The term "fairytale" has come to cover almost anything fanciful and, since the Victorian period, has been largely identified with children. This has limited an appreciation of the literary artform of the fairytale at its best and misinterpreted its purpose. Here we distinguish the fairytale from the Folktale and from its nonfantastic counterparts. We also distinguish it from the Fable, where the emphasis is on message not story, but we do recognize the fairytale's contribution toward Children's Fantasy. We would prefer to differentiate between fairytales (tales involving Fairies) and Wonder Tales, a more embracing term; unfortunately the distinction has yet to enter popular usage.
To define our terms, then: The fairytale is a written story that relies upon the Fantastic, although it need not involve fairies or Faerie. It is usually set somewhere distant in place or time or both – in "once upon a time" or, as J R R Tolkien called it, the "Perilous Realm". It almost always involves a Transformation, either physically or through self-discovery, so that by its end people or circumstances have changed, generally allowing a "happy ever after" conclusion. The emphasis is on Story, particularly the Twice-Told, both highlighting the timelessness and the continuity of the tale and allowing education from generation to generation. In this respect it has borrowed from the oral tradition but codified it within a format that encourages the instructive suspension of disbelief. The literary fairytale is thus the core of the Wonder Tale (in that it relies totally on the marvellous and the creation of awe) and can be distinguished from the Horror tale, where the supernatural tends to a destructive end. While never intended to be wholly believable, it contains sufficient sense to ensure the audience understands its application in the real world. Thus stories like "Little Red Riding-Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel", while containing the potential to horrify, seek to frighten within a world that is initially welcoming and familiar and (usually) becomes so again. The first transformation is usually linked to an Into-the-Woods device, marking the transcendence from this world to one more fantastic. Fairytales are thus often Crosshatch fantasies, if not set wholly in the Secondary World of Faerie.
The oldest known fairytale "The Doomed Prince" (circa 1300BC) appeared in ancient Egypt. Many Greek and Celtic Legends reappear as fairytales, which thus have much in common with other early literature, such as the chansons de geste and the medieval Romance. The Gesta Romanorum ["Deeds of the Romans"] (13th century) became an accumulation of Allegories, fables and stories, totalling over 200, originally composed in Latin and drawing from Roman and Oriental sources, which served as lessons given by preachers. It was first printed in 1473 and was a source for many medieval writers, including Shakespeare, who used elements from it in King Lear (performed 1606; 1608) and The Merchant of Venice (1600). It is also the primary source for the story of "Androcles and the Lion" (attributed to Aulus Gellius [117-180]).
The fairytale form had been used by earlier writers, the earliest surviving example being Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass (circa AD155) by Apuleius, but it was not a consciously composed idiom. The credit for this goes to the Italian writer Giovanni Straparola (?1480-1558), whose Le Piacevoli Notti ["The Delectable Nights"] (1550-1553) brought together over 70 stories and anecdotes – several presented in fairytale form – told in the vernacular, including "The Pig Prince", a seminal story of transformation. Straparola used the framework-story device of Boccaccio's Decameron (1358). This was also the inspiration for Lo Cunto de li Cunti ["The Story of Stories"] (1634; vt The Pentameron 1674) by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), whose volume of over 50 fairytales became an inspiration across Europe.
