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Once Upon a Time in Maine: Fairy Tale Art & Artifacts

[This exhibition was installed at the Museum from April – September 2017]

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\”Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.\”- Hans Christian Andersen.

Once Upon a Time in Maine

Once Upon A Time… 

Throughout histories, cultures and societies, fairy tales have been employed to teach our children important life lessons through stories they can easily interpret and understand, and hold on to through adulthood. Many of the common fairy tales that we know today were first told thousands of years ago; most were recorded as children\’s stories in the 16th through 19th Centuries.

As you explore this exhibition, keep in mind that objects like spinning wheels, brooms, swords, and tuffets were everyday objects that ordinary families would have used in their homes. Local artists have illustrated twenty-six fairy tales, paired with it\’s \”ordinary\” object pulled from the Museum\’s collections. The artifacts on display were used by local Maine families.

Once Upon a Time in Maine

Tales as Old as Time

There is no specific record of when fairy tales began. However, we do know that humans began telling these tales as soon as they developed the capacity for speech. The web of fairy tale lore touches almost every corner of the globe, every culture, and every generation. 

Recently, researchers at Durham University, discovered that these stories were often created before the advent of written communication. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others asserted this fact as they compiled their now famous additions to literature. Though these familiar tales were placed on paper in the 17th-19th centuries, they were created long before. 

Early on, these tales became children\’s literature, and remained as such for a long period of history. Today, fairy tales are employed as inspiration for new literature and mass entertainment (particularly movies). Looking at the timeline fairy tales are one of the most dominant ties to our shared past, present and future. These stories are some of the only human creations to endure- and be continually used- over thousands of years. They are an historical record of humanity\’s shared experience.

Once Upon a Time in Maine

Ordinary Objects in Fairy Tales

Though the English and French names for these tales emphasize the role of fairies, most stories do not include fairies at all. These stories did, however, include something magical or otherwise unrealistic. In order to help children (and adults) relate to these stories, writers would often instill ordinary, everyday objects with magical powers or meaning, making the tale more familiar to our own experiences. 

Fairy tales are built upon transformations. We read them to see how the world can change; or to see how we can change ourselves. As such, one focus of many fairy tales has always been on finding some sort of magical instrument, person or animal that empowers the hero to transform. 

Fishing Net

A fishing net is an ordinary object that can be found in the story The Fisherman and the Jinni, a major story in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age between the 8th and 13th centuries. The entire work was collected by various authors over centuries. The story of One Thousand and One Nights begins with ruler Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade; she tells her husband one story each night to prevent him from executing her each morning. The Fisherman and the Jinni is one of the tales Scheherazade tells. The first European version of the book was printed in French in 1704. Significant translation work was done on the collection in the 1880s and 1890s, when a French librarian and scholar named Zotenberg asserted that the book was a composite work in which the earliest tales came from India and Asia, while later tales were added from Arabic cultures, and still later from Egypt and Syria. 

In the story The Fisherman and the Jinni a poor old fisherman cast out his net four times a day. One day, he tried to haul his net and found it extremely heavy; he dove in and found a dead donkey in it. He cast his net again and caught a pitcher full of dirt. The third time, he catches shards of pottery and glass. On his fourth and final time, he called upon the name of God and cast his net. Pulling it up, he found a copper jar with a cap that had the seal of Solomon on it; he was happy since he could sell the jar for money. Curious what was inside, he lifted the cap. A plume of smoke came out of the jar, and a jinni (genie) appeared. The Jinni granted the fisherman a choice of how he would like to die. The Jinni then explained that for the first hundred years of his imprisonment, he swore to enrich the person that freed him, but nobody did. After 200 years, he promised his liberator great wealth, still nobody freed him. After 300 years, he swore to grant three wishes to the person who freed him- still nothing. After 400 years, he became enraged and swore to grant his freer a choice of deaths. The fisherman tricked the jinni by by challenging him to fit back in the bottle, after which he put the cap back on and trapped the jinni. The jinni pleaded with the fisherman, and the two agreed to help each other. The jinni was freed, and he helped the fisherman haul exotic fish to sell to the sultan and become wealthy. 

Once Upon a Time in Maine

Spinning Wheel and Spindle. 

