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History of Fairy Tales:  The Quest for the Earliest Fairy Tales by Heidi Anne Heiner

The Quest for the Earliest Fairy Tales:
Searching for the Earliest Versions of European Fairy Tales with Commentary on English Translations
by Heidi Anne Heiner

This article isn't completed yet, but there is still quite a bit of helpful information provided.

Note: Many of the significant historical events described in this article are included in SurLaLune's A Fairy Tale Timeline. I have also created an Amazon Listmania List at History of the Earliest Fairy Tales.

The quest for the earliest versions of fairy tales has become a popular topic with SurLaLune readers over the years, becoming one of the most frequently asked categories of questions. While it is a question easily asked, it's far from easily answered.

The challenge begins with the nature of the literary fairy tale, in other words, the tale recorded into a print medium, making it accessible to readers, fixing it in one form in print. Literary tales, overall, have derived from oral traditions. Once recorded and published, the literary tales have in turn influenced oral tradition. Occasionally, original literary tales have entered oral tradition; Beauty and the Beast is a shining example as well as some of Hans Christian Andersen's tales. (Read The History of Beauty and the Beast for more information.) But oral versions of the tales from hundreds of years ago simply do not exist. Scholars are forced to rely on the few literary versions, fixed in print, to represent folklore tradition, making it a fascinating but inexact science.

SurLaLune's primary focus is on the literary tale, presenting and annotating versions of the most popular tales in primarily western European and United States cultures. Study of tales predating the earliest literary versions is the work of doctoral dissertations and professional folklorists. In the end, while the research is commendable, the theories are just that, theories based on fragments, descriptions of tales in other sources, and other mostly vague references. It is unlikely an earlier manuscript is going to come to surface now. Obviously, no one is alive today to share the earliest versions as he or she heard them centuries ago. This type of research involves a great knowledge of early literature and study of the original documents in their original tongues.

On the other hand, SurLaLune offers information, and often English translations, on the earliest known literary versions of the tales. If the text is not available on the site, usually directions to print materials are provided. The challenge is to find the information. This article is being added in hopes of guiding you to the information you seek.

Before we begin, please don't expect modern day horror stories. We are still dealing with fairy tales and folklore here. While the "gruesome" versions of the tales are not recommended for young readers, they are not horror movies on paper either. It is true that the older versions of the tales contain adult content which has been edited, glossed over, or deleted over the years, primarily sex, incest, murder, and cannibalism to name a few. Yes, Sleeping Beauty is raped while she sleeps. Donkeyskin's father is incestuous. Cinderella is a murderess. Rapunzel has premarital sex. Still, we are talking descriptions and action more in nature with the bawdiness and horrors of Greek and Roman mythology and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Do not go searching for the equivalent of Stephen King at his most descriptive. It doesn't exist. By the way, many of these early variants of familiar tales just described are found in Giambattista Basile's Il Pentamerone, but more about that in a bit.

Ancient Greece and Rome

The earliest known origins of fairy tales go back to the worlds' earliest cultures and their mythologies, but in forms barely recognizable as fairy tales. For obvious geographic reasons, Greek and Roman mythology have the strongest connection to western European folklore. Graham Anderson has written an excellent book, Fairytale in the Ancient World, in which he explores the common themes and possible influences of ancient mythology on our fairy tales. Anderson's research and theories are strong; his book is highly recommended if your interests lean towards mythology and its relation to fairy tales.

After ancient mythology, fairy tale history skips centuries until circa 1300 A.D. when the Gesta Romanorum, a Latin work, is produced. It is a collection of tales and anecdotes thought to have influenced William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queen. Roughly 200 years later, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded. While these two books are important in folklore, neither collection had a significantly direct influence on the stories found in our modern day European fairy tales. For this reason, neither is presented on SurLaLune at this time.

Medieval Fairy Tales

A new book published in early 2007 is Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies by Jan M. Ziolkowski. I haven't had the opportunity to review the book yet, but it appears to be a study of folklore and fairy tales of the time period.


