1 Chapter 1: Why Study Literature? Why Fairy Tales and Folk Tales?

WHY focus on fairy takes and folk tales?

The widely respected writer C. S. Lewis (author of The Narnia Chronicles), gives us a clue:

Key Takeaways

Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

Are you old enough yet? We’re going to find out in this course.


We need a common language to discuss literature as a discipline. So before you read any farther, watch the following three videos:


Source: “How and Why We Read.” YouTube, uploaded by Crash Course in English Literature, 15 Nov. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSYw502dJNY&t=14s.



Source: “Fiction-Writing: Understand Elements of Story.” YouTube, uploaded by Executive Function, ADHD, 2e. Seth Perler, 11 Oct. 2015, youtu.be/TX07–4bybE.



Source: “Writer’s Toolkit: Audience and Purpose.” YouTube, uploaded by Executive Function, ADHD, 2e. Seth Perler, 18 Oct. 2015, youtu.be/O9by2yFy4do.


The information in these videos may be review for some of you, but reminders are helpful. In any case, there’s nothing mysterious here, just some terms we can use to be precise in our discussions and writings.

The first video features an English teacher and his views, but the other two videos are created and presented by a writer of literature. See if you think it makes for a different experience—when you’re getting this info from someone who writes actual stories himself. And remember that when I say “literature,” I mean pretty much any fiction, and even non-fiction.

So just to review and add some highlights:

  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Character
  • Point of View
  • Motifs
  • Theme


Plot is simply what happens in the text. “Text” by the way can mean anything we can discuss in language—a story, a poem, a novel, a graphic novel, a song, a movie, even visual arts.

Plot is important because things in the text happen for a reason—the text’s reasons, which contribute to meaning.


WHERE and WHEN the whole thing happens—could be a place, a time period, a season, even in some cases a “feeling”—dark/light, pleasant/threatening/confusing—we find this sense of setting mainly in visual texts such as graphic novels and movies. And setting can change, as it does in “Beauty and the Beast” from Beauty’s home to the Beast’s palace.

Setting, too, has meaning

Can suggest certain feelings in the characters

or even Create feelings in characters or in the reader.


The people or other creatures who populate the story. What they say (DIALOGUE) and what they do: all of it has meaning.

These are NOT supposed to be real people just going about their lives. They do and say and think certain things not for their own reasons, like real people do, but for the story’s reasons. It might help you to think of the story itself as an entity in its own right—a BEING. The story has a life of its own, and the story’s goals are

  • To tell you an interesting tale
  • To leave you feeling and thinking in certain ways. NOT the author, The story ITSELF. Again, Think of the story as having a life of its own—which it does!
  • And the STORY wants to push you around—again to make you feel and think certain things, maybe even in a sneaky way, so you don’t even notice that the story is implanting its own choice of thoughts and feelings into you.

For example, the Beast says to Beauty, “my heart is good, but still I am a monster.” Of course, this shows us what the Beast thinks of himself, but his use of the term “monster” ALSO might cause you, the reader, to think about monsters in general. IS the beast the monster? What does it MEAN to think of him as a monster? Or to think of him as NOT a monster—is there a way to do that?

What in this story is or is not monstrous—ARE there other kinds of monsters than the Beast? More on that later.


Who’s telling this story? Is it one of the characters (first person), or an omniscient narrator (usually third-person), or is the story being told in what sounds like third person, but only giving you the viewpoint of one of the characters (third person, central intelligence)?


Motif is somewhat like a pattern in that it is found when certain elements are repeated in the text, such as objects (a ring, a flower, a sword), phrases (such as “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair”), or even descriptions or actions (repeatedly calling someone “beautiful,” playing tricks, refusing requests, making friends).  Repeated elements mean something and therefore they are often related to THEME.

As you read, watch for motifs in the text. You are meant to notice them and to think about what they are doing to make meaning in the story.


There are other important elements of narrative, such as tone, figurative language, and others—we’ll discuss these as they come up in the texts we’re reading. The IMPORTANT thing to remember about all these elements is that they ALL contribute to THE MAIN EVENT: THEME.

THEME refers to subtext or meaning. A story is not told ONLY for its own sake. Of course the writer or the storyteller wants to create an interesting story, But the storyteller, as Seth Perler says, has their own PURPOSE. And that purpose is related to THEME—the MEANING the storyteller intends.

BUT also, there are ALWAYS underlying MEANINGS, whether the writer intends them or not. So, in some ways, we’ll think about what the storyteller is up to,

BUT we’ll also go beyond that purpose to consider what the STORY ITSELF tells us, regardless of what the storyteller might have had in mind.

Notice that when I say “Meanings,” it’s plural.  Because any given story will have multiple meanings or multiple THEMES. So when we discuss meaning in this class, I’ll try to alert you to at least a few possibilities—AND THERE MAY BE MORE.

Not that the text can mean anything, but that it can mean various things. And I don’t insist that you agree with my ideas of meaning.

But if you want to argue an alternative meaning, you must SUPPORT it.

