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Folk and Fairy Tales in the Classroom: the ‘coin and currency of culture’ – Part 1 (of 4)

This four-part blog started as a lecture that I was invited to give at the Robert Musil Literature Museum, Klagenfurt in Austria. I have tried to maintain the accessibility of the original lecture in this written version, but have developed the argument, providing more in-depth analysis and extending the references to include more theoretical perspectives.

So that it is not too much of a read in one go, I have broken the article down into three sections and will post them in turn, as each part is completed.

Part 1

  • Introduction

  • Story reading or storytelling?

  • Little Red Riding Hood – a short case study

  • Sticky Stories – and what makes them stick?

  • The Hound Gelert – a short case study

  • Developing a critical approach to folk and fairy tales

  • Whose culture – race, ethnicity and religion

Part 4

  • Whose culture – gender and relationships

  • The role of folk and fairy tales in the life of the child

  • Conclusion


What do you see when you look at the picture (Figure 1: Roodkapje)? The picture by the illustrator, Anne-Claude Martin (1994), from the collection De Sprookjes-Schatkist (‘The Treasury Chest of Fairy Tales’). The book is available in several languages, and my own copy is the Dutch edition, in which the story that English speakers would call Little Red Riding Hood is classed Roodkapje, literally ‘Red Cap’, which aligns with the French ‘chaperon rouge’ or ‘red hat’. Martin (who is French) has drawn a character who is clearly not from the English speaking world, and this simple difference between ‘cap’ (or ‘hat’) and ‘hood’ provides a starting point from which we can consider how folk and fairy tales exist in multiple versions, each one of these versions revealing something about the culture from which they originate. When we share stories in the classroom, they bring their culture with them, and this applies to traditional tales as much as literary works; the problem is that many folk and fairy tales are so familiar to us that we can make assumptions about how the version that we know is the ‘real’ version and forget that stories are, what Bruner (2002) describes as, ‘the coin and currency of culture’: the means by which we exchange both value (what of our culture we think should be held on to) and values (specific ideas such as loyalty to family).

Taking Bruner’s phrase ‘the coin and currency of culture’ as the starting point, this article will explore how variations on folk and fairy tales reflect either their culture of origin (or that of the author) and what place they have in the primary classroom. In the second and third parts of the article I will address the question, ‘why do stories stick’ and how, through a critical approach to the tales that we use in the classroom, fairy and folk tales can be an important ingredient in a child’s education, and specifically their literacy development.

Story reading or storytelling?

The examples in this article are, primarily, literary, i.e. they are taken from written texts, including picturebooks. Principally, this is for the very pragmatic reason that children’s exposure to folk and fairy tales is mostly through written texts (whether the teacher is reading to the children, or they are reading for themselves).

As a storytelling teacher myself, I am committed to the oral retelling of traditional tales to children and young people of all ages. However, storytellers, teachers and other adults who work with children in the UK are embedded within a fundamentally literate society. Drawing on the work of Walter Ong (1988), we can argue that even when someone is repeating a version of a tale that they heard someone tell as an oral story, if we trace the way that tellers have learned the story, and shaped their retelling of it, that retelling will, inevitably, have been influenced by literary versions of the story or related stories. No matter how hard we try to hold to an authentic oral tradition of storytelling, it is inevitable (Ong would argue) that the literary will manifest itself in some way, whether that is in shaping the narrative round a published plot, through the phrasing of particular sentences, or the imagery used.

A critical approach to the use of folk and fairy tales in oral storytelling is, in a sense, even more complex than that of choosing a printed text for classroom use. As well as considering the values of the author’s culture (personal or social) of any printed source material, we also have to shape our own stories (both the structure of the narrative and the language that we choose) while remaining aware of the cultural assumptions that we bring with us. This article, then, although concentrating on printed versions of folk and fairy tales, raises legitimate questions for those who tell stories (rather than read them) to children. Developing a critical stance about, not only, the versions of stories that we choose, but also how we interpret them in our retelling is a vital skill for storytellers as much as story readers.