In 1550 and 1553 in Italy, Gianfrancesco Straparola published two volumes comprising Le Piacevoli Notti or The Facetious Nights, also known as The Pleasant Nights and The Delightful Nights. It, too, is a collection of tales and anecdotes. The first volume appeared in France as early as 1560 and the second in 1573, spreading the tales across political and cultural borders. These volumes contain some of the earliest versions of literary fairy tales, such as Costantino Fortunato (like Puss in Boots) and Biancabella and the Snake (like Girl Without Hands/Armless Maiden). The Facetious Nights has been translated in its entirety into English only once by E. G. Waters in 1890. Fortunately, this translation is out of copyright and is now available on SurLaLune at The Facetious Nights. (The etext was produced exclusively by SurLaLune.) Further reading about Straparola and his influence on fairy tales should include Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition by Ruth B. Bottigheimer and Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France by Nancy L. Canepa. More recent translations of some of the most significant tales are available in Jack Zipes' The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm.

Less than a hundred years later, but once again in Italy, Giambattista Basile wrote Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de le cunti (The Tale of Tales). It is written in the hard-to-translate Neapolitan dialect. Volumes 1-3 appeared in 1634, followed by volume 4 in 1635 and volume 5 in 1636. They were published posthumously since Basile died in 1632. Due to its obscure dialect, the collection was not first published in Italian until 1747, German in 1846, and English in 1848, essentially removing it from direct influence back upon the oral tradition until those dates. However, Il Pentamerone contains many tales that are directly related to many of today's most popular tales, including Cenerentola (like Cinderella), Sun, Moon, and Talia (like Sleeping Beauty), Petrosinella (like Rapunzel), and Gagliuso (like Puss in Boots). Their existence in this collection, albeit in sometimes drastically different versions, shows that the tales did exist in oral tradition and influenced Basile's writing almost 400 years ago. Barring the few similar tales by Straparola, Basile provides the earliest known literary versions of many of today's fairy tales.

Like The Facetious Nights, Il Pentamerone has been translated in its entirety into English less than a handful of times. Nancy L. Canepa has a new translation published in 2007; it's the first new translation since the 1930s. The first English translation by John Edward Taylor in 1847 only included the most popular tales and those were edited further to meet moral standards of the day. Taylor's translation is available on SurLaLune. Sir Richard Burton, most famous for his translation of 1,001 Nights, also translated Il Pentamerone, including the bawdier tales Taylor had omitted. However, Burton's translation emphasizes the ribald elements, perhaps more than the original, making it problematic, too. At this time, Burton's Il Pentamerone is not available online, although one of the long term goals is to publish it on SurLaLune. At this time, Benedetto Croce's translation is probably the best and definitely contains the most comprehensive study of the book in English. Alas, it is still very much in copyright, but readily available through most academic libraries or interlibrary loan at your public library. Further reading about Basile and his Il Pentamerone should include From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo Cunto De Li Cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale by Nancy L. Canepa, Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France by Nancy L. Canepa, and Jack Zipes' The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm.

Two other significant collections of Italian fairy tales are Italian Popular Tales (available on SurLaLune) by Thomas Crane and Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino.


In the late 1600s, the French Salons were filled with fairy tale writing, primarily by women writers. Many of the tales were influenced by oral traditions, but most did not end up influencing oral tradition directly. The most prolific and influential author is Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy. She published four volumes of fairy tales. They were translated into English in 1699. Her most famous tale today is The White Cat. Many of the writings from the French salons have never been translated into English. The best collections of translations include The Fairy Tales of Madame D'Aulnoy (available in its entirety on this site) and Jack Zipes' Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales. This book is out of print, but can usually be found in larger libraries or as a used copy. A paperback edition is in print, Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, but it omits some of the tales provided in the hardcover edition. For example, the translation of Gabrielle de Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast from 1740 can be found only in the hardcover. The shorter version by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont in 1757 is available in both editions. Marina Warner also edited Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment, presenting six salon tales.