How do you support your idea of a meaning? With TEXTUAL EVIDENCE—which is where those elements of narrative come in. How does the plot support the meaning you’re arguing?

How about the setting, character, point of view, tone, and other elements? The ways in which characters behave, where they are, how they speak, even what they wear! It is all there to create meanings.

Also, as noted in the Introduction, remember the following:

Be alert to repetitions and anything that seems not quite right. Consider how your own experiences and biases are playing a part in how you read. And be prepared to discuss your responses with your classmates.


Our reading focus:  CULTURAL EXPECTATION

This is not an element of the text but a name for what we will be looking for in the stories we read.

What is culture?

What is an expectation?

So, what then is a cultural expectation?

Key Takeaways

Cultural expectations are simply the things that our culture expects us to do. In some cases, we can take that a step farther and call these cultural imperatives–things that our culture virtually demands that we do.

For example, you’re in college now. Is getting an education something our culture expects us to do? The general culture of our nation expects, even demands, that we all get basic schooling through high school. Then, what we might call the micro-culture of your community and family may expect you to continue that education by going to college or to a professional trade school. That is, you are expected to learn enough to move out on your own and support yourself. That’s what both the macro- and the micro-cultures want you to do.

What other things does our culture expect us to do?


Got to college? Go to a trade school?

Military service maybe?

Get a job and earn a living?

Get married? Have children? Provide for those children’s education?

Care for our parents when they grow old and can’t care for themselves?

These are just a few examples. We’ll find more as we get deeper into our study of the tales.

Fairy tales and folk tales are uniquely created and positioned to begin teaching you these expectations–and how important they are. You begin hearing stories from the time when you begin to understand language. First storeis are told or read to you, and then you begin reading some yourself. Maybe your family takes you to see children’s movies or plays that based on fairy tales. Maybe you and your siblings or friends imagine yourselves as part of these tales. Maybe you become more deeply interested in a particular tale.

All this exposure to stories means that you are absorbing them and therefore absorbing the values they illustrate. They are teaching you those values–they they exist, that they are important, that you must learn them and honor them and abide by them. These values suggest cultural expectations. (And, looking ahead, these expectations may play a part in the THEMES you argue in your essays about these tales.)


  • Young men are expected to be… or to do….    Young women are expected to be…. or to do….
  • A monster/beast/wild animal is a creature who… (looks a certain way, behaves in certain ways, says certain things)
  • A princess must…  A prince must…
  • Wives must…. Husbands must… Married couples must….
  • Beauty means…   Ugly means…

Fairy tales and folk tales tell stories to teach these expectations and imperatives. These are what we will be looking for, in various ways, in the stories we study throughout this semester.


“Beauty and the Beast”

This story is our first example of the principles explained above. Our task is to try to figure out what the story might MEAN in terms of cultural expectations, that is, what cultural demands might this story attempt to teach us through the experience of a beautiful young woman and a prospective bridegroom who is a Beast, a kind of monster?

The ultimate event in this story is marriage, right? Think about what marriage brings with it that might cause uncertainty or discomfort.



  • Arranged marriages would have been common in the time when this story was first told. Even now, marriage may be or feel forced in various ways.
  • What about sex? Some people are inexperienced in that sense when they get married. So it may be a scary thing to face. In fact, it used to be that the word MARRIAGE was a euphemism for “when you start having sex”—that certainly would’ve been the case when this story was first told.
  • What about all the other things that are going to happen AFTER the wedding?

The point here is that a story involving a bride and groom has SOMETHING to do with marriage, and we owe it to the story to consider what that something might be.

Also, MARRIAGE is the TRANSFER of love/devotion from the father/family to the new husband/new family.

This transfer—in Beauty and the Beast—is significant in that there is no mother in this story—nobody to teach the daughter about men and marriage.

So maybe an important point is the transfer of the woman from one man to the other—and even though it’s the law of the culture (of many cultures—most cultures), it can be frightening and difficult for the young woman. What does Beauty’s behavior suggest about this kind of transfer?

By the way, even TODAY, in our own culture, this idea of the transfer of the woman from father to husband is still upheld. How? Think about the typical marriage ceremony today: Who is “given away”? Still today?

“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

Is it possible that this is one meaning, and one reason the story of “Beauty and the Beast” remains popular?

If you’re a young woman who’s marrying a man you hardly know, if at all, could he seem scary to you? What else is scary? Monsters? Beasts?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could somehow be assured that the scary guy would turn out to be a wonderful husband? A prince even? Might your mother or your grandmother tell you stories like that to calm your fear of the unknown groom?

Another thing this story can teach us is to look beyond the main characters, and to think about what’s happening at the margins of the story.

So, here are some further questions to consider:

The sisters—in addition to the idea of marriage, what about that whole sibling rivalry? What’s going on there, with two women hating and even conspiring against their sister? Do they have their reasons? Are they valid? What might that mean?

And what about what the beautiful fairy does to the sisters at the end of the story? What meaning might that have? Of course, the story is showing us that evil works are punished. But that’s fairly obvious—what ELSE might be going on here?




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