Tal es about fairies, and fairy tales - Fairy tales and folk tales - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


19. Fairy tales and folk tales


Ruth B. Bottigheimer


Tal es about fairies, and fairy tales


Tales about fairies depict the quests, tasks, trials and sufferings of usually royal heroes and heroines as well as intersections between their lives and fairyland inhabitants. The protagonists’ destinies generally change when they encounter good or evil fairies, whose actions are often unintelligible and frequently lead to troublingly amoral consequences and conclusions. During the reign of Louis XIV, writers such as Mme L’Heritier, Mme d’Aulnoy, Mme de Murat and Mlle de la Force composed ornate and lengthy tales about fairies with complicated subplots. Based partly on a rich heritage of late medieval French and Italian romances expanded by Renaissance and Baroque Italian tale collections, their tales about fairies exploded with colourful descriptions of bejewelled gardens, beguiling heroines and appetising feasts. Adapted for adult aristocratic French audiences, the stories found favour among children and lasted well into the nineteenth century. A representative example, Mme d’Aulnoy’s ‘Wild Boar’, begins with a long-barren queen, whose longing for a child is complicated by a mischievous fairy’s wish that it be born with a boar’s skin.

The common people were familiar with a fairy world that included leprechauns, kobolds, gnomes, elves and little people (Briggs 1976, 1978), which they often called upon to frighten children. John Locke decried this practice and urged readers of his Thoughts on Education to eschew hobgoblins and their ilk altogether (Locke 1693: 159). Despite his influence in other educational questions, his advice was often ignored.

Fairy tales, unlike tales about fairies, as often as not have no fairies in their cast of characters. They are generally brief narratives in simple language that detail a reversal of fortune, often with a rags-to-riches plot that culminates in a wedding. Magical creatures regularly assist earthly heroes and heroines achieve happiness, and the entire story exemplifies a proverb, as in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, or demonstrates a moral point, appended separately, as in Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passe, or built into the text, as in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmdrchen.

In terms of the history and development of children’s literature, tales about fairies and fairy tales postdate the earliest writing for children - instructional manuals, grammars, school texts, and books of courtesy. Bible stories, too, regularly preceded the appearance of fairy tales, and in the eighteenth century were often intermixed with them, as in Mme Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfants (1756). Although her preface privileges the truth of Bible stories (histoires) over the falseness of fairy tales (contes), it was her version of the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that survived as a nursery classic.

The magic of modern fantasy fiction is an offspring of the joint parentage of tales about fairies and fairy tales. Born in the second half of the nineteenth century, fantasy fiction matured in the twentieth century.

Both tales about fairies and fairy tales demonstrate the phenomenon of readership boundary cross-over. The content of tales about fairies that were originally composed by and for adults often passed, in simplified form, into the domain of children’s reading. Mme d’Aulnoy’s ‘The Yellow Dwarf’ provides an example of this process: published with its tragic conclusion throughout the eighteenth century for adults and for children, it was altered to end happily for nineteenth-century child-readers (Warner 1994: 253).

For centuries, discrete narratives, whether tales about fairies, fairy tales or secular tales, had been embedded within overarching story-telling narratives, like that provided by the pilgrimage in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Some of the French story-tellers’ tales about fairies maintained this narrative tradition, but Perrault’s Contes broke with it. His structural innovation, the free-standing fairy tale, became the norm in children’s literature, although the embedded fairy tale periodically returned, for example in Sarah Fielding’s eighteenth-century novel The Governess (1749) and in a nineteenth-century English reformulation of Grimms’ Tales into a twelve-night cycle between Christmas and Twelfth Night told by ‘Gammar Gurton’.