Have you noticed that fairy tales aren’t really about fairies? J.R.R. Tolkien points this out in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Fairy tales, he says, are really about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” This realm “contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” If we examine the fairy tales we are most familiar with, we can see that fairies exist at their periphery; as in “Sleeping Beauty,” they are there to bless or curse. This makes sense if we consider the ancient etymology of the word fairy. In From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner traces the word back to fata, a feminine form of the Latin fatum, meaning fate.
In fairy tales, fairies function like Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the Fates of Greek mythology: They dole out good and bad fortune. The good fairies in Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” or “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” give the princess gifts that will turn her into a perfect young lady, at least by the standards of the court of Louis XIV, where Perrault worked as a government bureaucrat. These gifts include beauty, grace, and good temper, as well as the ability to sing, dance, and play musical instruments. The wicked fairy, incensed because she has not been invited to the christening, curses her to die on her sixteenth birthday—like Atropos, she decrees the manner and time of the princess’s death. This sentence can only be mitigated by the spell of yet another fairy, who changes death to sleep and promises that someday a prince will come to rescue the enchanted princess.
Fairies diminished in both size and importance over the centuries. By the end of the Victorian era, they were relegated to fluttering on insect wings and living in flowers. They became charming but powerless representatives of a natural world that was disappearing because of industrialization. But we can trace the flower fairies of the 19th century back to this ancient heritage. It is no coincidence that the fairy godmother in the Shrek animated film series is called Dama Fortuna: The script writers clearly did their research. Fairies create both fortune and misfortune above all by giving gifts. In “Sleeping Beauty,” these gifts seem gratuitous—the princess has done nothing special other than being born. In a sense, Perrault’s fairy tale was the starkest social realism: Princesses do indeed receive gifts that common folk have to work for.
But the rest of us must earn our fairy gifts. In her essay “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula Le Guin discusses the situational morality of fairy tales. Sometimes pushing an old woman into an oven is the right thing to do, at least if she’s trying to eat your brother. There is no moral principle that is always correct in the world of fairy tales except one, that you must earn the help and gratitude of animals. While I believe Le Guin is right, there is a larger principle at work here: the importance of generosity toward the denizens of Faerie, animals included. If you are generous, you will be rewarded—abundantly. If you are reluctant or parsimonious, you will certainly be punished. That is the real magic of fairy gifts.
Cinderella is unfailingly generous toward her stepsisters. In the Perrault version, she is rewarded by her fairy godmother with the magical implements that help her get to the ball, including the famous glass slippers. In the darker version told by the Brothers Grimm, there are no glass slippers, pumpkin carriage, or lizard footmen—indeed, there is no fairy, since the Grimms believed that fairies were too French. They excised fairies wherever they could, including in “Briar Rose,” where the gift-giving fairies become wise women. In their version of “Cinderella,” Aschenputtel is given her dress by magical birds—the same birds that peck out her stepsisters’ eyes to punish them for mistreating the girl in the ashes.
This structure of reward and punishment appears most clearly in the Grimms’ “Frau Holle,” which belongs to the “kind and unkind girl” category of fairy tales. You are probably familiar with the most famous example, “Diamonds and Toads.” Who can forget that one girl is rewarded with flowers and diamonds falling out of her mouth when she speaks while the other is cursed with toads and snakes? Most versions of this tale are not quite so visceral. In “Frau Holle,” a widow has two daughters, one industrious and the other lazy. She loves the lazy one, so the industrious one does all the work around the house. One day, as the girl is fetching water from the well, she falls in and comes to a beautiful country. As she walks along, she sees an oven full of bread. The bread asks her to take it out, since it’s about to burn. Of course she obliges. Then she comes to an apple tree, which asks her to shake it since all the apples are ripe. Once again, she obeys. Finally she comes to a cottage, where an old woman asks her to do the housework, particularly shaking out the old woman’s feather bed, which makes it snow in the world.
The girl does the housework well and willingly. But she becomes homesick, so the old woman says that she will take the girl home and leads her through a gate. While the girl is standing underneath it, gold rains down on her, sticking to her so she is completely covered. She brings the gold home, and her mother is delighted.
Of course, her mother wants the same reward for the lazy girl and tells her to jump down the well. But unlike her sister, this girl does not take the bread from the oven or shake the apples from the tree. At Frau Holle’s house, she is initially industrious because she wants the golden reward, but by the third morning she sleeps late and forgets to shake out the feather bed. Frau Holle dismisses her, and when she walks under the gate on her way home, a kettle of pitch spills over her. She is covered with pitch for the rest of her life, which is a better fate than spouting toads and snakes, but still an unpleasant punishment. In this version, the bread and apples don’t help the kind girl directly, but in other fairy tales, kind actions result in more direct help—birds give advice, trees and hedges hide the fleeing girl, dogs bite or bees sting the pursuing witch. Although the Grimms turned fairies into wise women or witches, in French fairy tales it is usually a fairy disguised as an old woman who dispenses rewards and punishments, as in Perrault’s “The Fairies,” or “Les Fées”—the tale usually translated into English as “Diamonds and Toads.”
