What is the origin of the fairy tale ? Well, in the 17th century the French came up with the expression conte de fées (fairy tale) since most of the French fairy tales include fairies. However, it’s in Italy, in the 16th century that the written tale of the marvelous was born.
The Italian origin : Straparola and Basile
In 1550, the Venetian Straparola published Piacevoli Notti (The facetious nights), composed of 73 fables, and among them, 14 fairy tales. Lucrezia Borgia, the famous daughter of the Pope Alexander VI, was very keen on fairy tales. Indeed, in Murano, during the five days of the carnival festival, she would designate 5 young ladies who had the charge of entertaining her court by telling a different tale each day.
Later, in 1625, Basile wrote Lo cunto de li Cunti, better known under the name of Pentamerone. This tale of the tales includes 50 fairy tales with all the marvelous components such as princes, princesses, ogres, fairies, magicians, talking animals… and happy endings.
So, the fairy tale was born from an Italian novella and conto. But we had to wait until the 17th century to discover the fairy tale as a recognized literary genre.
Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault
In France, in the 17th century, prominent aristocratic women, the Précieuses, contributed to diffusion of the fairy tale in their salon. These gatherings were an opportunity to discuss issues such as marriage and love, but it fundamentally gave the women of that time a way of emancipation and… showing their intelligence! Madame d’Aulnoy, one of these Précieuses, used to tell fairy tales in her salon and they became so popular that she decided to write them. She invented the expression conte de fées Her story, The “island of happiness” was the first ever published fairy tale in France in 1690.
Following this vogue of fairy tales, Charles Perrault published the very popular “Tales of Mother Goose” in 1697 that compiled the most famous fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” (written in prose), “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Bluebeard”, “Cinderella”, “Little Tom Thumb”, “Puss-in-boots”, “the Fairies” and “Riquet with the Tuft’”. All these orally popular tales have been edited by Charles Perrault while being written so as to address social and political issues. He also added some ironic verse morals to provoke his readers.
You can read the tales of Charles Perrault, in French here:
Or in English :
But unlike Perrault who polished his written tales in order to please the upper class, Madame d’Aulnoy, on the contrary, insufflated a subversive spirit by adding allegories and satires to her tales. In this sense, she could be compared to Jean de la Fontaine, whose famous fables hide critics of the court and the French society of the 17th century. So, after the publishing of “the Mother Goose tales”, she published “the tales of the fairies” and “the fairies in Fashion” (Les fées à la mode) which really made her famous. Among her famous tales, “The blue bird” is an authentic masterpiece of the fairy literature. Here is a link where you can read it for free, in English :
Another link with all the tales of Madame d’Aulnoy in French :
Later, in 1757, whereas the enthusiasm for the fairy tales seemed to have diminished, the French Précieuse writer Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont redacted “the Beauty and the Beast” : The fairy tale became à la mode again! Her version of the story is, by the way, the best known today.
In 1945, the French artist Jean Cocteau did a dark yet memorable film adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast. I let you watch this beautiful scene from the movie.
30 years later, between 1785 and 1789, the most prestigious and famous collection of fairy tales was born : Le cabinet des fées. The knight Charles-Joseph de Mayer published 41 volumes of fairy tales from more than 40 authors such as Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mademoiselle Leprince de Beaumont. This colossal work did not only include French tales but also stories from all around the world like “the thousand and one night” tales. It is 20 years later, in Germany, that the very well-known Brothers Grimm extended the work of “the Fairies cabinet” by starting collecting German fairy tales.
Of course, the fairy tales are much older than Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault but their work truly demonstrated the will of the French to preserve the tales of oblivion, by being the first to publish them.