The elusive Australian fairy tale

Featured in

  • Published 20131203
  • ISBN: 9781922079992
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

JACK AND THE Beanstalk, Henny Penny, The Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs were collected by the folklorist Joseph Jacobs and printed in his book English Fairy Talesin 1890. Among other academic pursuits, Jacobs went on to publish several other collections, including More English Fairy Tales and Celtic Fairy Tales. Yet Jacobs was born, raised, and university-educated in Sydney, Australia, and he cites his childhood memory as the source for some of these popular tales. In the preface to English Fairy Taleshe writes ‘Who says that English folk have no fairy tales of their own?’ and goes on to explain his patriotic reasons for publishing the collection.[i] These include a desire to see English children being told English tales, helping to bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes, and encouraging more tales to come to light. So why did Joseph Jacobs not feel the need to undertake this task in Australia?

The most obvious answer to this question might be that Australia only came into being in 1788, before which it was a continent divided, much like Europe, into Aboriginal territories. Jacobs was apparently more interested in the traditional British and European tales than the vast and ancient resource of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tales. Or perhaps his decision was more complex. Folklore, put simply, is the lore of the folk or the ways of people, and refers to an unofficial culture of gaining, adapting, and sharing knowledge and practices through informal processes. It exists outside of the conventional channels of a society –such as education, religion, mass media and government –and is neither ‘high’ nor ‘popular’ culture, yet weaves through all of these.[ii] While storytelling is folkloric in nature within Anglo-Celtic culture, it is part of the official structure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and so not strictly considered folklore.

Another reason may have been the secrecy surrounding many sacred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, whose powerful magic is protected. Certain stories are for women only, or men, or for those who descend from a particular place. For the folklorist interested in collecting such tales, it is not simply a case of recording and publicly sharing them. Jacobs, having expressed lofty ideals on his English collection, went on to say the tales would ‘add to the innocent gaiety of the nation’.[iii] Helping to bridge the gaping cultural chasm in Australia with the healing power of story may have seemed too great a challenge, or it may never have occurred to him. Joseph’s father had migrated from London, so it could simply be that he was drawn to make his mark in the motherland.

Jacobs never returned to Australia. He contributed greatly to British folklore, then in 1900 he moved to New York City and spent the remainder of his life in prominent positions within the field of Jewish studies. But could he have been Australia’s answer to the Brothers Grimm? Or does Australia have no real fairy tales and folklore of its own? As a modern folklorist with a passion for fairy tales I find it difficult to entertain, let alone accept, this notion. My own desire to delve deeply into these perfectly formed, deceptively simple folk stories was sparked during my teens, when my father’s partner took me along to a storytelling event for adults.

In a delightful little room at the back of a Melbourne fairy shop we sat on toadstools, drank champagne, and listened to a real life fairy tell early versions of popular tales which were once meant for adults. The tale I recall best from that enchanted afternoon is The Frog King, in which the princess is so disgusted by the revolting creature demanding to sleep on her soft pillow, she picks it up and throws it against the wall, at which point it turns into a handsome prince. It turns out kissing the frog was an American invention. As a pensive teenager, interested only in finding deep and authentic meaning in a shallow society filled with hypocrisy (such was my romantic worldview), discovering that older, wiser, darker versions of fairy tales existed was like stumbling upon hidden treasure.

Then in my early twenties, living alone in a small cottage in the woods with Bob Dylan, poetry and red wine, I read the words ‘folklorist’ and ‘mythographer’ in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ wonderful book of stories and psychology Women Who Run with the Wolves.[iv] These terms resounded with the clarity of vocational destiny, despite me having no real idea of what they meant, and would eventually lead me to study undergraduate mythology, and post graduate folklore. I soon realised that I was not alone in having little knowledge of what folklore is, and what a folklorist does.

Folklore is a greatly undervalued field of study in Australia, and widely misunderstood as a collection of bush ballads, tales of Ned Kelly, and similar quaint antiquities. All cultures enjoy a rich tapestry of folklore, and Australia is not exempt to urban legends, ghost stories, slang, and superstition. An informal communication within large or small groups, it is based in tradition (whether long or short term), displays variation, and yet is continuous and adaptive.[v] In fact, folklore is an integrated part of our everyday lives. If you have ever told a joke or anecdote, sung a nursery rhyme, crossed your fingers, knocked on wood, made a mud pie or a daisy chain, then you have participated in the living flow of folklore. The academic study of this field, called folkloristics, offers great cultural benefits, yet we lag behind most of the world in terms of national recognition and support.

