Once upon a time . . . ” is a phrase that we all probably recognize from the fairy tales that we heard as children. The stories that we call fairy tales occur in many cultures around the world, and often the same basic tale can be found in several cultures. The Jataka Tales, which were popular Indian stories taken from Buddhist writings, teach lessons about kindness using animals as characters. Their theme is good versus evil. The same theme underlies the story of Cinderella. Her fairy godmother represents good, and the wicked stepmother and stepsisters represent evil. In a Chinese version of this tale, a talking golden fish and (after the fish is killed) its bones play the fairy godmother’s role. However, the lost slipper (golden in the Chinese version), the prince, and the wedding are all in the story.
In a Scottish version, the young girl is helped by her dead mother, who appears first as a red calf. More than 500 versions of the Cinderella story have been found in Europe alone. Another worldwide theme of tales is that of the sleeper and the awakening. In some stories a wicked witch or fairy puts a curse or spell on someone, who sleeps until awakened by a person of good will. We find this theme in the story of Sleeping Beauty. In other stories, a person sleeps for many years and awakes to find the world has greatly changed. A version of this theme occurs in the American story of Rip van Winkle, which was written by Washington Irving.
A third universal theme is that of magical transformation. Often this is brought about by love, as Sleeping Beauty also illustrates. The story of Beauty and the Beast tells of a kind but ugly beast who is transformed into a handsome youth by the love of a young woman. In a Kaffir story from southern Africa, the beast is a crocodile. Scholars see fairy tales as a way in which societies instruct and remind children of wise codes of conduct. In so doing, the tales provide vivid examples of different kinds of human character. At the same time they communicate eternal human concerns, dreams, and experiences-the triumph of good, the power of nature, and the chance of success for even the most unlikely people.