Readership - 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




From the eighteenth century onward, frontispiece illustrations always included both boys and girls listening raptly to a woman telling, or sometimes reading, fairy tales, or to a man who was usually shown reading aloud. As the frontispiece was one of the first visible parts of a bound or an unbound book, it advertised itself as suitable for both boys and girls. In fact, dual-language school text editions of Perrault’s tales are more often marked by boys’ names as owners, English-language ones by girls. Even in the subscription list of Thomas Boreman’s History of Cajanus (1742), which dealt with a male giant, a breed more generally associated with boys’ interests (Wardetzky 1993), girls nonetheless outnumbered boys by a slight margin. In France Mme L’Heritier remembered that fairy tales and tales about fairies were for girls, fables for boys (cited in Warner 1991: 13). Shortly thereafter, Richard Steele, as Isaac Bickerstaff, described the reading habits of his godson and his sister. The boy, he said, read fables, and Betty, his sister, read fairy tales (Tatler 95, cited in MacDonald 1982: 106). England’s Sarah Fielding confirmed Mme L’Heritier’s observation when she produced The Adventures of David Simple (1744), a character with whom boys and young men could easily identify ‘a moral Romance’ (A2r) without a single reference to faerie; in The Governess, however, she embedded ‘Fable and Moral,’ but her ‘fable’ included stories of fairy magic.

The pattern of gender-specific readership was broken with the mixed content of Grimms’ Tales. Along with traditional fairy tales of magic and reversal of fortune that culminated in a wedding, the Grimms included religious tales, nonsense tales, folk tales, aetiologies, moral tales, burlesques and animal tales. In expanding the ‘fairy-tale’ canon to embrace many forms of the brief narrative (Mdrchen), the Grimms successfully incorporated both boys and girls into their readership. When, in the twentieth century, the genre in effect contracted to a small corpus of girl-tales like ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Red Riding Hood,’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, readership boundaries similarly contracted to a primarily female audience.

It is worth noting the international spread of European fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The entry of the Grimms’ tales into China around 1900 was eased by the writing system shared by Chinese and Japanese, into whose language part of the collection had been translated in the 1860s by Lafcadio Hearn. Other Grimms’ tales penetrated oral cultures in some of Germany’s African colonies. Perrault’s tales appear to have made their way into the elementary school curricula of France’s Asian and African colonial empire and thence into local tradition. The presence of some fairy tales of European origin in India may be explained by similar mechanisms.