The fairytale form was now taken up by French society, in particular Madame d'Aulnoy and Charles Perrault in their literary salons. They used the mode for contemporary satire. D'Aulnoy's "The Blue Bird" first introduced the character Prince Charming. The English translation of her collection Les contes de fées (coll vols 1-3 1696-1697, vol 4 1698; trans as Tales of the Fairys 1699 UK) gave the name "fairytale" to the form. Perrault's Histoires ou Contes du temps passé; Avec des Moralitez (coll 1697; trans Guy Miège as Histories, or Tales of Past Times 1729 UK), on the other hand, through its simplicity and directness, contained far more memorable stories, and provided the seminal texts for many of our best-known Underliers, including Sleeping Beauty, "Little Red Riding-Hood", Puss-in-Boots and Cinderella. Although not particularly aimed at children, Perrault's tales immediately attracted a younger audience. This was partly because each of Perrault's stories had a moral; though this form had been used by earlier writers, Perrault's morals were more direct and applicable to children. It was thus that the children's fairytale and the literary fairytale began to divide, a division made even more obvious by the nursery ghettoization of the medium in the UK, though fairytales for children became frowned upon with the growth of moral rectitude at the start of the 19th century. The fairytale continued to develop throughout Europe, further inflated by the Oriental stories which had become so popular in the wake of The Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy). A series of anthologies of fairytales published in France and the Netherlands as Le Cabinet des Fées ["The Fairy Library"] started out with three volumes in 1731 and had expanded to 41 volumes by 1785, when the definitive set was published by Charles Mayer. This period of the French fairytale has been recreated in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments (anth 1989) ed Jack Zipes, which includes the first full-length translation into English, as "The Story of Beauty and the Beast", of "La Belle et la Bête" (in Les contes marins ou la jeune Américaine coll 1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1695-1755) – whose original version has been occluded by the shorter and more accessible "Beauty and the Beast" (1757) by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont – which Zipes suggests may be the best-known fairytale in the world (see Beauty and the Beast).
As the fairytale form faded in France it became adopted by the German Romantics (see Romanticism). Their use of the word Märchen describes fairytales in the widest sense, featuring the supernatural, but not necessarily fairies. This was further distinguished by Volksmärchen (folktales) and Wundermärchen (wonder tales, or literary fairytales), which latter could be further identified as Kindermärchen (children's fairytales). The earliest collectors of such folktales were Johann Musäus, with Volksmärchen der Deutschen (1782-1787 5 vols; cut trans as Popular Tales of the Germans 1791 UK; vt Popular Tales 1826 UK) – which included "Richilde", an early version of Snow White – and Ludwig Tieck, with Volksmärchen (omni 1797), which included his own versions of "Bluebeard" and Puss-in-Boots. The retrieval of folklore roots was crucial to the Romantic movement and, encouraged by Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), who collaborated on collections of folksongs and tales, the Grimm Brothers began a systematic accumulation of oral tales, eventually collected as Kinder- und Hausmärchen (coll 1812; vol 2 1814; rev 1819; rev 1822). What distinguished the Grimms from earlier raconteurs is that they took a redactive approach, transcribing the tales literally and ascribing their sources. Many of their stories are brief and not really fairytales, although others, including "Rapunzel", "Hansel and Gretel" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", immediately entered the fairytale canon. The first English translation (1823) was immensely popular, revolutionizing attitudes toward the fairytale. Thereafter the fairytale was reinstated in the UK nursery, although controversy continued over the allowable degree of violence. Bowdlerization of fairytales continued in the UK for the rest of the century.
The efforts of the Grimms were replicated throughout Europe by Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) in Ireland, Robert Chambers (1802-1871) in Scotland, Peter Asbjörnsen (1812-1885), Jörgen Moe (1813-1882) in Norway and Ludwig Bechstein (1801-1860) in Germany, but all merely consolidated the collection of folktales. One of the better writers of the period to create his own derivative but distinctive fairytales was Wilhelm Hauff, in Märchen für Söhne und Töchter Gebildeter Stände ["Tales for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlefolk"] (coll 1825). The next major European influence was Hans Christian Andersen. Although he began in Eventyr fortalte for Børn (coll 1835) by retelling folkloristic material, he rapidly began to create stories of his own, and the contents of his later annual Eventyr og Historier were almost all new. Although the fairytale as satire remained prevalent throughout Europe, especially in Germany, it was not until the 1970s that the adult appeal of the fairytale re-emerged in the UK and USA.