Australia is one of only a few countries which lacks an official national folklore register. Despite being signatory to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which strongly recommends safeguarding folklore and cultural heritage, we have no government institution for the collection, cataloguing, protection, analysis, circulation and teaching of our folklore. Folkloristics is overlooked by our government, is academically trivialised and generally misunderstood, yet it has the potential to ease social tensions and heal cultural rifts. At the same time the misuse of folklore can be harmful and even dangerous if used to fuel the flames of fear and ignorance.

There is perhaps no better example of this than in Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s Third Reich enslaved folklore as a cultural weapon with unimaginably devastating consequences. The Hitler youth were stirred into a frenzy of warped nationalism with the aid of propagandised folk songs, while the blood libel legend falsely accused the Jewish population of murdering children to use their blood in rituals. Sadly, even the Brothers Grimm collection offered an anti-semitic folk tale called The Jew in the Thornbush. Folklore has the advantage, or disadvantage, of being underestimated in its power.

Today we see widespread prejudice against those of Muslim faith. Since the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks in America in 2001, there has been a largely unchecked, and deeply harmful, blur in the distinction between ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’. Muslim leaders across the globe were quick to condemn the extremist group Al-Qaeda’s actions, yet their voices were lost in a fog of horror and confusion. Twelve years on, the Muslim community is still the target of bigotry.[vi] Even in a ‘lucky country’ which believes in a ‘fair go’, tensions can arise. Australia has had its share of conflict, even making world news on a few occasions.

In 2005 a riot broke out in Cronulla, a beachside suburb of southern Sydney, between ‘Aussies’ and Australian-born youths of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’, with revenge attacks lasting three days. Two years later a large number of locals rallied in Camden, south-west of Sydney, against a proposed Islamic school in the area. Police were later called to the intended site following the disturbing discovery of two pigs’ heads mounted on stakes with an Australian flag hung between them. This was followed by the council’s unanimous rejection of the proposed school.[vii] More recently the fear of ‘other’ has been placed on asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries who our politicians have labelled ‘boat people’.

Much of this cultural disharmony is fed by the misuse of folklore; the unhelpful stories we perpetuate based on misinformation about one another. Of course, folklore also holds the keys to easing social tensions, and gently knitting communities together. Formally trained folklorists use a tool called Cultural Diagnostics for identifying cultural unease and finding solutions to social problems, ideally before they escalate into confrontation. In this sense folklorists can act as ‘cultural doctors’, ameliorating potential dilemmas by encouraging mutual awareness and informed dialogue.

In 2010, German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany was dead. This followed a call to end immigration from Turkey and Arab countries by the Bavarian state premier of the Christian Social Union, who had previously served in Merkel’s cabinet. Yet within weeks of this declaration, seven thousand people flocked to a richly multicultural suburb of Bremen, called Gröpelingen, to attend the fourth annual international, multilingual storytelling festival ‘Feuerspuren’ or ‘Traces of Fire’. Gröpelingen is home to many Turkish immigrants and the festival celebrates its wealth of diversity with stories of many cultures in many languages including Turkish, Persian, Spanish and Latvian.

The festival began in 2007, and every November since then it has transformed Lindenhofstrasse (Linden Street) into a fiery magical realm of imagination. The street is closed off for the two-day event, and everyday venues are opened up as sacred storytelling spaces. These include a laundromat, a hair salon, a Turkish tearoom, a private hobby farm with roaming ducks, and the Gröpelingen mosque. In between stories, visitors are entertained by street performers, musicians and fire artists. Feuerspuren closes with a parade, lanterns drifting into the night sky, and fireworks over the nearby waterfront. Its continuing success suggests multiculturalism is far from dead in Germany.

In another example of the healing power of this folklore form, Dr Julia Chaitin, who worked as a senior researcher with the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, cited benefits from storytelling in reconciliation work in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and between descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators.[viii] So we see folklore is a powerful process which can be directed, or misdirected, to deeply affect social harmony and wellbeing. In such a richly multicultural country as Australia, the need to support folkloristics seems obvious. Yet the university course in which I studied folklore has sadly since been withdrawn due to a fall in interest, following a sharp increase in university fees. There is currently nowhere in Australia to study folklore at a post graduate level.

However, despite the lack of official support, Australia is blessed with a small but passionate group of folklorists and folklore enthusiasts. A multitude of Australian publications includes The Oxford companion to Australian folklore, and the Australian Folklore Network (AFN) achieves an enormous amount without the benefit of government interest or funding.[ix] The AFN has thankfully found support in institutions like the National Library of Australia (NLA), Curtin University in Perth, Monash University in Melbourne, and Museum Victoria, which house key figures in Australian folkloristics. A National Folklore Conference is held at the NLA in Canberra each year and precedes the National Folk Festival. This conference covers an eclectic range of topics from bawdy folk songs, bush poetry, and the Aussie meat pie, to children’s rights to unsupervised play. Museum Victoria publishes a bi-annual folklore journal on children’s culture called Play and Folklore.

