History of Fairy Tales

Susie McGee
fairy tales

Fairy tales continue to enthrall children from one generation to the next, but many folks don't realize how enthralling the history of fairy tales is as well.

What Is a Fairy Tale

What is a fairy tale? Fairy tales and fables are terms that are often used interchangeably, and in fact, a fairy tale is actually considered a particular type of folk tale. Since both folk tales and fairy tales are handed down from one generation to the next, it's sometimes hard to see the difference between the two.

The distinctive qualities of a fairy tale, that often set it apart from other stories like legends and myths, are its descriptiveness and its complicated and sometimes lengthy plot. While folk tales are often very simplistic in their storylines, characters, and description, fairy tales are often much more in depth, with more complex characters and a variety of setting and plot changes.

Understanding the History of Fairy Tales

In order to understand the history of fairy tales, readers need to be aware of for whom original fairy tales were really written. While today parents love relating their favorite fairy tales to their own children, the dark and often gruesome plot lines of the original stories were intended for adult audiences, not youngsters.

Many of the fairy tales that are repeated today date back to the 17th century and earlier. As these tales were passed down from one century to the next, they were often altered to remove some of the more ghastly and frightening elements and to make them more appropriate for a younger audience.

The term "fairy" was thought to have been taken from the French "contes des fee", and many of the fairy tales we read today are based on tales from French literature which often featured the ethereal creatures. In fact, Charles Perrault, a well-known writer of fairy tales, often wrote his stories to be presented at the court of Versailles, and these typically featured fairies as well as a moralistic theme.

While writers like the Grimm Brothers, who collected German tales, Perrault, and often Hans Christian Anderson are often the first authors named when discussing the history of fairy tales, their origin goes back much further than the 17th century, and many of these stories are actually just retellings of age-old tales, many created by women and retold throughout history.

Women and the Fairy Tale

Women typically created fairy tales with a distinct purpose in mind-to protest the societal constraints that were placed upon them and to emphasis their own rights as women in a man's world. Women like the Countess d"Aulnoy and the Contess de Murat struck back at the misery of their marriages by creating and telling fairy tales that didn't always feature happy endings. Countess de Murat in particular appeared to enjoy shocking those who attended her informal gatherings at salons in Paris in which she would captivate her listeners with tales of marriage and other topics.

Throughout history, tales continued to be told and retold as women spent much of their time together, spinning, weaving, and sewing. In a world where women were expected to remain silent, their tales allowed them to create heroines that were strong and enabled them to pass on stories to their daughters and granddaughters that taught powerful lessons of conquering adversity and rewarding virtuousness.

Tracing History

How far back can the history of fairy tales be traced? Some people point to biblical times, citing their evidence in Paul's warning to women to refrain from idle gossip. While this may not indicate that fairy tales were told as such, it does lead historians to question when these fascinating tales stories began. What we do know is that many of the beloved stories of today can be traced back to original tales that have evolved and changed over time.

For example, there have been many different versions of Cinderella published and retold throughout the years, but the oldest version appears to date back to 860 CE (which is referred to as the Common Era) in China. While some of the characters are distinctly different from the frequently told story of today, there is a definite commonality between the ancient Chinese version and today's tale.


While the elusiveness of the true beginning of fairy tales makes documenting a historical timeline difficult, the mystical quality of these stories will continue to enthrall listeners of all ages for generations to come. .

History of Fairy Tales