Folk Tales and Fairy Tales

views updated


FOLK TALES AND FAIRY TALES. Fairy tales, folk tales, and learned literature have markedly different histories and characteristics.


Fabulous transformations of creatures from one form to another, special numbers (3, 7, 12, 40), speaking animals, and fairy beings have existed as literary motifs since antiquity, as has the theme of a parallel but alternative world inhabited by gods, goddesses, or fairy creatures that impinges on human lives. In the later Middle Ages, individual romances incorporated such elements, as did the early and influential collection, Gesta Romanorum (mid-fourteenth century).

In Renaissance Venice, Giovan Francesco Straparola (c. 1480c. 1555) reformulated existing romance materials into a handful of "restoration" fairy tales about princes and princesses who lose their royal positions, later regaining them through magical intervention. Straparola also invented a new kind of "rise" plot in which poor girls or boysthrough magical interventionmarry princes, kings, or princesses, thereby gaining great wealth. Straparola's restoration and rise tales, together with recycled urban tales in his Piacevoli Notti (15501553; variously translated as The facetious, pleasant, or delectable nights), addressed the interests of literate readers of all classes and sold correspondingly well, as evidenced by frequent reprintings.

A second strand in the European fairy tale tradition emerged in Naples in Lo cunto de li cunti over lo trattenemiento de li peccerille by Giambattista Basile (c. 15751632). Initially published in 16341636, the collection's fifty stories had little immediate influence outside Italy. Straparola's collection, however, first translated into French in 1560 and published in France a total of sixteen times, was repeatedly scavenged for plots by Mme Catherine d'Aulnoy (c. 16501705) and her circle, as well as by Charles Perrault (16281703) and his niece Mlle Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier (c. 16641734) from the 1690s onward.

Contemporary with one another, the fairy tales of Mme. d'Aulnoy (first published in 1690, 1697, and 1698) and the folk and fairy tales of Charles Perrault (initially published in 1691, 1693, 1694, 1696, and 1697) differed profoundly from one another. Mme. d'Aulnoy favored exuberant vocabulary and elaborate plots whose characters' jostlings with the fairy realm might benefit, but could sometimes destroy, them. Her tales quickly spread to England, where three successive translations and reworkings made them available to "the ladies of Great Britain," then to the middle class, subsequently to an artisanal readership, and in the 1770s in a format for children. Perrault, on the other hand, imitated the simpler plots and stories of the popular press (bibliothèque bleue), which a generation later began to publish them, spreading them to humble readers throughout France. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, J. A. Galland's multivolume Thousand and One Nights (17041717), drawn from Near Eastern tradition, vastly enlarged the European repertoire of exotic plots, characters, and motifs.

The sheer number of fairy tale collections in eighteenth-century Francein addition to those of individual authors, collected editions appeared in 1710, 1717, 1718, 173135, 1732, 1754, 17641765, and most famously in the Cabinet des Fées in 17851789elicited fairy tale parodies, which ranged from amusingly ironic to licentiously erotic. The same collections provided German publishing houses with stories for a growing German readership, and by 1789 Germany was saturated with fairy tales that no longer bore identifying marks of their French origins. In sharp contrast, religious censorship of print publications in Spain emptied that country of the fairy tales shared by Italy, France, and Germany.

In Germany, fairy tales as reformulated by Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, and above all, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm exerted a powerful influence on later Romantics. Consequently, they became an integral part of early-nineteenth-century writing, notably that of Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Carl Wilhelm Salice Contessa, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Christian August Vulpius, and even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who composed an elaborate literary fairy tale. That literary tradition continued in the work of Wilhelm Hauff, Eduard Mörike, and Gottfried Keller.

Nation-forming imperatives in the nineteenth century used the widespread knowledge of fairy tales among the general population to postulate a theory of oral transmission among the folk. Although this view has been increasingly undermined by studies of literary transmission, a new consensus has not yet emerged.