There are many branches of folklore including folk music, dance, art, poetry, belief, customs and narrative. Australia would do well to hold more festivals, along the lines of Feuerspuren, to celebrate both the unique differences and universal similarities within a culturally diverse society such as ours. While there is great power in folklore, it is often gentle and unobtrusive (to the point of being overlooked). If Camden council had organised an inter-faith festival in 2007, to better acquaint its Muslim and Christian residents, some degree of confrontation and boycotting would have been expected. A community festival of family fun, on the other hand, would be less likely to arouse people’s fears and prejudices. Stereotypes can be dismantled over mundane conversations about the weather, parenthood, or a shared story.

Now that I have made the argument (I hope) that Australia, like all societies, has a rich resource of untapped folklore, it’s time to turn our attention to fairy tales, and whether Australia has any. At the heart of this question lies another: what is a fairy tale? Is it a simple story that has been passed on from one generation to the next in the oral tradition, such as Little Red Riding Hood, or a literary tale penned by a single author, such as Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling? There is some debate about the definitions of ‘folk’ and ‘fairy’ tales. Some say folk tales become fairy tales once they are written down, and others suggest fairy tales have more magical elements than folk tales.

Defining the fairy tale is as elusive a task as defining folklore. Fairy tales need not have fairies in them, though some enchantment is required. Their symbolic motifs reveal the dynamics of the human condition, and they delight children and adults alike. They are part of the cultural language. They are part of folklore, and as such are subject to transformation, even the ones with literary origins. This is the golden key which opens the creaky door to the hidden chamber. Fairy tales are folklore! They adapt to their setting and audience and modern times, they cross cultural and generational boundaries, and transform.

It is all too simple to say Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories come from The Dreaming and are therefore creation myths, not fairy tales. To say that the popular canon of tales we know in Australia, largely through Disney films, are pan-European. To say we don’t have enough familiarity with tales from Asia-Pacific for them to inform our cultural psychology. Fairy tales are magical creatures who refuse to be confined to such strict definitions. There exist countless variations of well-known tales across cultures and throughout time.

Once upon a time Cinderella lived in ancient China and her ‘fairy godmother’ came in the form of the bones of a beautiful fish. Long ago and far away a prince visited Sleeping Beauty in her slumber, liked what he saw…and she grew his baby inside her, snoring all the while. Once there was and once there was not a poor girl named Rapunzel, locked away in a tower by a sorceress who later cast her out on discovering she was pregnant. To illustrate just how much fairy tales enjoy being free to shift and turn, let me tell you one story of Little Red Riding Hood.

One of the earliest known versions of this yarn, in the Western tradition, was recorded in rural France. In this version, named La Grand-Mere (The Grandmother), the grandmother is eaten but the little girl outwits the wolf and makes her escape. The story has cannibalism, a strip tease, talk of defecation, and a werewolf. Charles Perrault appears to have adapted this oral tale for the pleasure of the French court in the late 17th century. Named Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Cap), his literary version changed the ending so the wolf ate both grandmother and girl, and was followed by a rhyming moral dissuading young women from keeping the company of ‘wolves’. In 1800 Ludwig Tieck introduced the passing hunter who rescues both grandmother and girl from the belly of the wolf, in his German version Leben und Tod des kleinen Rothkäppchens (Life and Death of Little Red Cap).[x]

When the Brothers Grimm published their version, again named simply Rötkappchen (Little Red Cap), they changed the tale once more. Appearing to borrow the ending from another fairy tale, The Wolf and the Seven Kids –in which the mother goat cuts open the wolf while he sleeps, rescues her kids, and sews stones into his belly so he drowns from thirst upon waking –they exchange the heroine mother for Tieck’s passing hunter. (There are many lost heroines in the enchanted woods, but that is another story.) The Grimms also added a second part to the tale, in which the grandmother and girl outwit a second wolf.

In 2009 I was told a version of The Wolf and the Seven Kids by a ninety-two –year-old Latvian-Australian great-grandmother. She recalled winter evenings in her childhood spent by the hearth listening to her own grandmother translating Grimm tales directly off the page. Her version had a distinct Latvian flavour with singing, participation encouraged from the children listening, and a particular beginning and end.[xi] Then in 2011 I recorded a performance of an hispanic Little Red Riding Hood joke, delivered by a professional storyteller at a cabaret event. In the same year Warner Brothers released their film Red Riding Hood, which seemingly drew on material from the early French rural story. As we can see, there is no one true version of the tale.

