wheels, butter-churns and cheese-making. All of this speaks of a period of time following the so-called secondary products revolution of c. 4500 BC, and probably also after the widespread use of metal began about 3500 or 3000 BC, but before peasants villages became subordinated to the authority of local noblemen, which might have happened around 2000 or 1500 BC.

And finally there’s the cosmology. Fairy tales are set on a flat earth, since heroes occasionally journey to the ends of it. There’s a sky-realm above, which might be reached by climbing a beanstalk, and an underworld full of treasure. In other words, we’re looking at the same cosmology as in the myths of the earliest civilizations, which might have been constructed about 4500 BC and was already altering and becoming more complex by 2500 BC.

These dates are all very rough, but taken together, they suggest that fairy-tales reflect a very definite cultural era — say between about 3500 and 2500 BC, give or take 500 years at either end.

This is the period that climaxed in the Middle East and China and elsewhere with the emergence of the great historical civilizations — but there are increasing indications that it should not be considered as mere prelude. It was a time of significant cultural and technological advances in its own right, and one in which reasonably sophisticated cultures were fairly widespread and not merely confined to a few select river-valleys.

And it might also have been a time when, although marked distinctions of wealth and power were already becoming evident, they were not set in stone as they would later become — so that it was still possible for a poor peasant boy to do great deeds and win the hand of a princess and half a kingdom.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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