Robin: Fairy tales may seem the obvious place to find stories about fairies, but in fact the fairies in traditional fairy stories are rather few and far between. These tales are mainly about woodcutters, witches and princesses, magicians, enchanted animals and wicked stepmothers.

Columbine: So why are they called fairy tales?

Robin: That all started in France in the seventeenth century. Contes des fées, which is “tales of the fairies” in French, was the name Madame d’Aulnoy gave to her stories, which while loosely based on old folktales often had a kind and magically powerful benefactor popping up – the fairy godmother, in fact. A pure literary creation – did you ever hear of a fairy being a godmother? Of course, it may be a French thing…

These fairy godmothers behave like gracious rich patrons, bestowing gifts on the child and maybe helping them in later life, especially to make a good marriage. They seem very pleased to be asked by the parents, and a fairy who is not asked may be provoked into cursing the child.

La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) and Cendrillon (Cinderella) are the best known of the fairy godmother tales.

Anyway, Madame d’Aulnoy, some other noblewomen and especially Charles Perrault did a straw-into-gold trick on the old tales, and made them literary and polite and charming enough to delight the French court. From there they reached the new middle classes who thought these fairy tales more suitable for their dear children’s education than the rough peasant tales of yore.

The old stories have often been changed to suit the tellers or the times. To this day they are being rewritten. It is the tales which are closest to the original stories which tend to survive – there is a power in old things, a richness, a deeper meaning. Human scholars and philosophers have written about it quite a lot…

The Grimm brothers in the nineteenth century rewrote their version of the tales to take the fairies out – they thought fairies were too French, and they were rather keen on being German. So the fairy godmothers became wise women or enchantresses. Which suited their role better, really, and may have been their original names. But the Grimm tales do feature others of the folk – helpful elves, tricksters, malignant dwarfs, unpredictable spirits.

Hans Christian Anderson is the next big name in fairy tales. He wrote a great many stories, only sometimes based on the old tales. Most of his original tales are rather slight, but some are true immortals including The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen.

Columbine: So he wrote about mermaids, but what about fairies?

Robin: I always think the daughters of the air in The Little Mermaid are like fairies of the sylph-type. There is a fairy in The Wild Swans, who advises Elise how to help her brothers, who have been turned into swans – she can change her shape and first appears as a old peasant woman. One tale is about a Rose Elf, who rode on the backs of butterflies: “He was so small that he could not be seen by the human eye. Within every petal of the rose he had a bedchamber. He was wonderfully well-proportioned and as lovely as any child. From his shoulder to his heel stretched his beautiful wings.” Though so tiny, he helps brings a murderer to justice.

There is a story about a pixy who is loyal to the grocer who gives him porridge, but comes to love the magic of poetry.

My favourite is The Hill of the Elves which is based on the legends about the mound in Elverhoej, Denmark – there is a famous Danish play about it too, by Johan Ludvig Heiberg. The elfin king holds a party; the troll king of Norway attends and chooses one of the elf princesses for his bride. “The elfin maidens were already dancing on top of the hill. Over their shoulder were long shawls woven from mist and moonlight.”

Here the preparations are described: “The great hall in the middle of the mount had certainly been done up. The floors had been washed in moonlight and all the walls had been waxed with witches’ grease till they shone like tulip petals. Out in the kitchen the frogs were being roasted on spits and snakes stuffed with children’s fingers were baking…… the old elfin king’s crown had been polished with powder ground from slate pencils. For this purpose only pencils that have belonged to especially studious boys may be used.”

Hans Christian Anderson’s style inspired many writers of fairy tales who came after him, both those who dwelt on the fanciful and whimsical side and those who emphasized the grotesque and absurd. Mary de Morgan, Oscar Wilde and Laurence Housman’s late Victorian fairy tales, though all original in their own way, owe much to him.

Columbine: I know you said the old tales go on being popular, but this was all over a century ago. Have there really been no changes?

Robin: Fairy tales have always turned the human world on its head, whether there are fairies involved or not, with the peasant child becoming ruler of the land, and the powerful being drastically punished for their evil deeds. The world’s changing tastes and values shake up the literary tale: Mary de Morgan’s princess escapes the artificial court with her fairy godmother’s help as her courtiers prefer their mechanical Toy Princess; Kenneth Grahame’s dragon is reluctant to fight; E. Nesbit’s Prince Florizel works as a lift engineer. So the more recent variants, with bold heroines fighting dragons and rescuing princes, and the princess turning into a frog when she kisses the enchanted Frog Prince, are quite in the old tradition. But I do think the Golden Age setting of the essential tales will still stand the test of time. In fact much of the pleasure of the new variants is in knowing the originals so well that the differences sparkle and glitter.

One interesting development is the stretching of fairy tales into novels. “Fairy-tale” is a term which has been applied to novels often before – Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, have been so described, and there are any number of “fairy-tale romances”, which I take it means a romance with a good deal of trouble, complication and outside interference. But these are novels much more deliberately based on fairy tales, especially the more familiar ones. The stories adapt pretty well to the new naturalistic form but can the fairy godmother survive the transition?

Let’s find out.

“Faerie … contains many things besides elves and fays, besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the sea, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth and all things in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”
J. R. R. Tolkien

Read more about:

The Fairy Godmother & The Ordinary Princess

Cinderella & Ella Enchanted

Sleeping Beauty & Spindle’s End

Fairy Tale Scholars – A Study Bookshelf