Some stories age better than others. Especially when we’re talking about folk tales. Most European folktales were written down by mostly men between the 1600s and 1900s. The tales they recorded had been passed down through generations through oral storytelling, and often by women who had heard the stories from their mothers or grandmothers, and so on. We assume these famous folklorists wrote down the stories as true to the oral tellings as possible, for they often published their findings. If the tales they published had been vastly different from the popular stories, there would probably be a record of that.
We’re talking about the Grimm brothers from Germany, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe from Norway, Jón Árnason and Magnús Grímsson of Iceland, and others in their respective countries. Without their dedication to collecting and recording the stories, we may have lost classics such as the adventures of Ash Lad, stories of Elves, Rumpelstiltskin, and many more. Without the folklore collectors, we might not know how much we have in common between cultures by the similar motifs in our stories.
Having said that, not all of the stories that have been preserved have relevance to us today. In fact, I think there are a number of tropes that we can trash altogether, and they are as follows:
Blaming the Witch
The witch often takes the blame in folktales. If a monarch makes a bad decision, it’s because a witch counseled him to do so. We know now that the vast majority of women who were accused and executed for being witches were completely innocent of anything except perhaps annoying someone powerful, living to be an old age as a widow, or not getting married at all. Listen to the stories of Anges Sampson, Isobel Gowdie, and Marion Walker of Scotland for a taste of how awful the witch trials were. (Shoutout to the fabulous “Generally Spooky” podcast on mysterious Scottish History)
The obsession with women’s purity permeates our world today, more so in some cultures and religions than others. I firmly believe that the trope of sacrificing a virgin to achieve anything should be completely removed from stories, old and new. It’s a ridiculous concept that underestimates women, and never works anyway!
I get it, when folktales were the most popular, our societal norms looked very different. However, if we’re going to hang on to the classics, they need some serious updating. The best refreshing takes on old stories are when women are given more central roles in the events. I’ve read many different versions of Ash Lad tales. The older ones usually feature a King that promises the hand of his daughter to the hero of the story along with half the kingdom. Some retellings also keep this trope in place. I’m not sure why, because I think the better retellings are the ones that make the Princess a dynamic character, and sometimes the heroine herself. It’s 2022 and if women can’t hold onto our equality and freedoms in real life, we should at least be able to claim them in our stories!
More to come…
Those are the top three tropes I would like to throw away from folk tales. I’m sure I’ll have more to share in the future. What about you? What common theme do you see in old or contemporary stories that you wish would disappear? Comment below with your vote.