Friday, November 05, 2010

A Short History of Fairy Tales

So, if you're curious to find out about fairytales - all the stuff the other so-called experts won't tell you, that is (i.e. that nobody really knows anything about them for certain - none of the things that matter, anyway: where they come from and why they're structured the way they are, for instance) - then come along to Objectspace on Saturday the 13th of this month to hear Bronwyn reading out some of the revisionist stories she's put together for this exhibition, and then me giving my own views on the subject.

And by the way, here's a link to the post on Beattie's Book Blog on the subject, as well as a review on The Big Idea.

As a kind of foretaste, here are some of the labels I've written for the book display which is also part of the show ...

Wall-Texts & Labels:

Nobody really knows when or where folktales first started to be told. Nor is it clear whether they began as popular versions of more sophisticated mythological or literary stories, or whether the influence was mainly the other way round. In any case, the first publications to draw on these no doubt already well-established traditions came into Europe from the East: The Fables of Bidpai, The Seven Sages, and The 1001 Nights. By the late middle ages, though, it was homegrown folklore that was being drawn on in such collections as the Lais of Marie de France or the Latin Gesta Romanorum.

The first compilations of stories which appear to preserve what we would now call fairytales in something resembling their original form are Giovanni Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti [Pleasant Nights] (1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634-36).

Books included:

    Marie de France (late 12th century):

  1. James Reeves. The Shadow of the Hawk. Illustrated by Anne Dalton. London: Collins, 1975.

    Almost no biographical details about Marie de France have come down to us, but her name implies that she may have been a Frenchwoman resident in England. She wrote her twelve lais, or verse-stories, in the Norman-French dialect sometime in the late 1100s. The book included here is a modern prose retelling of some of her best tales by modern English poet James Reeves.

  2. Gesta Romanorum (late 13th-early 14th century):

  3. Tales of the Monks from the Gesta Romanorum. Edited by Manuel Komroff. 1928. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1947.

    The medieval tradition of storytelling in Latin is represented here by this handsome reprint of the late 13th-century Gesta Romanorum [Deeds of the Romans], an anonymously-compiled edition of anecdotes and fables from a variety of sources, eastern and European. One of the most popular books of its time, it was probably intended mainly for the use of preachers, since a rather ponderous moral (omitted in this edition) was originally appended to each story.

  4. Giambattista Basile (c.1566–1632):

  5. Giovanni Batiste Basile. Il Pentamerone. Trans. Richard F. Burton. 1893. New York: Horace Liveright, 1932.

    Basile's collection of stories told in Neapolitan dialect, Lo cunto de li cunti, overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille [The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for the Little Ones] (1634-36) – also known as Il Pentamerone, or Five Days' Entertainments – is one of the first attempts to collect local folktales in something resembling their original form. This translation, by Richard F. Burton of Arabian Nights fame, includes Basile's versions of “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, “Puss in Boots”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Hansel and Gretel”.

  6. The 1001 Nights, or Arabian Nights' Entertainments (1704-1717):

  7. Laurence Housman. Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights. Illustrated by Edmund Dulac. 1907. New York: Weathervane Books, 1978.

    At almost the same moment as the submerged tradition of oral storytelling was being revived in France by Charles Perrault, the first versions of the Arabic Thousand and One Nights began to appear, heralding a positive avalanche of Oriental tales all over Europe: some original, some imitations. This is one of the many English versions of Antoine Galland's French translation, which appeared in twelve volumes between 1704 and 1717. Galland's tidied-up version of the stories does reflect the prudery of his times, but it also includes a number of new stories collected from Ms. and oral sources, among them “Sindbad," "Ali Baba” and “Aladdin”.

[Charles Perrault]

The Classic Collections (1):


Charles Perrault (1628-1703):

In 1697, French aristocrat Charles Perrault published the book Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé [Stories or Tales of Times Past], with the subtitle Contes de ma Mère l'Oie [Tales of Mother Goose]. Or, rather, he didn't, since the book's title-page actually attributes it to his nineteen-year-old son Pierre (Perrault was 69 at the time). So who was the actual author? Nobody knows. It's assumed that Charles was the author and his son was credited instead simply because the tales had been told to him and his other siblings over the years, but that's pure speculation. It was a strange beginning to the career of the most influential book of fairytales ever published.