Little Red Riding Hood – a short case study

Little Red Riding Hood provides a rich and fascinating case when considering the cultural context of traditional tales, and this is reflected in the amount of analytical literature which has been devoted to it (including work by Zipes (1993), Warner (2014), and Tehrani (2013)). So, let’s return to the image of Roodkapje (Figure 1), and the question, ‘What do you see, and what does it make you think of?’ Do you think of a happy ending, or a sad ending? In the story that you know, is Little Red Riding Hood rescued with her grandmother from the wolf’s stomach, or does grandmother perish? Does Little Red Riding Hood save herself, or is she dependent on a man to save her? Jamie Tehrani (2013) used phylogenetic analysis (a method used to trace familial relationships between individuals or species) to identify common features of the story that occurred across many cultures - he found echoes of the story all the way round the world. The story has many identifiable characteristics (archetypes, motifs, tropes): the innocent girl, the grandmother, the danger of the forest, the villainous wolf, the gift of food, the questioning of the wolf/grandmother, the colour red, the distinctive clothing (the ‘hood’ in English terms), the rescuing male (we have already discounted that), the happy ending (Perrault’s 1697 version certainly does not include this), the threat of violence, the intimation of sexual violence/rape and ‘stranger danger’. Tehrani, however, found that the element that is common to any of the fairy stories or folktales that are related to Little Red Riding Hood is the violence that is either promised (grandmother is locked in the cupboard, rather than eaten, and the woodcutter saves the child from the wolf’s clutches ‘just in time’), or violence enacted (grandmother is sliced up and eaten; Little Red Riding Hood is eaten; the wolf is cut open to rescue grandmother and the child). Each of these features, of course, represents a different tradition – some are carried over from other cultures, and some are particular to the culture in which the story is told. From an English perspective, for instance, the forest itself is interesting: Zipes (1995) suggests that the story comes from forested regions of France and Italy and made its way north. Its telling in England maintains the notion of the dangerous forest, despite England never having been forested in the way that many parts of mainland Europe have been according to Larrington (2015).

The psychologist, and educational theorist, Jerome Bruner suggests that story provides a way to organise our collective experience – our experience as a people and culture, and to pass on the values that we treasure, and warn against attitudes and behaviours that are destructive of that culture. We trade our experience and values in the stories that we tell, so that they are, in Bruner’s terms, the ‘coin and currency of culture’ (2002, p16). It is this coin and currency that we share with children; so, what values lie at the heart of this exchange?

The desire to ‘clean-up’ the story and avoid the subject of death (sometimes even that of the wolf) comes out a Victorian version of childhood as a time of innocence and a perception that children need to be ‘protected’ from harsh realities. Certainly, the passivity of many female characters in fairy stories reflects the sensibilities of 19th century Europe when they were first recorded in a systematic way

We have considered, above, some common attributes of the story, Little Red Riding Hood; some of the values that the story could be seen to promote are:

  • Obedience (in some versions Little Red Riding Hood disobeys her mother and leaves the path to pick flowers for her grandmother)

  • Stranger danger/the danger of predatory males (the Wolf is fundamentally a metaphor for the male who lures the child away from the path down which her mother has sent her)

  • The protection of virginity (the Wolf lures Little Red Riding Hood into bed with him)

  • Either the reliance on the strong male of the weaker female, or self-reliance and the resourcefulness of the child/girl (there are different versions of the story: many people know the version where the woodcutter/hunter rescues Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s stomach, while in some earlier versions the child tricks the wolf into letting her go).

When I am teaching student teachers, they are often shocked by some of themes that I have suggested here to be the values that inherent in versions of Little Red Riding Hood. Jack Zipes (1995), renowned expert in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, questions the suitability of these stories for children, suggesting that they rationalise child abuse – Little Red Riding Hood is abused by the Wolf because she leaves the path and disobeys her mother. He suggests a revisionist approach to folk and fairy tale, reforming them so that they promote values which could be considered socially constructive and psychologically supportive. Such an approach, however, is perhaps to ignore the importance of the classroom as a critical space. Winston suggests an approach to traditional tales that is grounded in critical dialogue:

..inclusive perspective which [respects] sensitivity to the power of the symbolisms and narrative structures of the tales; and which seeks to combine this respect with a critical mistrust of distortedly inappropriate moral values that may have been layered into them. (1998: 36)

A colleague of mine was teaching the story Rapunzel to a reception class (4-5 year olds) and the children wanted to know why the heroine waited for a man to come and rescue her when she could have used her own hair to scape her tower. My colleague didn’t close this discussion down (despite it not being part of her original planning) but pursued the discussion as an opportunity to explore the male and female roles in traditional stories. This is exactly the kind of critical approach that enables stories such as Little Red Riding Hood to be passed on in their familiar forms, but in a context that allows the nature of the culture of which they are the ‘coin and currency’

If these many of these stories are problematic, why bother with them in the first place? It is true that cultures have come and gone and many of their stories have been forgotten, or are now the subject of obscure academic enquiry but not commonly shared between people. The reason is simple: humans are storytelling animals, or, as Gottschall (2012, p3) refers to us, homo fictus ‘the great ape with the storytelling mind’.

In part two we will consider the reasons why particular stories stick, and appear to be irresistible. As part of this discussion I will discuss the Welsh legend of The Hound Gelert, a story I first heard at the age of seven, and have returned to ever since.

References for Part 1

  • Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

  • Gottschall, J (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  • Larrington, C. (2015) The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles. London: I.B. Tauris

  • Tehrani JJ (2013) The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078871

  • Warner, M. (2014) Once Upon a Time: a short history of fairy tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press

  • Winston, J. (1998) Drama, narrative and moral education. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer

  • Zipes, J. (2006) Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis

  • Zipes, J. (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. London: Routledge.

  • Zipes, J. (1993) The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. Abingdon: Routledge


  • Image of Red Riding Hood: De Sprookjes-Schatkist (1994) Illustrated by Anne-Claude Martin. TransEditions

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