In tales anointed with the name of Aesop, animals enact simple plots in ways that have been held to exemplify universal truths about human behavior. Attributed to a Greek slave of the sixth century b.c.e., this corpus now incorporates tales from Indic and Arabic traditions. Often part of Latin school curricula in the medieval, Renaissance, and early modern periods, Aesopic tales comprised one of the earliest components of children's literature in the vernacular.

Medieval Renard talesmock courtly romances with stock characters (Renard the fox, Ysengrin the wolf), inverted plots, and parodistic characteristicssurvived in early modern chap-books, small, cheap pamphlet-like books. Both Aesopic material and the Renard cycle provided models for speaking animals in early modern magic tales.

A second body of folk material, The Fables of Bidpai or Pilpay (also known as Kalila and Dimna ) derived from the ancient Indian Panchatantra and passed through Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Old Spanish, and finally Latin (as the Directorium humanae vitae of Johannes of Capua, c. 1270) before entering European vernaculars. Its stories, like those in the Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alphonsus (c. 10651122 or later), were well suited to use in sermons, and in the baroque period both Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests introduced them into homilies, thus (re)familiarizing their listeners with folk tale plots and characters.

Folk tales with human characters follow characteristic social trajectories, with poor protagonists generally remaining in their low estate, though sometimes with a magic alleviation of their suffering. Documented as long ago as the mid-fourteenth-century Gesta Romanorum, the magic food-producing pouch of the Fortunatus cycle is an ancient example of this kind of tale.


Fairy tales, folk tales, and folk belief have frequently entered the learned arts. Opera repeatedly adopted folk tale plots, such as several Tom Thumb operas in England in the early eighteenth century, Il paese della Cuccagna (The Land of Cockaigne, 1750) as well as operas based on fairy tales, such as Cendrillon (Cinderella, 1759), Zémire et Azor (1771), Raoul Barbe-bleue (Raoul Bluebeard, 1789), and Aladdin (1789). Much the same is true of ballet. In England, folk belief also penetrated Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595).

By far the more frequent phenomenon, however, is movement from learned literature to folk tradition. Giovanni Boccaccio's "Griselda" tale in the Decameron (13511353), his own creation, reappeared in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 13871400), but it was a Latin translation of Boccaccio's tale by Francesco Petrarch (13041374) that disseminated this misogynistic tale throughout Europe in a single version that was subsequently translated into the folk literature of every European vernacular. Universal themes evident in "folk" fairy tales such as those of Perrault and Grimm sometimes mirror those in learned literature.

Between 1500 and 1789 fairy tales represented a novella-like subgenre in the evolution of the modern novel. Literary fairy tales (Straparola's restoration tales, and the fairy tales of Mme. d'Aulnoy and her circle) consist of serial adventures characteristic of picaresque novels. In contrast, "folk" fairy tales typically have fewer adventures and a simpler, repetitive vocabulary, characteristics that reflect the different audiences and readerships among which they flourished.

See also French Literature and Language ; German Literature and Language ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Italian Literature and Language ; Magic ; Novalis ; Opera ; Romanticism .


Primary Sources

Basile, Giambattista. The Pentamerone. Translated by Benedetto Croce and N. M. Penzer. Westport, Conn., 1979. Translation of Lo cunto de li cunti (16341636).

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimms' Tales for Young and Old: The Complete Stories. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Garden City, N.Y., 1977. Translation of Kinderund Hausmärchen (1857).

Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious Nights of Straparola. Translated by W. G. Waters. London, 1898. Translation of Le piacevoli notti. (1551, 1553).

Zipes, Jack, ed. Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment. Classic French Fairy Tales. Translated by Jack Zipes. New York, 1989.

Secondary Sources

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the European Fairy Tale Tradition. Philadelphia, 2002.

. Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven, 1987.

Canepa, Nancy. From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's "Lo cunto de li cunti" and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale. Detroit, 1999.

Grätz, Manfred. Das Märchen in der deutschen Aufklärung: Vom Feenmärchen zum Volksmärchen. Stuttgart, 1988.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie, compilers. The Classic Fairy Tales. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Rölleke, Heinz. Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm: Eine Einführung. Munich, 1985.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer