The greatest fairy stories – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
As G. K. Chesterton remarked, ‘I left fairy stories lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since.’ Angela Carter, who reinvented the fairy tale in her collection The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, observed that a fairy tale is a story where one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar. The best fairy tales are timeless and yet forever modern, tapping into deeply held and widely shared emotions and moral attitudes. The following constitutes not an exhaustive list of the definitive fairy tales, but rather our attempt to pick the top ten greatest fairy stories. As ever, we welcome your suggestions in the comments for any notable omissions. The best anthology of classic fairy tales, because it contains both the stories and very informative scholarly introductions to them, is still The Classic Fairy Tales.
‘Puss in Boots’. A classic example of the fairy tale featuring ‘the animal as helper’, ‘Puss in Boots’ entered the canon of classic fairy tales when Charles Perrault included it in his 1697 collection of fairy stories, although like many of the greatest fairy tales, an earlier version can be found in the 1634 Pentamerone, a collection of oral folk tales compiled by Giambattista Basile. In the Perrault telling of this classic fairy tale, the booted cat shows his plucky and enterprising spirit and helps his poor hapless master to climb the social ladder. But his scheming involves some questionable behaviour and trickery…
‘Rumpelstiltskin’. As we’ve revealed elsewhere, although this tale is closely associated with the Brothers Grimm and their retelling from the early nineteenth century, the basic story of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ actually dates back around 4,000 years. A tale involving a greedy king, a negligent father, and a mysterious child-hungry dwarf, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is an odd but enduring fairy tale that may have its roots in fears over bad harvests – or, as we discuss in the post linked to above, a host of other plausible influences.
‘Rapunzel’. This is another stalwart in the Grimm fairy tale catalogue, although the tale can be traced back to the sixteenth century in its earliest version. ‘Rapunzel’ (derived from the word ‘rampion’, a kind of lettuce) contains many classic fairy-tale features: the damsel in distress, the wicked stepmother figure, the handsome prince. But the Grimms’ earliest version was anything but a children’s story, and even the sanitised retelling hints at the story’s ‘adult’ content. Nevertheless, this is a classic, and the image of the golden-haired Rapunzel letting down her hair from the tower in which she is imprisoned is familiar to pretty much everyone.
‘The Frog Prince’. A short and reasonably straightforward tale, ‘The Frog Prince’ really became popular in the nineteenth century with the Brothers Grimm and then with various Victorian retellings in Britain, although there are precursors to the frog prince tale found in much earlier, medieval literature, such as in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’, which shares some of its central features. This tale – about a princess who accepts help from a frog in return for her hand in marriage – also shares some similarities with ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, in that in both stories a girl receives help from a hideous assistant who then demands something in return. But in this story, there’s definitely a pleasant twist in the tale…
‘The Snow Queen’. This fairy tale is slightly unusual on this list in that, rather than being based on pre-existing oral or written narratives, it was an original story by Hans Christian Andersen in 1844. The inspiration for the film Frozen, ‘The Snow Queen’ tells of two children, a boy and a girl, who find themselves caught up in a battle of good and evil – featuring a broken mirror that distorts what it reflects.
‘Sleeping Beauty’. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is, depending on which version of the story you read, called Sleeping Beauty, Talia, Little Briar Rose, Rosamond, or Aurora. This is because, like many other classic fairy tales, the tale of Sleeping Beauty exists in numerous versions, each of which is subtly – or, in some cases, quite strikingly – different from the others. Yet the central plot details remain the same: a king is protective of his beautiful daughter, the princess. Hearing a prophecy that she will die when she is pricked by a splinter, the king bans flax and spinning equipment from his palace, so as to protect his daughter from such a fate. And yet the prophecy is destined to be fulfilled, leading to the death of the beautiful heroine…
‘Cinderella’. The earliest appearance of the Cinderella story in print was in 1634 in the Pentamerone. Here Cinderella is called Cenerentola. In 1697, the French writer Charles Perrault published the story of Cendrillon, a variation on the story. Perrault added several details now intrinsically associated with the story – notably the pumpkin, the fairy godmother, and the glass slipper – to Basile’s version, which already featured the wicked stepmother and the evil stepsisters. But in fact the story is even older than these seventeenth-century versions: ‘Ye Xian’ or ‘Yeh-Shen’ is a Chinese variant of the Cinderella story that dates from the ninth century.
‘Snow-White’. The fairy tale of Snow White is a classic that contains many of the genre’s most recognisable features: the wicked stepmother; a love interest in the form of the prince; the patterning of three; the woodland setting; the generous helpers (the huntsman, the dwarfs); and the happy ending. The story of ‘Snow-White’ was first made popular in printed literature by the Brothers Grimm in the early nineteenth century: the tale of ‘Schneewittchen’ appears in their volumes of classic fairy tales. In the Grimms’ version, and indeed all nineteenth-century retellings of the Snow White story, the seven dwarfs don’t have names. But nor was the 1937 Disney film the first version to give them individual names. That happened in a 1912 Broadway play, which called the dwarfs Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, and Quee. The Disney film then came up with the names with which we forever associate the seven dwarfs
‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. It was the UK Poet Laureate Robert Southey (who held the post from 1813 until 1843) who first put the fairy tale of the three bears into print in English. However, Southey’s version had an old woman rather than a golden-haired girl as the story’s anti-heroine (well, she’s hardly a heroine, is she?). This more familiar version, of course, has Goldilocks as the juvenile delinquent who breaks into a humble ursine dwelling in order to indulge her penchant for fussiness over meal temperatures and fidgeting about in other people’s beds.
‘Little Red Riding Hood’. This is one of the most famous and best-loved fairy tales of all. But what, exactly, is its moral? Don’t talk to strange men (or wolves) when out on your own? This question is made even harder to answer by the fact that ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ exists in two versions – in one, the red-hooded protagonist is gobbled up by the wolf, but in the other, she is spared (or cut out of its belly and given a reprieve). Whatever its ultimate meaning, this remains a stalwart of fairy tale collections and has been popular ever since Charles Perrault’s telling in the 1690s.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.