In 2011 the Darwin Festival commissioned an exciting multimedia play called Wulamanayuwi and the Seven Pamanui, in which traditional Tiwi Island story meets the Grimms’ Snow White.[xii] Two cultures meet and create something new and beautiful in the realm of fairy tale. Our vast land boasts forests and ocean, mountains and desert, rivers, islands, and the world’s largest monolith. There is enchantment here. Since fairy tales have something akin to a life of their own, through the adaptive nature of folklore, it is unlikely that an exploration into Australian fairy tales will come up short.

Although further study under the banner of folklore is currently off the table, I hope to embark on such an exploration in the near future, in the shape of a doctorate on the elusive Australian fairy tale. In the meantime, 2014 will see the launch of the Australian Fairy Tale Society, with an annual conference featuring academic papers, panel discussion, art exhibition, and live performance. Following the conference, a Sydney-based discussion and storytelling group will begin, along the lines of the Monash fairy tale salon reading group in Melbourne.

This essay has focused largely on oral storytelling, yet we also possess a wealth of literary tales, both original stories and acculturated retellings, and some of our finest authors are diving deep for new fairy tale riches. Artists across many mediums are venturing into the enchanted realms to create fresh insights into ancient wisdom, and Australia is home to a wonderful community of academics passionate about fairy tales. So who says that Australian folk have no fairy tales of their own? In our richly diverse society we can only benefit from the healing power of story, and for the sake of our children, the elusive search is worthy of our most dedicated commitment.


Please direct inquiries about the Australian Fairy Tale Society to:

Jo Henwood


Reilly McCarron



Beed Davey, Gwenda and Graham Seal. The Oxford companion to Australian folklore. Melbourne; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Iggulden, Tom. The Islamic school furore in Australia. Lateline via YouTube, 2008.

Jacobs, Joseph. English Fairy Tales. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., ed. 3 republication, 1967.

McCarron, Reilly. “Reflections on Story-telling Among Immigrant Families in Australia.” Play and Folklore 51 (2009), pp.12-18

“Muslims in Queens attacked by Bigots and the Media.” The Huffington Post.

“Narratives and Story-Telling.” Beyond Intractability.

Pinkola Estés, Clarissa. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. London: Rider, 1992.

Seal, Graham. The Hidden Culture: Folklore in Australian Society. Perth: Black Swan Press, 1998.

“Wulamanayuwi and the Seven Pamanui.” artsHub Australia.

Zipes, Jack. “Dangerous Wolves and Naive Girls” in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brother Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001, pp.744-750.


[i]Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., ed. 3 republication, 1967) p.v

[ii]Graham Seal,The Hidden Culture: Folklore in Australian Society (Perth: Black Swan Press, 1998), p. 9.

[iii]Jacobs, English Fairy Tales,

[iv]Clarissa Pinkola Estés,Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (London: Rider, 1992)

[v]Seal, The Hidden Culture: Folklore in Australian Society, p.5.

[vi]“Muslims in Queens attacked by Bigots and the Media,” The Huffington Post, available from

[vii]Tom Iggulden, The Islamic school furore in Australia, (Lateline via YouTube, 2008)

[viii]“Narratives and Story-Telling,” Beyond Intractability, available from

[ix]Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal, The Oxford companion to Australian folklore (Melbourne; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[x]Jack Zipes, ‘Dangerous Wolves and Naive Girls’ in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, ed. Jack Zipes (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), pp.744-745.

[xi]This version can be found at Reilly McCarron, “Reflections on Story-telling Among Immigrant Families in Australia,” Play and Folklore 51 (2009),, pp.17-18

[xii]“Wulamanayuwi and the Seven Pamanui,” artsHub Australia, available from

Share article

About the author

Reilly McCarron

Reilly McCarron is a folklorist, storyteller, musician and writer.In 2012 she wrote and toured her one woman show 'Sleeping Kingdom, Waking Beauty'.She has presented...

More from this edition

Dreaming the place

EssayONCE UPON A time – and the story begins. Story is one of the most powerful tools in the minds of human beings, having...

Marina magic

GR OnlineAn interview with Marina Warner MARINA WARNER STILL has her great-grandmother's copy of the Arabian Nights. It's in three volumes, very small print, with woodcut...

Hairy tales

EssayONCE UPON A time in Wyoming, I watched a pack of wolves hunt and kill. I stopped the car and got out because a...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.