The translation of Andersen's fairytales into English in 1846 met with a rapturous response. The UK was experiencing a fairytale revolution, and many leading writers were using the form, such as Sara Coleridge with Phantasmion (1837), the first original fairytale written in English, Robert Southey with "The Three Bears" (1837), Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864) with Holiday House (1839), which flouted convention and treated children as children, Robert Browning with his poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (1842), and John Ruskin with King of the Golden River (written 1841; 1850), a story in direct imitation of the Grimms.
The period 1840-1875 was rich for the development of the UK fairytale, seeing it evolve from the traditional folktale through the nursery tale to become the Children's Fantasy. All legends and myths were plundered. In many cases the stories were laden with moral and Christian messages, as in Crowquill's Fairy Book (coll 1840) by Alfred Crowquill (real name Alfred Henry Forrester; 1804-1872), or were edited to the point of banality, a fate that befell many gathered in Mrs Craik's The Fairy Book (coll 1863). It was at this stage that the Christmas Pantomime began to develop its distinct UK form, utilizing the fairytale for storylines. The pantomime in turn began to influence the composition of later tales, especially The Rose and the Ring (1855) by William Makepeace Thackeray.
The UK fairytale became more ambitious. Significant works include: The Hope of the Katzekopfs (1844) by Francis Edward Paget (1806-1882), set entirely in Faerie, where a spoiled child learns the error of his ways; The Enchanted Doll (1849) by Mark Lemon (1809-1870), the first editor of Punch; and Granny's Wonderful Chair (1856) by Frances Browne (1816-1879), where a chair tells fairytales and takes its young occupant to far lands. Thereafter transitional forces came to work. The Water-Babies (1863) by Charles Kingsley calls itself "A Fairytale for a Land-Baby" but is not a fairytale. Phantastes (1858) by George MacDonald is subtitled "A Faerie Romance for Men and Women" and uses all of the motifs of the fairytale, though heavily allegorized, to create a Christian Fantasy which is arguably the first serious Adult Fantasy. Macdonald went on to produce his own genuine fairytales, many collected as Dealing with the Fairies (coll 1867), which includes what is often regarded as the best of all Victorian fairytales, "The Golden Key". He also wrote some transitional children's fantasies (regarded by him as fairytales) – At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1882) – and encouraged Lewis Carroll to publish Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which further developed the Children's Fantasy away from the fairytale.
The fairytale, as distinct from the embellished folktale, became further relegated to the nursery. To their credit, many writers continued to bring significant and creative ideas to the fairytale, but their work was pigeonholed and dismissed by later generations until their rediscovery in recent years. They include: Anne Isabella Ritchie (1837-1919), the daughter of Thackeray, with Five Old Friends and a Young Prince (coll 1868); Jean Ingelow, with Mopsa the Fairy (1869); Juliana H Ewing (1841-1885), particularly with The Brownies and Other Tales (coll 1870) and Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales (coll 1882); Mary de Morgan (1850-1907), with On a Pincushion (coll 1877), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (coll 1888) and The Windfairies (coll 1900); Harriet Childe-Pemberton, in her heavily didactic and revisionist Fairy Tales of Every Day (coll 1882); the long series by E H Knatchbull-Hugessen; and Lucy Clifford with the remarkably atmospheric Anyhow Stories (coll 1882) and The Last Touches (coll 1892). The fairytale reached its final Victorian fling in works by Oscar Wilde and Andrew Lang. In addition to his own highly readable stories – The Princess Nobody (1884 chap), The Gold of Fairnilee (1889 chap) and the Prince Prigio series – Lang edited the long-running series of coloured Fairy Books, starting with The Blue Fairy Book (anth 1889). These volumes, comprising a collection of folktales from around the world, served to confirm how interlinked the folktale and fairytale had become in the public mind. Their popularity begat imitations. The Strand regularly ran fairytales and children's stories, and these were eventually collected in four anthologies: The Golden Fairy Book (anth 1894), The Silver Fairy Book (anth 1895), The Diamond Fairy Book (anth 1897) and The Ruby Fairy Book (anth 1900), all ed anon.