The Spinning Wheel and Spindle is an ordinary object that is found in a couple of different fairy tales. It is an important object in both Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin. The earliest known version of the story of a sleeping beauty in a sort of coma, awakened by a heroic prince, appears in the French narrative perceforest from 1330 (first printed in 1528). Charles Perrault of France wrote a similar tale in 1697. The Brothers Grimm collected the orally transmitted version of this story, and published Little Briar Rose (or, The Sleeping Beauty). 

The Spinning Wheel and Spindle were ordinary objects when many fairy tales started to be told. Two of the most well known fairy tales containing spinning wheels and spindles are The Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin. In the tale The Sleeping Beauty the King and Queen hold a christening for their long awaited child. An evil fairy is angry about not being invited, and she enchants the infant princess so that she will one day prick her finger on a spindle of a spinning wheel. A good fairy attempts to reverse the curse, but can only do so partially the princess will sleep 100 years and be awakened by a kiss from a King\’s son. In desperation, the King orders all spinning wheels in the country destroyed. Sixteen years later, the princess decides to try a spinning wheel; she pricks her finger, the curse is fulfilled, and the princess falls into a deep sleep. One hundred years later, a prince finds the beautiful princess sleeping, after fighting his way through the forest. He kisses her; the curse is finally broken. The prince and princess are later married. 

The earliest know version of the oral folk tale Rumpelstiltskin has been traced back to the 15th century. In this tale a miller lies about his daughter to the king. He claims she can spin straw into gold. The king calls for her, and locks her in a tower room filled with straw and a single spinning wheel. He demands that she spin the straw into gold by morning, or he will cut off her head. A goblin-like creature appears in the room and agrees to spin the straw into gold in return for her necklace- she agrees. The King, amazed by the gold, takes the young woman into a larger room of straw and demands she do the same thing. The creature returns, and agrees to turn the straw into gold in exchange for her ring. On the third night, she is asked to do the same, but the king promises to marry her if she accomplishes the feat, and execute her if she cannot. She has nothing left to trade, so the creature takes her promise that she will give him her first born child. The straw is again spun into gold. The king marries the young woman; upon the birth of their child, the creature returns for payment. She offers him all the wealth in the world, but he won\’t take it. He finally consents to give up the promise if she can guess his name in three days. Before the final night, the (now) Queen sneaks into the woods and finds the creatures home. She hears him singing \”The Queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name.\” The Queen names him correctly in the morning, and Rumpelstiltskin is never seen again. 

Once Upon a Time in Maine


Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and published it in his collection of stories, Fairy Tales Told for Children. Andersen\’s story was re-published in 1849 and again in 1862. It was first published in English in 1846, translated by Mary Howitt. It is believed that Andersen was inspired to write the tale after falling in love with a friend he knew he could never be with. 

A ship is an ordinary object that is featured in the tale The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid lives in an underwater kingdom with her father the Sea King, and her five older sisters. When a mermaid turns fifteen, she is permitted to swim to the surface to glimpse the world above. The Little Mermaid heard her sisters\’ descriptions of seeing the surface and human beings. When her time comes, The Little Mermaid rises to the surface and watches a birthday party on a ship in honor of a handsome prince- and she falls in love with him. A violent storm erupts and sinks the ship, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. While he is unconscious, she brings him to shore; the Prince does not know that the Little Mermaid saved him. He thinks it was a woman from a temple above the shore. 

The Little Mermaid asks her grandmother if humans can live forever; the grandmother says they cannot, but unlike mermaids, humans have an eternal soul that lives in heaven. The Little Mermaid, wanting the Prince and an eternal soul, visits the Sea Witch. The witch gives her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue and voice. The Little Mermaid will only be able to obtain a human soul if she wins the love of the Prince, and marries him. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die of a broken heart, without a human soul. 

Once she reaches the surface, she finds the prince, and they become close companions even though she cannot speak. The Prince eventually meets the woman from the temple (who he thinks originally saved him) and marries her. As they celebrate their wedding, the Little Mermaid\’s heart breaks. Her body dissolves into sea foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she turns into an earthbound spirit, and is given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds for mankind for 300 years. 

Once Upon a Time in Maine

Over the years, scholars have asserted that the fairy tale is therapeutic. The unrealistic and magical nature of these tales is important, because it makes obvious that the story\’s concern is not to inform you about the outside world, but the processes taking place within yourself.