The eleven stories he recorded include “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Bluebeard”, “Puss in Boots”, “Cinderella”, and “Hop o' My Thumb”, as well as three told in verse: “Patient Griselda”, “Donkeyskin”, and “The Ridiculous Wishes”.

Books included:

  1. Charles Perrault. Contes de Perrault. 1697. Edited by Gilbert Rouget. Classiques Garnier. 1967. Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1981.

    This modern French edition of Perrault's original 1697 collection includes notes, variants, facsimiles, and a variety of other scholarly aids for the dedicated folktale researcher.

  2. Charles Perrault. Perrault’s Fairy Tales. 1697. Illustrated by Gustave Doré. 1867. Translated by A. E. Johnson. 1921. New York: Dover, 1969.

    This English translation of Perrault is remarkable mainly for its illustrations, Gustave Doré at his most tenebrous and disturbing. Dover Books of New York specialises in exact reprints of out-of-print material in inexpensive form.

  3. Шарль Перро. Волшебные Сказки. 1697. Adapted by M. A. Bulatov. Illustrated by G. A. V. Traigot. 1976. Leningrad: «Дет. Лит.», 1977.

    Few illustrators of Perrault can ever have been quite as dedicated as G. A. V. Traigot. This beautiful Russian translation of his fairytales came from the discard stack at Auckland public library, along with a number of other Russian fairytale books, as interesting textually as they are attractive artistically.

  4. Neil Philip (b.1955):

  5. Neil Philip. The Cinderella Story. Penguin Folklore Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989.

    Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre [Cinderella, or the little glass slipper] is one of the most widely-reported folktales in world culture. The version included in Perrault’s collection is undoubtedly the best-known of them, but Neil Philips’s fascinating book attempts to do justice to the almost bewildering number of variants of this story which have so far been collected.

[Margaret Hunt, trans. Grimm's Fairy Tales (1948)]

The Classic Collections (2):

The Brothers Grimm

Jacob (1785-1863) & Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859):

The Brothers Grimm were academic scholars whose principal interest was in the historical roots of German culture and language (their other works included dictionaries, grammars and technical works on German mythology and tradition). It would have greatly surprised them to find that they are now generally thought of as children's authors, and that the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, in its various editions, would go on to dwarf all their other achievements.

The first edition of their collection (1812-1815) contained a mere 156 stories; the seventh, in 1857, included 211, together with an immense mass of notes and variant versions (generally omitted from even the most "complete" English translations). In between these two dates the two brothers did a good deal of work on polishing and toning down the rawness of some of the versions they had originally included.

Books included:

  1. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm. Kinder- und Hausmärchen: Ausgabe letzer Hand mit dem Originalanmerkungen der Brüder Grimm. 3 vols. Edited by Heinz Rölleke. 1980. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jnr., 1991.

    This set of miniature paperbacks includes not only the text of the final expanded edition of the Grimms' fairytales, but also the entirely of their notes and variants. An indispensable source for anyone who wants to return to the bedrock of these classic stories.

  2. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm. Fairy Tales. 1812-1815. Translated by Edgar Taylor. Illustrated by George Cruickshank. 2 vols. 1823 & 1826. London: the Scolar Press, 1977.

    This modern facsimile edition of the first English translation of the Grimm's tales preserves the original text and ordering of the first German edition, and is thus of considerable scholarly interest in itself.

  3. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm. The Annotated Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. Edited & Translated by Maria Tatar. Introduction by A. S. Byatt. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.

    Maria Tatar's beautifully illustrated and exhaustively annotated selection from the Grimms' "wonder tales" provides a good starting point for anyone wanting to go beyond the bowdlerized texts familiar to us from childhood.

