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The story of fairy tales

In this video, Caroline Webb sheds light on how many European fairy tales came about and why they are not as timeless as we have been led to believe.

This week we are looking further at the history of the literary fairy tale in western Europe, observing the many different writers of fairy tales. We will also analyse a rather peculiar story: Charles Perrault’s “Blue Beard,” which is much less straightforward in its message than either “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

As I indicated, although folktales may well have been told for hundreds of years, the versions we are now most familiar with have come down to us in writing. In fact, the literary fairy tale as we now know it really took off as a genre at the end of the seventeenth century, in France, when the aristocrats used to play word games and tell stories or poems to each other as part of their entertainment in their salons (that means reception rooms, not hairdressers’!).

Before that, we have some earlier Italian collections of fairy tales: Straparola’s Piacevoli Notti (“pleasant nights,” 1550) and Basile’s Pentamerone (“five days,” 1634-36), both of which feature characters telling stories aloud to each other. That is itself quite an old literary device, going back to the fourteenth-century Italian author Boccaccio’s Decameron (“ten days”). English poet Geoffrey Chaucer followed Boccaccio’s example in The Canterbury Tales, but neither Boccaccio’s stories nor Chaucer’s include what we would now think of as fairy tales.

Within the space of a couple of years at the end of the seventeenth century, a number of French writers published collections of fairy tales. Interestingly, most of these were women (including five of the eight below):

  • Mademoiselle l’Héritier, Oeuvres meslées, 1696
  • Mademoiselle la Force, Les Contes des contes, 1697
  • Charles Perrault, Histoires ou contes du temps passé, 1697
  • Madame d’Aulnoy, Les Contes des fées, 1697-98
  • Chevalier de Mailly, Les Illustres fées, 1698
  • Madame de Murat, Contes de fées, 1698
  • Jean de Prechac, Contes moins contes que les autres, 1698

Pardon madame?

Have you ever heard of any of these besides Perrault and d’Aulnoy, whom I’ve mentioned in previous weeks? Based on what we’ve read so far, why do you think women might have found the fairy tale genre useful?

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Fairy Tales: Meanings, Messages, and Morals

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