As the literary fairy tale spread in France to every age group and every social class, it began to serve different functions, depending on the writer's interests. It represented the glory and ideology of the French aristocracy. It provided a symbolic critique, with utopian connotations, of the aristocratic hierarchy, largely within the aristocracy itself and from the female viewpoint. It introduced the norms and values of the bourgeois civilizing process as more reasonable and egalitarian than the feudal code. As a divertissement for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the fairy tale diverted the attention of listeners/readers from the serious sociopolitical problems of the times, compensating for the deprivations that the upper classes perceived themselves to be suffering. There was also an element of self-parody, revealing the ridiculous notions in previous fairy tales and representing another aspect of court society to itself; such parodies can be seen in Jacques Cazotte's "A Thousand and One Follies" (1746), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The Queen Fantasque" (1758), and Voltaire's "The White Bull" (1774). Finally, fairy tales with clear didactic and moral lessons were approved as reading matter to serve as a subtle, more pleasurable means of initiating children into the class rituals and customs that reinforced the status quo.
The very name of the genre itself - fairy tale - originated during this time, for the French writers coined the term conte de fee during the seventeenth century, and it has stuck to the genre in Europe and North America ever since. This "imprint" is important, because it reveals something crucial about the fairy tale that has remained part of its nature to the present. The early writers of fairy tales placed the power of metamorphosis in the hands of women - the redoubtable fairies. In addition, this miraculous power was not associated with a particular religion or mythology, through which the world was to be explained. It was a secular mysterious power of compassion that could not be explained, and it derived from the creative imagination of the writer. Anyone could call upon the fairies for help, and it is clear that the gifted French women writers of the seventeenth century preferred to address themselves to a fairy and to have a fairy resolve the conflicts in their tales rather than the Church, with its male-dominated hierarchy. After all, it was the Church that had eliminated hundreds of thousands of so-called female witches during the previous two centuries in an effort to curb heretical and nonconformist beliefs. However, those "pagan" notions survived in the tradition of the oral wonder tale and surfaced in published form in France when it became safer to introduce in a symbolical code supernatural powers and creatures other than those officially sanctioned by the Christian code. In short, there was something subversive about the institutionalization of the fairy tale in France during the 1690S, for it enabled writers to create a dialogue about norms, manners, and power that evaded court censorship and freed the fantasy of the writers and readers, while at the same time paying tribute to the French code of civilite and the majesty of the aristocracy. Once certain discursive paradigms and conventions were established, a writer could demonstrate his or her "genius" by rearranging, expanding, deepening, and playing with the known functions of a genre that, by 1715, had already formed a type of canon, which consisted not only of the great classical tales-"Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Rapunzel," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Puss in Boots," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Beauty and the Beast," "Blue beard, " "The Golden Dwarf," "The Blue Bird," and "The White Cat"-but also the mammoth collection The Arabian Nights.
Ultimately, the definition of both the wonder tale and the fairy tale, which derives from it, depends on the manner in which a narrator/author arranges known functions of a tale aesthetically and ideologically to induce wonder and then transmits the tale as a whole according to customary usage of a society in a given historical period. The first stage for the literary fairy tale involved a kind of class and perhaps even gender appropriation. The voices of the nonliterate tellers were submerged, and since women in most cases were not allowed to be scribes, the tales were scripted according to male dictates or fantasies, even though they may have been told by women. Put crudely, it could be said that the literary appropriation of the oral wonder tales served the hegemonic interests of males within the upper classes of particular communities and societies, and to a great extent this is true. However, such a statement must be qualified, for the writing down of the tales also preserved a great deal of the value system of those deprived of power. And the more the literary fairy tale was cultivated and developed, the more it became individualized and varied by intellectuals and artists, who often sympathized with those society marginalized or were marginalized themselves. The literary fairy tale allowed for new possibilities of subversion in the written word and in print, and therefore it was always looked upon with misgivings by the governing authorities in the civilization process.