[Andersen with Duckling]

The Classic Collections (3):


Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875):

Possibly the most successful, yet also the most eccentric and self-pitying literary genius of the Nineteenth century, Hans Christian Andersen is one of very few writers who can be said to have added to the corpus of genuine fairytales in their own right. His earliest publications in the genre – “The Tinder Box”, “Thumbelina” – were based on existing Danish folktales (hence their air of authenticity). As time went by, though, his stories became ever more personal and self-searching, culminating in such expressionist classics as "The Snow Queen" and "The Shadow".

He was also a talented artist, though. Wherever he went in the world – and he travelled obsessively in the middle to late portion of his life – Andersen impressed his audiences of children and adults with his ability to create intricate, haunting landscapes and portraits out of cut-out paper.

Books included:

  1. Hans Christian Andersen. Samlede Eventyr og Historier. Illustrated by Vilhelm Pedersen & Lorenz Frolich. Jubilaeumsudgave. Odense: Hans Reitzels Forlag / Flensteds Forlag, 1991.

    A modern Danish edition of Andersen's complete fairytales and short stories, including the original illustrations overseen by the author himself.

  2. The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen. Edited by Maria Tatar. Translated by Maria Tatar & Julie K. Allen. Introduction by A. S. Byatt. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

    One of the most beautiful books in the "annotated" series, Maria Tatar's selection from Andersen’s work tries to do justice to his complex and equivocal influence on world literature.

  3. Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by Naomi Lewis. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. 2004. Walker Illustrated Classics. London: Walker Books Ltd., 2009.

    This recent edition of Andersen’s most celebrated tales includes beautiful illustrations by Joel Stewart, as well as a competent translation by renowned British children’s author Naomi Lewis, who died recently at the age of 97.

  4. Beth Wagner Brust. The Amazing Paper Cuttings of Hans Christian Andersen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

    Though they have occasionally been used to illustrate editions of Andersen’s stories, this book is the first comprehensive attempt to document this strange and unexpected talent of his.

  5. Kay Nielsen (1886–1957):

  6. Keith Nicholson. Kay Nielsen. London: Coronet Books, 1975.

    One of the greatest illustrators of the Golden Age, the Dane Kay Nielsen ended up, in later life, in California, where he designed the "Night on Bald Mountain” sequence for Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). The selections in this book book – mainly from Hans Christian Andersen – can only do partial justice to the baroque elegance of his illustrations of fantastic literature in general.

[Iona & Peter Opie: The Classic Fairy Tales (1974)]

Other Collections

Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Andersen remain the best-known authors and collectors of classic European fairytales. However, their works inspired a positive explosion of folktale collecting and publishing all around the world in the mid to late Nineteenth century. Governor Grey's various collections of traditional New Zealand folktales and songs are one case in point, but one should also mention here Afanasyev's Russian Fairytales (1855-67), Asbjørnsen and Moe's Popular Tales from the Norse (1859), and (of course), Andrew Lang's twelve-volume collection of colour-coded collections of fairytales, beginning with the Blue Fairy Book in 1889 and ending with the Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.

Perhaps the last great original collectors and compilers of European folktales were the novelist Italo Calvino, whose Fiabe Italiane [Italian Folktales] first appeared in 1956, and Katharine Briggs, whose exhaustive, yet fascinating four-volume Dictionary of British Folk-Tales was published in 1970.

Books included:

    Sir George Grey (1812-1898):

  1. George Grey. Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori as Told by Their Priests and Chiefs. 1854-55. Ed. W. W. Bird. Illustrated by Russell Clark. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1965.

    Governor Grey’s influential collection of Māori legends and traditions, included here in an inexpensive modern reprint, represents only the tip of the iceberg of a colossal collection effort which would eventually turn into New Zealand’s largest single repository of Māori-language manuscripts.

  2. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916)

  3. Joseph Jacobs. English Fairy Tales: Being the Two Collections English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales. 1890 & 1894. Illustrated by Margery Gill. London: The Bodley Head, 1968.

    The few homegrown English folktales which could not be traced back to Perrault and Grimm long eluded collectors. Joseph Jacobs, an Australian scholar, published this beautifully accessible and poetic version of the ones he could unearth in the 1890s, together with two collections of Celtic fairytales (1892-1894).

