The Science Behind Fairy Tales | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The Science Behind Fairy Tales

Ellen Daugherty investigates some of the science behind our favourite fairy tales.

In this week’s ‘hot topics’ by Nature, there has been a paper published by social scientists from The Royal Society Open Science that has used biological methods to determine the ‘true’ age of certain fairy tales.

Research carried out in this study has estimated fairy tales to be thousands of years old, and some even date back to the Bronze Age.
The aim of this experiment was to find the origin of fairy tales passed down by word of mouth. Until now it was thought that fairy tales originated only a few hundred years before they were first written down, which would make them around 500 years old. However, the research carried out in this study has estimated fairy tales to be thousands of years old, and some even date back to the Bronze Age.

Sara Graça da Silva from the New University in Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani from Durham University set out to find the origins of fairy tales by using statistical analysis of 257 folklore tales, together with the links between ancient Asian and European languages. They used the method of phylogeny, usually used to determine evolutionary relationships between species, to create trees that represent the relationships between different stories. Population data, the physical distance between Indo-European speaking societies and the oral traditions of the time, were all put together to create a phylogenetic tree of fairy tales. They focused on the split of Indo-European societies, around 5000 years ago, and then went from there.


Illustration of Rapunzel

The strongest, most convincing section of the tree, was the one containing the tale, ‘The Smith and the Devil’, which dated back to the Bronze Age. This particular tale hugely outdated the book of fairy tales published by the Grimm brothers in 1812, and even outdated the Bible. This gave the research team vital insights into the state of society all those years ago, and hopefully this can be used to create a clearer picture of how our culture evolved.

There’s nothing like taking all of the romanticism out of the world’s best known folklore, so here’s some science behind the ancient tales.

Can Rapunzel really support a fully-grown man with her hair alone?

According to some basic physics, human hair can withstand more tension than iron and copper. With a hair strength being around 380 MPa, as worked out by scientists at the University of Leicester, it would be possible for Rapunzel to hold a fully grown man, of an average size, with just her golden locks. However, the main issue is that the weight would probably pull the hair straight out of her scalp… ouch indeed. To combat this, she could simply wrap her hair around a bedpost or other stable object, therefore redirecting the friction caused by the pressure put on the hair, to the knot around the bedpost, rather than on Rapunzel’s head.

Can Snow White fall into a coma by simply eating an apple?

...the possibility of being woken up from a coma by a prince, seems unfortunately unlikely.
The Gram-positive bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, is commonly found in apples and has caused many batches of apples to be recalled from our supermarket shelves. It causes meningitis, and can in rare cases, lead to the victim being induced into a coma. So theoretically, the Evil Queen could have given Snow White an apple laced with Listeria monocytogenes. However, the possibility of being woken up from a coma by a prince, seems unfortunately unlikely.

Could Jack really climb the beanstalk?

No, he couldn’t. There isn't a beanstalk strong enough to support a human man, let alone grow to atmospheric levels where clouds are starting to form. Perhaps GM beanstalks could one-day be engineered to have incredible strength and to grow to unrealistic heights. This may seem far off, but scientists are already modifying plants DNA to protect them against strains of disease and to increase their yield. Perhaps in the distant future, could they not create a super-beanstalk that could hold the weight human man?

21 year old studying Biological Sciences, Science & Tech online editor. Especially interested in anything to do with zoology or anthropology, and an aspiration to be the next David Attenborough.


8th February 2016 at 11:11 am

Last Updated

8th February 2016 at 11:19 am

Images from

Franz Jüttner and Johnny Gruelle