This type of tale is found all over the world. In the 1950s, the folklorist Warren Everett Roberts documented more than 900 variants of the “kind and unkind girl” story. But its basic principle is even more widespread. In Faerie, if you help when asked and share what you have, you will eventually be rewarded. Generosity is a kind of magical power—it begets more generosity. If you want to be wealthy, be generous.
You might think that of course kind actions are rewarded in fairy tales. Aren’t they supposed to teach children morals? But fairy tales did not become children’s stories until the 18th century, when Madame de Beaumont, who worked as a governess, wrote “Beauty and the Beast” specifically for an audience of children. Folk fairy tales documented the realities of peasant life—“Hansel and Gretel” reflects the very real famines of medieval Europe. So where did that particular moral come from? Like so much in fairy tales, it embodies ancient belief and custom. Unlike our modern world, Faerie operates on a gift economy.
Long before our current economic systems were invented, long before money itself, human beings developed an economy based on reciprocal gift-giving. If I gave you my ax, you would be expected to do something for me—perhaps chop my wood. “Why should I chop your wood?” you might ask. “We didn’t sign a contract or agree on payment for your ax, and anyway lawyers won’t be invented for thousands of years.” But your obligation to chop my wood or return my gift in some way would be enforced by something deeper and stronger than law. If you became known in our village as someone who took without giving back, you would lose both trust and status. You would be known as a person who did not reciprocate, and the next time you needed an ax, no one would help you. You would have lost your place in the gift economy. The person with the highest status was the one who gave the most gifts. The chief of our village or tribe would be the greatest gift giver. We can still see this in ancient epics like Beowulf, in which Hrothgar is praised as a giver of gifts. Hrothgar’s gifts to Beowulf for killing Grendel, which include armor, a sword, and a battle flag, may seem distant from Frau Holle showering the kind girl with gold, but they operate on the same principle.
The rise of industrialization replaced the gift economy with a modern capitalist system, but it persists on ceremonial occasions. We still exchange gifts on certain holidays, and diplomats bring gifts when visiting other countries as a symbol of their alliance. Although gifts have largely lost their ancient meaning, we still feel an obligation to give a gift if we have received one. This is the logic of Faerie: You will receive abundantly if you give—of your time, labor, attention, or loyalty. Of course, fairy tales always teach a double lesson. You should not allow anyone to exploit your generosity either. In fairy tales, the industrious girl who is not valued—Cinderella, Ashenputtel, Vasilisa—is the one who gets the prince, while those who did not value her, who did not reciprocate the gift of her labor, are punished.
“Vasilisa the Fair” is an excellent example of the fairy-ta “Vasilisa the Fair” is an excellent example of the fairy-tale gift economy. The story is structured by a series of gifts. Vasilisa’s mother gives her a doll and tells her to take care of it; if she does, the doll will take care of her. Like the fairies’ blessings in “Sleeping Beauty,” this initial gift is one that Vasilisa doesn’t have to earn—a mother’s gifts are generally free. Vasilisa gives the doll food, going hungry herself so the doll is well fed. In return, the doll does the housework for her. When her stepmother sends Vasilisa to Baba Yaga’s hut for light, her doll does the housework assigned by the fearsome old woman. In return, Baba Yaga gives her a lighted skull, which burns her stepmother and stepsisters to a crisp. Left alone in the world, Vasilisa lodges with an old woman in her village. To pass the time, she spins and weaves some flax and gives the linen to the old woman, telling her to sell it in payment for Vasilisa’s room and board. This is the first time money has been mentioned in the story—so far, everything has operated through gift exchange. The doll, the food, the labor, the light, and the cloth have all been given without mentioning financial compensation. Instead of selling the linen, the old woman takes it to the tsar and offers it as a gift. He is so impressed with its fine quality that he wants shirts made of it but can’t find a seamstress skilled enough. Finally, Vasilisa herself sews him the shirts. He insists on meeting her and is so struck by her beauty that he immediately makes her his wife. The story ends with the statement that, after their wedding, Vasilisa invited the old woman to live in the tsar’s palace and kept the doll for the rest of her life. She rewards their help by taking care of them, like one of the good fairies.
We do not live in Faerie, or even in a gift economy, except perhaps on our birthdays. So what can we take away from this ancient lesson? In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Louis Hyde argues that “the gifts in fairy tales may, at one level, refer to real property, but at another they are images in the psyche and their story describes for us a spiritual or psychological commerce.” In our world, generosity is not always rewarded, at least financially. Hard work does not always result in a promotion, much less being showered with gold. However, on a metaphorical level, the logic of Faerie still operates. Kindness, industriousness, and generosity lead to a wealth of the spirit that often seems to be missing in the lives of the merely rich. Perhaps this is the fairies’ true gift, which they give abundantly to stepdaughters, youngest sons, and all those who have to work for their fortunes. We are all given certain gifts at birth. As Hyde points out, talent of any sort is a gift we can work to perfect but cannot buy. These are like the gifts given to Sleeping Beauty. But if we are to succeed in life, we must be like the kind girl in the fairy tale, or Vasilisa in Baba Yaga’s hut: clever, hardworking, and generous. Then, hopefully, the fairies or Fates will smile on us.