Fairy Tales and Fables

Fables provided instructional reading for European children from the Middle Ages well into the nineteenth century. Fairy tales for children, on the other hand, were relative latecomers for child readers, appearing in the early eighteenth century but becoming popular only from the later eighteenth century onward.


In the western world, brief animal fables with an appended moral are generally identified as Aesop's fables. Although attributed to Aesop, reputedly a freed Greek slave living in the sixth century B.C.E., the body of work took shape over centuries, absorbing tales from disparate sources, such as the Hellenistic Recensio Augustana, whose animal protagonists typically had predictable characteristics: a cunning fox, a strong lion, a proud eagle.

Aesopic fables have dramatic plots, clear construction, and striking dialogue leading to a general moral that can easily be summarized in proverbial form. Fables are above all a didactic genre. Many Romans–Ennius, Lucilius, Horace, Livy–used Aesopic fables as exempla (short stories that illustrate a particular moral or argument), but Phaedrus strengthened their didactic elements in order to produce a guide for moral instruction.

Medieval Aesopica flowered in the eleventh century and grew larger in the twelfth century, as Johannes of Capua's edition absorbed fables from the Indian Panchatantra. The Panchatantra (Five Books or Five Teachings)–a story cycle consisting of fables about animals whose actions demonstrate the wise conduct of life and the knowledge of ruling–had emerged sometime before 250 C.E. Translated into Persian as Kalila and Dimna in the sixth century, these Eastern fables spread in multitudinous reworked forms in Arabic translation from the Middle East to northern Africa and Moorish Spain. Once Aesopic fables with their Panchatantra / Kalila and Dimna admixture were incorporated into the Latin exempla collection for use in church sermons in the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, the way had been prepared for their use in schools throughout Christian Europe. From the High Middle Ages through Galland's early eighteenth-century translation, fables powerfully influenced European storytelling.

The sudden flourishing of published animal fables for children in late seventeenth-century England reveals the presence of a reading appetite no longer satisfied by a rigorous diet of gory Protestant martyrdoms, fervid child deaths, and earnest religious directives. Much of England's Christian practice had softened, as evidenced by the runaway success of the popular religious writer John Bunyan's allegorical narratives. Many of hymn-writer Isaac Watts's Moral Songs, though religious in category, nonetheless taught children about living harmoniously within a close family circle. Fables went one step further and provided moralized worldly narratives about how to live on earth. Isolated editions appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the sudden publishing success of Aesopica between the 1690s and the 1740s demonstrates that parental child-rearing imperatives had moved far away from purely religious injunction in those years. The narrative-cum-moral form, so warmly recommended by English philosopher JOHN LOCKE, enabled Enlightenment educationists to incorporate interpretations that expressed rational values.

Internationally, Jean de La Fontaine's book of 245 fables (in three parts 1668, 1678–1679, 1693) prepared the way for an enormous efflorescence of fables in England, Germany, Italy, and France in the eighteenth century. In England, fables' success can be measured by their remarkable publishing history. Caxton printed an English translation of Aesop's fables in 1484; Roger l'Estrange's 1692 collection, Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists (Barlandus-Anianus-Abstemius-Poggius) with morals and reflexions, was republished with remarkable frequency throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The success of L'Estrange's fables encouraged imitators and competitors, and so Reverend Samuel Croxall produced his Fables of Aesop and Others in 1722. It, too, enjoyed an enormous success (being reprinted five times between 1722 and 1747), as did John Gay's Aesopic fables (1727, 1738).

Fables passed early into school use. The London publisher S. Harding marketed Amusing and Instructive Fables in French and English in 1732. La Fontaine's Fables and Tales… in French and English (1734) and Daniel Bellamy's translation of Phaedrus's Fifty Instructive and Entertaining Fables (1734, 1753), both intended for youth in schools, immediately joined them, as did FRANÇOIS FÉNELON's Tales and Fables (1736) and Gabriel Faerno's Fables in English and French Verse (1741). The latter also appeared in Latin and French (1743, 1744). Benjamin Cole put his name on a collection, Select Tales and Fables (1746). In 1747 The Instructive and Entertaining Fables of Bidpai (tales derived from the Panchatantra) appeared in English for the first time. The pace of newly introduced fable books attests to market success for this genre, as each printing evidently sold out quickly enough to warrant new printings and new versions. As always England's chapbook (small, inexpensive paper booklets) publishers picked up whatever sold well, and in this case the Dicey printing house put out John Bickham's Fables and Other Short Poems as early as 1737.

John Newbery included several fables in Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) and Goody Two-Shoes (1766), and in 1757 Newbery himself produced Fables in Verse. For the Improvement of the Young and the Old. Attributed jokily to Abraham Aesop, Esq., Newbery's book was reprinted on ten separate occasions. Other fable books appeared, such as the simply entitled 1759 Fables and Robert Dodsley's Select Fables of Aesop and Other Fabulists (1761). Children read these and other fable books long after their original dates of publication, as attested by the multigenerational ownership inscribed onto many of these books' flyleaves.

When fables had to share the market with fairy tales from the end of the eighteenth century onward, they diminished in significance. Nonetheless, fables have continued to form a staple of children's literature and children's reading in a broad variety of (principally illustrated) editions to the present day. The classic historian of children's literature, Harvey Darton, wrote that fables "had been regimented for schools and decked out for fashion. It had been Everyman's and now was Everychild's" (p. 23).