By the turn of the century, with children's fantasy established as a separate medium, only Laurence Housman, Lord Dunsany, Kenneth Morris – and later Walter de La Mare – sustained the fairytale form, aimed sometimes at children, sometimes at adults. But by WWI the relegation of the fairytale to the nursery was at last complete.
This was also true to some extent in the USA, but there the fairytale had a less rigid pedigree and evolved by degrees rather than natural selection. By mid-century the children's fantasy was emerging in the USA with The Last of the Huggermuggers (1855) and its sequel Kobboltzo (1856) by C P Cranch. The fairytale survived on very shallow soil, children's stories generally dealing with either frontier adventure or more homely family circumstances. Only with the emergence of the St Nicholas Magazine in 1873 did the fairytale begin to appear on a more regular basis, thanks mostly to the writings of Julian Hawthorne, Frank R Stockton and Charles E Carryl (1841-1920). Stockton's stories, especially in Ting-a-Ling (coll 1870) and The Floating Prince (coll 1881), have endured better than those of his contemporaries, though Hawthorne's The Yellow Cap and Other Fairy Tales (coll 1880) is undeservedly neglected. Carryl, in Davy and the Goblin (1884) and The Admiral's Caravan (1891), admirably blended fairytale motifs into children's fantasies. L Frank Baum developed two books of fairytales: American Fairy Tales (coll 1901), an extremely idiosyncratic volume which does all it can to break the mould while just staying within it, and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), a delightful book that creates a life for Santa Claus as one long fairytale.
The new century and the emergence of Science Fiction further relegated the fairytale. It may be argued that the emergence of Heroic Fantasy during this period, especially in the US pulp Magazines, constituted a development of the fairytale, and certainly some of these stories could be regarded as modern fairytales, but by now the model had become confusing, the original fairytale having long been supplanted by new forms with differing purposes. The genuine fairytale was rare. Dunsany's work remained the closest to the true form, and mostly US imitations of this – by Donald Corley, Vernon Knowles, H P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. – continued the thread of the fairytale. An attempt at revisionist fairytales as satires on modern society failed in The Fairies Return (anth 1934) ed anon Peter Davies, despite the presence of A E Coppard, Clemence Dane and Dunsany.
In the UK the next development came with J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937), although its impact was not evident at the time. This is a sustained fairytale in the purest sense; its sequel, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), more resembles a medieval Romance. This same dichotomy affected Tolkien's shorter fantasies: "Leaf By Niggle" (1945) and Farmer Giles of Ham (1949 chap) are both Allegories of life, but the former assumes the fairytale form and the latter the style of romance.
Post-WWII adult fantasy used the fairytale form on occasion, particularly in Fantastic, where stories by Ursula K Le Guin were finely crafted fairytales. As modern fantasy established itself, so writers turned again to the fairytale to explore and reutilize the themes and motifs. Nicholas Stuart Gray was a pioneer, his stories of the 1950s-60s superbly recapturing the purity of the fairytale. The leading new writers of original fairytales from the 1970s onward include Joan Aiken, Steven Brust, Louise Cooper, Charles de Lint, Diana Wynne Jones, Nancy Kress, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Vivian Vande Velde, Patricia C Wrede, Jane Yolen and Mary Frances Zambreno (1954- ). Many of these writers have revisited the original tales and sought to make them contemporary (see Revisionist Fantasy), some retaining the fairytale form, though most have forsaken it. The most popular tale is Beauty and the Beast. Robin McKinley recast it in Beauty (1978). The success of the tv series Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990) led to several spinoff novels. Sleeping Beauty was replayed in Briar Rose (1992) by Jane Yolen, in Beauty (1991) by Sheri S Tepper, and (pornographically) in the Sleeping Beauty series by A N Roquelaure (Anne Rice). The story of Cinderella was merged with that of the Pied Piper in Ashmadi (1985 Germany; trans as The Coachman Rat 1987 UK) by David Henry Wilson. The tale of Snow White was recast into an Elizabethan setting by Patricia C Wrede in Snow White and Rose Red (1989), while the Frog Prince and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" are retold in Robin McKinley's The Door in the Hedge (coll 1981). Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Seven Swans formed the basis of Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan (1962) and of Swan's Wing (1984) by Ursula Synge (1930- ). The tale of Jack the Giant-Killer formed the basis of Charles de Lint's Jack, the Giant-Killer (1987) and Drink Down the Moon (1990).