  4. Peter (1918-1982) & Iona Opie (b.1923):

  5. Iona & Peter Opie. The Classic Fairy Tales. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

    The Opies’ classic collections of children’s poems (most notably The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951)) and games (such as The Lore and Language of School Children (1959), together with its various sequels) have earned them a central role in the history of folklore. The Classic Fairy Tales is one of their most influential – and entertaining – books, still valuable after 35 years.

  6. Kathleen Lines (b.1902):

  7. The Faber Storybook. Edited by Kathleen Lines. Illustrated by Alan Howard. 1961. London: Faber, 1972.

    Kathleen M. Lines, a dedicated anthologist and expert on folktales and macabre fiction generally, here collaborates with British artist Alan Howard to provide a useful collection of modern and traditional stories.

[Joseph Campbell: The Hero's Journey]


There are as many ways of understanding and interpreting fairytales and folk literature as there are readers of it. I’ve tried to include here some of the most famous and influential scholars who have contributed to our contemporary understanding of these stories. They include Stith Thompson, of the Aarne-Thompson motif index; Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Folktale (1928) remains a classic in the field; Joseph Campbell, whose mythological readings of Grimm and the Arabian Nights have possibly been more influential than any others; and finally Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment revolutionised understanding of the influence of fairytales on early childhood development.

Another distinguished scholar who should be acknowledged here is J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, whose 1939 essay “On Fairy-stories” is one of the most delightful and idiosyncratic accounts of our abiding fascination with tales of fantasy ever written.

Books included:

    Stith Thompson (1885-1976):

  1. Stith Thompson. The Folktale. 1946. New York: The Dryden Press, Inc., 1951.

    The single greatest scholarly contribution to the field of folktale research to date is undoubtedly the Aarne-Thompson motif classification system. First published by Anti Aarne in 1910, it was greatly expanded by Thompson into the six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932–37). The idea of this system is to group stories according to their central motifs, each of which has an “AT” classification number, now (after successive revisions) numbering in the thousands.

  2. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (1895-1970):

  3. Vladimir Propp. Morphology of the Folktale. 1928. Translated by Laurence Scott. Introduction by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson. 1958. Revised by Louis A. Wagner. Introduction by Alan Dundes. 1968. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

    Propp’s formalist analysis of Russian folktales, first published in 1928, attempted to reduce their complex yet intensely repetitive plots to a series of essential narrative elements. The thirty-one narrative functions and eight basic character types identified by him greatly influenced the rise of structuralism, and continue to exercise a considerable influence on Narratology to this day.

  4. Joseph Campbell (1904-1987):

  5. Joseph Campbell. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. 1969. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

    Joseph Campbell's Jungian syncretism has, at times, incurred the criticism that it tends to block out the social and historical specificities of particular cultures. This wide-ranging collection of essays is, however, one of his most stimulating books. It includes his analyses of the Arabian Nights and Grimm's fairytales, together with a number of other thought-provoking excursuses on the roots of mythology and folk literature in general.

  6. Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990):

  7. Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

    Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist who specialised in treating the child survivors of the holocaust, published this intensely controversial book in the 1970s. Rejecting contemporary condemnation of Grimm's fairytales for their violence and lack of social conscience, he argued for their precise and ordered role in formulating a child's view of the realities of the culture he or she will grow up to inhabit. Bettelheim’s now unfashionable Freudian viewpoint cannot rob this fascinating book of its status as a milestone in folktale studies.

[Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith: The Stinky Cheese Man (1992)]


The Beginning of the Women’s Movement and the growth of Feminist literary criticism in the 1970s opened the door to some startlingly original new readings of the fairytale canon. Some of the highlights from the past forty years of reading against the grain include English novelist Angela Carter’s anthologies and rewritings of classic fairytales; American Marxist scholar Jack Zipes’ attempts to re-evaluate the entire history of the folktale in Europe, culminating in his Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000) and his Norton anthology The Great Fairy Tale Tradition (2001); and Harvard Professor Maria Tatar’s various volumes of illustrated and annotated Classic Fairy Tales.