Since these wonder tales have been with us for thousands of years and have undergone so many different changes in the oral tradition, it is difficult to determine the ideological intention of the narrator, and when we disregard the narrator's intention, it is often difficult to reconstruct (and/or deconstruct) the ideological meaning of a tale. In the last analysis, even if we cannot establish whether a wonder tale is ideologically conservative, sexist, progressive, emancipatory, etc., it is the celebration of wonder that constitutes its major appeal. No matter what the plot may be, this type of tale calls forth our capacity as readers and potential transmitters of its signs and meanings to wonder. We do not want to know the exact resolution, the "happily ever after," of a tale - that is, what it is actually like. We do not want to name God, gods, goddesses, or fairies, who will forever remain mysterious and omnipotent. We do not want to form graven images. We do not want utopia designated for us. We want to remain curious, startled, provoked, mystified, and uplifted. We want to glare, gaze, gawk, behold, and stare. We want to be given opportunities to change, and ultimately we want to be told that we can become kings and queens, or lords of our own destinies. We remember wonder tales and fairy tales to keep our sense of wonderment alive and to nurture our hope that we can seize possibilities and opportunities to transform ourselves and our worlds.
Rarely do wonder tales end unhappily. They triumph over death. The tale begins with "Once upon a time" or "Once there was" and never really ends when it ends. The ending is actually the beginning. The once upon a time is not a past designation but futuristic: the timelessness of the tale and its lack of geographical specificity endow it with utopian connotations - "utopia" in its original meaning designated "no place," a place that no one had ever envisaged. We form and keep the utopian kernel of the tale safe in our imaginations with hope.The significance of the paradigmatic functions of the wonder tale is that they facilitate recall for teller and listeners. They enable us to store, remember, and reproduce the utopian spirit of the tale and to change it to fit our experiences and desires, owing to the easily identifiable characters who are associated with particular assignments and settings ...The characters, settings, and motifs are combined and varied according to specific functions to induce wonder, It is this sense of wonder that distinguished the wonder tales from such other oral tales as the legend, the fable, the anecdote, and the myth; it is clearly the sense of wonder that distinguishes the literary fairy tale from the moral story, novella, sentimental tale, and other modern short literary genres. Wonder causes astonishment, and as manifested in a marvelous object or phenomenon, it is often regarded as a supernatural occurrence and can be an omen or a portent, It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. The Oxford Universal Dictionary states that wonder is "the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity." In the oral wonder tale, we are to wonder about the workings of the universe, where anything can happen at any time, and these happy or fortuitous events are never to be explained. Nor do the characters demand an explanation - they are opportunistic, are encouraged to be so, and if they do not take advantage of the opportunity that will benefit them in their relations with others, they are either dumb or mean-spirited. The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke in a religious sense profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process, which can be altered and changed to compensate for the lack of power, wealth, and pleasure that is most people's lot. Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate people to look for signs of fulfillment and emancipation. In the wonder tales, those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wondrous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature, revere nature in all its aspects. They have hot been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use words intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they actually seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests. Enchantment equals petrification. Breaking the spell equals emancipation. The wondrous protagonist wants to keep the process of natural change flowing and indicates possibilities for overcoming the obstacles that prevent other characters or creatures from living in a peaceful and pleasurable way.
It sounds like a fairy-tale, but not only that; this story of what man by his science and practical inventions has achieved on this earth, where he first appeared as a weakly member of the animal kingdom, and on which each individual of his species must ever again appear as a helpless infant... is a direct fulfilment of all, or of most, of the dearest wishes in his fairy-tales. All these possessions he has acquired through culture. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. Whatever seemed unattainable to his desires - or forbidden to him - he attributed to these gods. One may say, therefore, that these gods were the ideals of his culture. Now he has himself approached very near to realizing this ideal, he has nearly become a god himself. But only, it is true, in the way that ideals are usually realized in the general experience of humanity. Not completely; in some respects not at all, in others only by halves. Man has become a god by means of artificial limbs, so to speak, quite magnificent when equipped with all his accessory organs; but they do not grow on him and they still give him trouble at times... Future ages will produce further great advances in this realm of culture, probably inconceivable now, and will increase man's likeness to a god still more.