Other modern renditions of fairy- and folktales are found in The King's Indian by John Gardner (1974), The Iron Wolf and Other Stories by Richard Adams (coll 1980), Fire and Hemlock (1984) by Diana Wynne Jones, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars (1987) by Steven Brust, Provençal Tales (coll 1988) by Michael de Larrabeiti, Rusalka (1989) and its sequels by C J Cherryh and Thomas the Rhymer (1990) by Ellen Kushner. Sylvia Townsend Warner recrafted the fairytale in Kingdoms of Elfin (coll 1977) and Angela Carter not only used the fairytale to explore the darker side of human nature in The Bloody Chamber (coll 1979) and Fireworks (coll 1987) but also brought its brighter side back into the daylight in a couple of fairytale anthologies. A S Byatt brought a cosmopolitan breadth to the traditional fairytale in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (coll 1994).
The rediscovery of the values of the fairytale in the past 20 years owes much to Ursula K Le Guin, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling, who brought her knowledge of the field to developing markets for new writers, and Jack Zipes, who re-established the pedigree of the fairytale tradition. At its best the modern fairytale contains some of the most beautiful and memorable imagery in all fantasy, and remains true to its spirit.
Important recent anthologies include: Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales (anth 1964) ed Alfred and Mary David; Tales of Kings and Queens (anth 1965) ed Herbert van Thal (1904-1983); The Classic Fairy Tales (anth 1974) ed Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982); Elsewhere (anth 1981), Elsewhere Vol. II (anth 1982) and Elsewhere Vol. III (anth 1984) ed Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold; A Christmas Carol and Other Victorian Fairy Tales (anth 1983) ed U C Knoepflmacher (1931- ); Faery! (anth 1985) ed Windling; The Victorian Fairy Tale Book (anth 1988) ed Michael Patrick Hearn (1950- ); Victorian Fairy Tales (anth 1987), Spells of Enchantment (anth 1991; vt The Penguin Book of Western Fairy Tales 1993 UK) and The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Giant (anth 1994) ed Jack Zipes; Isaac Asimov's Magical Worlds of Fantasy: Faeries (anth 1991) ed Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh; Once Upon a Time (anth 1991) ed Lester del Rey (1915-1993) and Risa Kessler, all original stories; Forbidden Journeys (anth 1992) ed Nina Auerbach (1943- ) and Knoepflmacher; Caught in a Story (anth 1992) ed Christine Park and Caroline Heaton; The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (anth 1993) ed Alison Lurie (1926-2020); A Fairy Tale Reader (anth 1993) ed John and Caitlín Matthews; Wonder Tales (anth 1994) ed Marina Warner; and The Mammoth Book of Fairy Tales (anth 1997) ed Mike Ashley.
In addition, many volumes of feminist fairytales have recently been compiled, including Don't Bet on the Prince (anth 1986) ed Jack Zipes plus the revisionist series Fairytales for Feminists, ed anon, though steered for the most part by a collective including Anne Claffey, Linda Kavanagh and Sue Russell: Rapunzel's Revenge (anth 1985), Ms Muffet and Others (anth 1986), Mad and Bad Fairies (anth 1987), Sweeping Beauties (anth 1989), Cinderella on the Ball (anth 1991), all with original stories, plus the retrospective Ride on Rapunzel (anth 1992). Further Revisionist Fantasies based on fairytales with a high feminist consciousness include the series ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling: Snow White, Blood Red (anth 1993), Black Thorn, White Rose (anth 1994) and Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears (anth 1995). [MA]