A. S. Byatt, Joanna Russ, Marina Warner and Ursula K. Le Guin are just a few of the authors who have published interesting collections of modern fairytales, placing new emphases on traditional society’s ingrained assumptions about gender and politics.

Books included:

    Angela Carter (1940-1992):

  1. Angela Carter. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. Introduction by Helen Simpson. 2006. Vintage Classics. London: Random House, 2007.

    Angela Carter's collection The Bloody Chamber (which also inspired Neil Jordan's 1987 film The Company of Wolves), is probably the most influential revisionist retelling of classic fairytales to date. Carter had previously published a complete translation of Perrault (1977), and went on to edit two volumes of Fairy Tales (modern and traditional) for British Feminist publisher Virago.

  2. Jon Scieszka (b.1954):

  3. Jon Scieszka. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Illustrated by Lane Smith. Puffin Books. London: Penguin, 1992.

    This is a good example of the new, postmodern versions of traditional fairytales which now appear on a fairly regular basis. Polish-American writer Scieszka is a tireless campaigner for children’s literacy, and is concerned to provide them with the kinds of books that break down rather than reinforcing cultural and socio-economic divisions.

  4. Marina Warner (b.1946):

  5. Marina Warner. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. 1994. London: Vintage, 1995.

    Marina Warner's blend of wide reading and infectious enthusiasm has inspired her to write a number of books on folklore and popular culture. This one – together with its sequel No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998) – attempts to cram the whole gamut of oral folk culture into one breathless ride.

  6. Jack Zipes (b.1937):

  7. Jack Zipes. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. London: Heinemann, 1983.

    For Jack Zipes, nothing about fairytales is ever simple and straightforward. His Marxist analyses of the societies that produced these tales, together with his constant sniping at the patriarchal values of late modernity, make his books a minefield of provocations against the traditional pieties.

[Jane Ray: The Twelve Dancing Princesses]

Miscellaneous Illustrators

The (so-called) “Golden Age” of book illustration ran roughly from the 1880s to just after the First World War, and included such luminaries as Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) and Howard Pyle (1853-1911). It’s impossible to do justice here to the innumerable artists who’ve published fairytale illustrations over the years, but here are some isolated highpoints from the tradition:

Books included:

    Jiří Běhounek (b.1952):

  1. Jiří Běhounek. The Nightingale: A Favourite Hans Andersen Story Retold for Young Children. 1971. London: Hamlyn, 1975.

    Czech artist Jiří Běhounek here plays a fantastic game with the Chinoiserie of Andersen’s famous tale. Is it meant as a critique or a celebration of the story?

  2. Anthony Browne (b.1946):

  3. Anthony Browne. Hansel and Gretel. 1981. Translated by Eleanor Quarrie. 1949. London: Walker Books Ltd., 2008.

    Anthony Browne’s version of this classic story is only one of the many illustrated versions of single Grimm stories available today in picturebook form.

  4. Lauren Child (b.1965):

  5. Lauren Child. The Princess and the Pea in Miniature: After the Fairy Tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Captured by Polly Borland. 2005. Puffin Books. London: Penguin, 2006.

    A somewhat revisionist modern take on Andersen’s misogynist original.

  6. Felix Hoffmann (b.1911):

  7. Felix Hoffmann. The Sleeping Beauty: A Story by the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Peter Collier. 1959. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    Swiss artist Felix Hoffmann is famed for his illustrations to a wide range of books, fairytale collections and others.

  8. Jane Ray (b.1960):

  9. Jane Ray. Snow White: A Three-Dimensional Fairy-Tale Theatre. London: Walker, 2009.

    British illustrator Jane Ray has more than 30 children’s books to her credit, as well as posters, greeting-cards and book covers. At art school she specialized in 3-dimensional design (ceramics, glass-blowing, furniture and jewellery) but she returned to illustration after graduation. The influence of this early training can be seen in this pop-up version of “Snow White”.

[Jane Ray: Snow White]

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