Animal stories of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries may also be understood as a natural outgrowth of eighteenth-century Aesopic fables. An outstanding change from 1800 onward was a shift in animal attributes towards positive personal characteristics of courage, patience, loyalty, and endurance that remains evident in twentieth-century stories such as Lassie and Black Beauty.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales, as they exist today, took shape in sixteenth-century Italy as literature for adults in a handful of tales in Pleasant Nights (1551, 1553) by Giovan Francesco Straparola. These made their way to France, as did the Pentamerone (1634–1636) of Giambattista Basile, where both underlay French fairy tales published from 1697 onward by Marie Catherine Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d'Aulnoy (c. 1650–1705), Charles Perrault (1628–1703), and other French retellers of the genre. In England, fairy tales were not a presence during the seventeenth century. At that time it was chapbook romances, whose heroes bravely encountered and courageously vanquished magical or gigantic opponents, that fired boys' imaginations. If girls read chapbook romances recreationally in the same period, women's memoirs do not mention it, generally reporting only devotional reading.

England's fairies and elves, which offered little in the way of narrative adventure, were chiefly anecdotal and explanatory rather than narrative figures. Only with the introduction of French fairy narratives can extended tales about fairies and fairy tales be said to have begun an English existence. Despite decades of assertions about the oral transmission of fairy tales from nursemaids to children in times past, no evidence exists to support the belief. Tom Thumb, whose adventures included a fairy patroness, was created in the early seventeenth century by Richard Johnson; Jack, the killer of giants, came to life a century later. Both supplied English imaginations with thumping good magic for centuries, but both are, strictly speaking, folk, not fairy, tales.

In the eighteenth century two bodies of fairy literature reached English shores. From 1699 to 1750 Mme d'Aulnoy's tales were translated and published for adult women readers, first for the upper class, and later for ever lower social classes. Robert Samber's 1729 translation of Charles Perrault's tales for child readers did not sell well as leisure reading; in consequence, its publishers attempted to recast the book as a French-English schoolbook. With many other dual-language texts available for school use, however, Perrault's tales foundered, perhaps because of their inclusion of "The Discreet Princess" with its questionable morality.

It was Mme Le Prince de Beaumont who made fairy tales socially acceptable for middle and upper-middle class girls in her Magasin des Enfants (starting in 1756), when she alternated highly moralized versions of existing fairy tales with equally moralized Bible stories, interleaving both with lessons in history and geography. Of all Mme Le Prince's fairy tales, only her "Beauty and the Beast" has survived.

Selected tales from the Arabian Nights began to appear in English chapbooks from about 1715 onward; the tales of Perrault and Mme d'Aulnoy, on the other hand, spread via chapbooks to English readers only after the 1750s. Perhaps they picked up fairy tales' potential for popular consumption from John Newbery's 1743 inclusion of "Red Riding Hood and "Cinderilla" [sic] in his Pretty Book for Boys and Girls. Ever cautious, Newbery gradually introduced fairy tales into his publications by including some of Fenelon's highly moralized fairy tales in his Short Histories for the Improvement of the Mind (1760); putting "Fortunatus" and a version of Perrault's "Diamonds and Toads" into a later edition of the Pretty Book, and introducing "Puss in Boots" into The Fairing in 1767. Later firms, however, published all of Perrault's tales, minus "The Discreet Princess," and propelled those tales, along with Mme d'Aulnoy's "Yellow Dwarf" and "White Cat," into their nineteenth-century popularity.

Despite the disapproval of sober educators such as Sarah Trimmer, Robert Bloomfield, and Mary Martha Sherwood, England's nineteenth-century fairy tales were joined by Edward Taylor's translation of the Grimms' tales (vol. 1 in 1823, vol. 2 in 1826); Hans Christian Andersen's tales in 1846; Basile's bowdlerized Pentamerone in 1848; The Fairy Tales of All Nations in 1849; and Scandinavian myths, folk tales, and fairy tales in the 1850s. All of these tales were recirculated through late nineteenth-century editions, a practice that continued in the twentieth century. However, fairies and fairy tales enjoyed far more currency in England than in the United States in the nineteenth century.

The relationship of fairy tales to the lives of children is much debated. In the United States and England in the wake of World War II, a distrust of the Grimms' tales developed (the ferocious gore in some of their tales was thought to have encouraged genocide), a distrust that Bruno Bettelheim countered in The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Bettelheim implied that fairy tales arose from children's own subconscious as he sought to demonstrate that fairy tales accurately projected children's psychological needs and neatly described their psychosexual development. However, his neo-Freudian approach to textual analysis was often flawed by lapses in logic and by the substitution of assertion for proof. In contrast, Kristin Wardetzky's research in the 1980s, based on a sample of 1,500 schoolchildren, rested on an awareness that children's early and continuing exposure to books of fairy tales suffused their consciousness with fairy-tale characters, norms, and motifs. Wardetzky's analysis of fairy tales written by children themselves demonstrated that their narratives used standard fairy-tale motifs to bring evil under control and to (re)establish domestic harmony.

See also: ABC Books; Children's Literature.


Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Knopf.

Bottigheimer, Ruth. 2002. "Misperceived Perceptions: Perrault's Fairy Tales and English Children's Literature." Children's Literature 30.

Darton, Harvey. 1982. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. Revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. 1980 [1974]. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wardetzky, Kristin. 1992. Märchen–Lesarten von Kindern: Eine empirische Studie. Frankfurt, Germany: Lang.

Wheatley, Edward. 2000. Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.