People in every culture tell fairy tales, but the same stories often take different forms in different parts of the world. In the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” familiar to European children, a little girl encounters a wolf on her way to visit her grandmother and tells the wolf where she is going. The wolf ran to the front, ate Grandma, and then lay down on the bed in Grandma’s clothes and waited for Little Red Riding Hood to arrive. You probably know the story, but which version is it? In some versions, the wolf ate Grandma; in others, the wolf locked her in the closet. In some stories, Little Red Riding Hood defeated the wolf alone; in others, a hunter or lumberjack heard her cry and came to the rescue.
The universal appeal of these fairy tales is often attributed to the cautionary message they contain, in the case of Little Red Riding Hood, of listening to your mother and not talking to strangers. “We may find this story interesting because it contains information about survival,” says Jamie Traney, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK. There are huge gaps, even though we know the genre is very old.” But that hasn’t stopped anthropologists, folklorists, and other scholars from constructing theories to explain the importance of fairy tales in human society. Now, borrowing the methods of evolutionary biologists, Trani has found a way to test whether these ideas are true.
The evolution of elements in fairy tales
In order to understand the evolutionary history, development history and interrelationships of biological groups, biologists use a method called “phylogenetic analysis” to compare species characteristics. Trani used the same approach to compare related versions of fairy tales, asking how they evolved and which elements survived the longest.
Trani’s analysis focuses on several versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” including another Western tale, “The Wolf and the Child.” After retrieving these two stories and variants of similar stories in Africa, East Asia and elsewhere, he eventually recorded 58 stories from oral traditions. Once phylogenetic analysis confirmed that they were indeed related, he used the same method to explore how they developed and changed over time.
First, he tested some hypotheses about which aspects of the story changed the least over the course of its evolution (indicating their importance). Folklorists believe that the plot is more central to the story than the characters. That is, visiting relatives and accidentally encountering terrifying animals in disguise is more important than whether the visitor is a little girl or three siblings, or whether the animal is a lion rather than a wolf.
Trani, however, found that the pace of evolution of events didn’t make much of a difference compared to the characters. “Because certain plots are critical to the story, they are very stable, but there are many other details that can evolve quite freely,” he said. Nor does his analysis support the theory that the core parts of the story are the ones that survive the most. He found that there was no significant difference in event flexibility in this section compared to the beginning or the end.
fairy tales contain the philosophy of survival
But when he was working on the cautionary elements of the story, the truly startling happened. “Studies of hunter-gatherer folktales show that these narratives contain important information about the environment and where dangers may be present, or matters of survival,” he said. So what is it that is so important that it keeps reappearing from generation to generation?
The answer seems to be fear, that bloodthirsty and scary parts of the story (such as grandma being eaten by wolves) are the best preserved of all. Why have these details survived from generation to generation of storytellers while other characteristics of the story did not? Trani argues: “In oral situations, a story doesn’t survive because of a great teller. When it’s told by a teller who isn’t necessarily great, it has to be interesting.” The plot of a wolf swallowing it whole and coming out alive with its stomach open is so gripping that it stays popular no matter how bad the narration is.
Jack Rapps of the University of Minnesota disagrees with Traney’s views on fairy tales. “Even if the episodes are horrific, they’re not going to stay unless they really matter.” He argues that the recurring theme of women as victims in stories like Little Red Riding Hood explains why they feel related to oneself. But Trani points out that while this is often true in Western stories, it is not always the case elsewhere. In the version commonly known as “Grandma Tiger” in China and Japan, the villain is a woman. In the Iranian and Nigerian versions, the victim was a boy.
Mathias Klassen of Aarhus University in Denmark was not surprised by Trani’s findings. “Habits and morals change, but the things that frighten us and the fact that we seek entertainment designed to frighten us are eternal,” he said. According to Classen, horror stories strengthen our resistance to negative emotions by allowing us to experience fear without experiencing real danger.