Thematic Sheet


“All happy families are alike;
every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Lev Tolstoy

“The family. We were a strange little band moving through life, sharing sickness and toothpaste, coveting each other’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain on each other and kissing to heal it at the same time, loving, laughing, defending each other, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

Erma Bombeck

As a place of oral transmission from generation to generation, family is omnipresent in the tales. Wonderful tales always begin with an initial family situation, and classically end with a marriage and a new family. By passing all the tests, the hero (or heroine) moves from the imposed family to the chosen family. From blood ties to chosen ties.


The dynamics of the fairy tales are triggered by a disturbance in the family order: conflictual relations between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, etc. The parents are often the first drivers of the stories.

The parents are often the first drivers of the tales: it is through their desire, their will to have children that the story begins. This desire is sometimes thwarted by a curse, a particular demand, which affects the life of the unborn child.

In Peau d’âne, it all begins with the parents’ happiness, resulting in the birth of the heroine: “with so many virtues, a girl was born”.

Cinderella has to live with a jealous stepmother, cruel stepsisters and an absent father.

Illustrations by Grimm Twins

But in the end, the characters assert their freedom through marriage, and achieve happiness by creating a new family. Cinderella frees herself from servitude, Peau d’Âne frees herself from her father’s love. Freedom and happiness are acquired in reaction to the original family constraints.

The tale, with its out-of-place and out-of-time nature, provides children with symbolic tools that enable them to detach themselves from their experiences and accompany them in their search for their own path. The family is a shelter, where one feels safe, protected and loved. But it is also the place from which one must move away in order to build oneself. It is ambivalent: both protective and destructive. With its happy ending, the marvelous tale is a tale of hope.


The German Romantics were discoverers of tales and makers of tales. One of them wrote that every story, every novel, basically begins with “Once upon a time”. In apprenticeship novels (German Bildungsroman in the eighteenth century), the characters grow into emancipation and adulthood through their adventures, just like in fairy tales.


There are many stories of children without families in nineteenth-century literature. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or David Copperfield and James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan. In these stories, the absence of parents allows children to go on adventures, just as in many fairy tales. One thinks of Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel


In the tales, the children have to overcome difficulties, which lead them to the happy ending of the story. On the way to the story, danger can lurk behind people and places that seem to be the safest and most protective.

The hero often has to leave to escape parental anger or sibling jealousy. In others, it is precisely the relatives, as siblings, who come to the rescue.


The tales never cease to say it: the mother-daughter relationship, full of contradictory feelings and ambivalent desires, is far from being a long quiet river. In all the tales, the heroine is the daughter, the mother having only a secondary role, helping or tormenting her kin.

The mother often dies at the beginning of the story to make way for another woman: the first is as angelic and good as the second is evil and mean.

In the early editions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, it is the mother who is hostile, but the criticism levelled at the Grimm brothers persuaded them to replace the mother with the stepmother character in later editions. One ambivalent mother was made into two! The fairy tale, an adaptable genre by nature, could not fail to adapt to the morality of the time, where the mother is the giver of love and always ready to sacrifice herself. In Grimm’s first version of Hansel and Gretel, the parents, too poor to feed them, abandon their two children in the forest. The children do not resent their parents. On the contrary, having become rich, they return home to share what they have earned with their parents.

This abandonment by the family is one of the recurring themes of fairy tales: abandonment often voluntary (Hansel and Gretel), abandonment at other times due to chance or bad luck (for example: Balbina and bad luck).

The death of one or both parents can also force them to abandon their child to cruel characters (A Little Calf as a Brother and Candida and the Brigands).

Poverty is often mentioned in the stories. In Italy, 260,000 children still live in absolute poverty. This does not only imply their economic poverty but also their cultural and educational poverty.


The oldest known tale, The Two Brothers, is a sibling tale. Its papyrus dates back at least 3000 years, and there are more than 770 versions worldwide. At a time when many families are blended, the need to cope with life’s difficulties brings siblings together more than ever, for better or for worse. This is partly the theme of The Golden Bird, in which three brothers meet at their father’s bedside to consult on the remedy that will cure him. Here, the tale and the reality meet, showing this universe of brothers and sisters crossed by contradictory feelings where jealousy, rivalry, hatred but also trust, sharing and love meet.

Illustrations by Grimm Twins

Initially imposed, the relationship between brothers and sisters evolves over the course of a lifetime, as the ties are tightened or loosened according to the trials the siblings go through: birth, marriage, inheritance. The brother/sister relationship is woven over time, sometimes literally, as in the tale of the seven brothers, where the younger sister makes nettle shirts for her older siblings, thus enrolling them in social life.

The Sicilian writer Luigi Capuana, in his Tales, describes frightening and brutal female characters. Siblings play antagonistic roles in many stories, pitted against each other by parents who test their offspring’s strength and intelligence to gain the throne.

Many are willing to harm or kill their younger brother, who is often the favourite (The Magic Feather and The Garden of Wonders).

To counterbalance this idea of a “nest of snakes” family, there are tales in which the relationships of affection and blood ties run deep. Where each is ready to make the most extreme sacrifice to save the other (The Garden of Wonders and In Silence).

FAMILY TYPOLOGIES : negative or positive

● Parents who want a child
● Death of one or both parents
● Unhappy pacts with demons or fairies who claim to kidnap the son/daughter
● A cruel stepmother or stepfather
● Envious siblings
● Brothers or sisters to the rescue
● Brothers/sisters or sons/daughters willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the family
● Acts done to save a parent in danger of death


– Read The Garden of Wonders: this story contains both positive and negative options: two envious sisters and a close-knit core of two brothers and one sister.

– Also In silence, The magic feather, Balbina and bad luck, A little calf as a brother, Candida and the robbers, The frog princess.

Illustrations by Grimm Twins