The History of Recorded Fairy Tales

Illustration by H. M. Brock for “The Frog Prince” in an 1889 edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen by the Grimm Brothers. “The Frog Prince” was the first story in the Grimm collection.
Decorated Cover for Grimm’s Household Fairy Tales, translated by Ella Boldey with illustrations by R. André.  Published by McLoughlin Brothers in 1890.

Folk and fantasy stories have been passed down through the ages for thousands of years and have an ancient oral tradition in almost every country. The early fantasy tales were quite a bit different from the sanitized versions produced today. They were rougher, crueler and sometimes very violent, with young children abandoned in the woods to starve, women torn apart by wild animals, eyes pecked out by birds and villains cut open or boiled alive.

Since downtrodden peasants originated the folk tales, it is not surprising that the elite of society were depicted as ugly, ridiculed and out-smarted by long-suffering commoners (although royalty was generally revered). Poverty was a constant theme and a common goal was to marry into idleness and riches. Magical forces and life-threatening creatures were abundant. But oddly enough, almost none of the stories actually contained any fairies.

Fairy tale origins

A story very similar to “Cinderella” can be traced back to a Greek historian in 500 BC and the precursor to “Little Red Riding Hood” originated during the Middle Ages in France and Italy. Single stories, such as “The History of Tom Thumb,” were sometimes printed in British chapbooks in the 1600s. But the first person to publish a broad collection of these tales is probably Frenchman Charles Perrault (1628-1703).

Perrault was born into a wealthy family, attended the best schools and studied law before embarking on a long career in government service, assisting King Louis XIV’s finance minister in matters relating to the arts and sciences. At age 67, Perrault lost his post and decided to gather and record a collection of folk and oriental tales, which were popular among the aristocracy and the king’s court. Two years later, in 1697, he published Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé [Stories and Tales of the Past], with the subtitle Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye [Tales of Mother Goose] under the name of his youngest son, Pierre Darmancourt, who was 19 at the time.

Although Perrault drew on traditional folk sources, he perfected and refined the stories, adding satire and his own moral themes. He used familiar places and people in the settings as well as subtexts about current fashions. It was in this book that “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella,” “Puss in Boots” and many other classics first appeared together, along with lesser-known titles. The first English translation was printed in London in 1729.

A contemporary of Perrault’s, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy (1650-1705), was also a member of the French aristocracy. She was an historian and a recorder of tales, which originated in Spain and other countries outside of France. She also created her own adventure stories, writing them in a conversational tone as if they were being told in her own salon. D’Aulnoy published her collection under the title Les Contes des Fées [Tales of Fairies] and thus originated the term “fairy tales”, although her stories were generally not suitable for children.

German Johann Musäus (1735-1787) was an author, professor and scholar of theology who also published a collection of folk stories. From 1782 to 1786, he produced Volksmärchen der Deutschen [Fairy Tales of the Germans]. Like Perrault, Musäus added satire and other edits to the traditional accounts.

The Brothers Grimm

But the first to capture the simplicity of genuine folklore were the German Grimm Brothers. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were philologists, collectors and editors. They were inspired by Johann Musäus and became enthused with old German folk tales, which they believed were closely related to the myths and legends of Germanic culture.

They invited traditional storytellers to their home and recorded their direct renditions, supposedly without adaptation. The first volume of 86 numbered tales appeared in 1812, accompanied by extensive background material and profuse scholarly notes. It was called Kinder-und Hausmärchen [Nursery and Household Tales]. The second volume appeared in 1814 with 70 additional numbered tales. The first English translation of their work appeared in 1823 (entitled German Popular Stories) and was charmingly illustrated by George Cruikshank.

Although Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) published his collection of fairy stories from 1835 to 1837, most of his tales were originally created by him and not re-told from popular folklore. His inventive stories contained many of the same elements as the classics (beautiful maidens, opulent kingdoms, evil witches, talking beasts and the like) but were more complex and often metaphorically reflected his own inner conflicts.

In 1889 Scotsman Andrew Lang (1844-1912) began his renowned 12-book series of fairy stories. He included most of the classics but also many obscure renditions. In the preface for the first book of his series, The Blue Fairy Book, Lang reveals that his stories originally came from sources as varied as Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, the Grimm Brothers, Arabian Nights and the ancient Greek poets Apollodorus, Simonides and Pindar. He also drew from old Norse tales, Scottish legends and English chap books.

Lang’s mystical series paralleled the contemporary interest in occult phenomenon that was prevalent in England at that time. It was by far the most extensive fairy tale collection to date, with a rainbow of 12 books (published between 1889 and 1910), which were beautifully illustrated by H.J. Ford, Lancelot Speed and others. He used a team of women, including his wife, to interpret and adapt the many stories for his collection.

While they were different in some ways, all of these traditional folk and fairy tales differed from fables, which were short and succinct and always illustrated a moral lesson (which was often dire). Although fairy tales could contain moral themes, they were told for entertainment, featured enchanting plots and usually ended happily.

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