Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

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.
A lot of us have the idea that fairytales are somehow timeless, universal, ‘a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme.’ As we’ve already seen though, that’s not totally the case. Fairy tales and folk tales come to us from particular moments in history and then get passed down, passed around and altered according to the attitudes of their cultures. A tale that was popular at one moment may go out of sight for a while.
The earliest versions of fairy tales that we have written down from Western European culture come to us from Italy with the writers Straparola and Basile and particularly there was a flurry of activity in late 17th century France from the very end of the 17th century when a number of writers - apparently initially doing this as part of telling tales in salon. The aristocrats would gather to entertain one another - didn’t have television, didn’t have the internet - and they would tell stories and some of these stories got written down and circulated and even published.
So writers like Madame L’Héritier, Madame d’Aulnoy, Madame de Villeneuve and later on of course Madame Leprince de Beaumont who wrote Beauty and the Beast these are all writing as part of that culture. One of the most famous is the writer Charles Perrault. We’re looking at Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood. We’re also looking at Bluebeard. In both cases these are the earliest versions of the tales as we have them now. Perrault actually published his stories. He called them ‘contes histoires du temps passé’ which means tales or stories of past time and he subtitled them ‘Mother Goose Tales’.
So quite often in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries in England and english-speaking cultures you’d see Mother Goose Rhymes, Mother Goose Tales, Tales of Mother Goose and usually those stories were Perrault’s stories, sometimes others tales would get collected in under the generic idea that all fairy tales were basically the same. One of the things that Perrault did, as we see with Little Red Riding Hood and especially with Bluebeard, is that he added, as he said in his title, ‘avec des Moralitez’, with morals. So he was following the practice of some early fable writers of adding to each tale a little comment on what he thought was the message of the tale, what the message of the story actually was.
So when we think of the modern fairy tale a lot of the time we’re thinking of stories by Perrault, sometimes modified, sometimes added to as with the Grimm versions, and this is what we’re examining. What did Perrault’s tales signify in his time to his culture, as opposed to ours?

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?

This article is from the free online

Fairy Tales: Meanings, Messages, and Morals

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now