The French Salons directly influenced the literary fairy tale by increasing the overall popularity of tales. In 1697 in Paris, Charles Perrault published several tales from the oral tradition, albeit with his own embellishments, in his Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (also known as Mother Goose Tales). The tales enjoyed instant success. Some of the tales included are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots. He ultimately recorded eleven fairy tales, most of which are among the most popular tales today. All of Perrault's tales are available on SurLaLune at The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. The earliest English translation of Perrault's work was published in 1729 by Robert Samber. The translation was fairly accurate and incredibly popular. Excellent translations in print today can be found in Jack Zipes' Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales. Another helpful translation, The Complete Fairy Tales in Verse and Prose, includes the original French alongside an English translation.


Many scholars continued to collect and study folktales between the time of Charles Perrault and the 1800s. They laid the groundwork for the fairy tale renaissance in the 19th century. The renaissance was led by two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who solidified the popularity of fairy tale collecting and publishing with their Kinder- und Haus-märchen (Children's and Household Tales) in 1812-15. Today, the Grimms' collection of fairy tales remains popular in countless editions, making it one of the all time bestselling books in the German and English languages. Many of today's most popular fairy tales come from the Grimms, including The Frog King, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Bremen Town Musicians, Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel. The collection also contains tales similar to those recorded by Charles Perrault, especially Aschenputtel (like Cinderella) and Briar Rose (like Sleeping Beauty).

The Grimms' collection went through seven editions during their lifetime. The seventh and final edition of 1857 includes 200 numbered stories plus ten "Children's Legends." The brothers edited the tales for subsequent editions after seeing the book embraced by children and adults. Their translators also edited the tales so that many editions of the tales in English, German and other languages are considerably different from the tales originally collected by the brothers. Recommended further reading about the Grimms' collecting and editing methods can be found in The Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes, The Reception of the Grimms' Fairy Tales edited by Donald Haase, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar and The Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar. There are many more excellent articles and books about the Grimms, but these are some of the best and most readily available to most readers. D. L. Ashliman also has an excellent section devoted to the Grimms on his Grimm Brothers' Home Page.

The first translation of Grimms into English came as German Popular Tales in 1823, translated by Edgar Taylor and illustrated by George Cruikshank. Taylor took great liberties with the text and only offered a selection of tales, not the complete collection published in German.

Of the early translations of the tales, Margaret Hunt provides what is the most accurate and complete early translation of the Grimms into English (1884). Hunt also translated the Grimms' extensive notes to the tales. Hunt still took liberties with the text, however, changing content of the tales and the notes when she disagreed with the original text. Her changes are minimal compared to the other translations available at the time since Hunt had a scholarly intent with her translation. Still, of all the translations from the 19th century, hers is the most complete and overall the most accurate. Her work is also out of copyright and available on the web, although the notes haven't been included with most internet versions or print editions of her translation. SurLaLune is the first website to offer the notes along with the tales. In my experience, the greatest percentage of unattributed English translations in print and on the web are either direct reprints of Hunt's translation or edited derivatives of her original work.

The remaining most significant translation of Grimms from the 19th century was executed by Lucy Crane to accompany her brother Walter Crane's illustrations of the tales in Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1886). (An online edition is also available through Project Gutenberg). The Cranes' edition contains only a selection of the tales, but Lucy Crane's translation is charming and captures the spirit of the tales along with her brother's illustrations.

For further reading on 19th century translations including commentary on the translators' source materials, I recommend reading Martin Sutton's The Sin-Complex: A Critical Study of English Versions of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen in the Nineteenth Century. While difficult to purchase, this book is available in many academic libraries and should be attainable through interlibrary loan services.

For the curious, I also recommend Grimm's Grimmest which contains 19 early versions of the Grimms' tales before they were edited and cleaned-up for younger audiences by the brothers. The accompanying modern illustrations emphasize the gruesome aspects, so this edition is not recommended for youngest readers. It isn't a scholarly work; it is intended for general audiences, especially those interested in horror stories.

In the 21st century, two of the most accurate and best translations of the Grimms' tales are by Ralph Manheim and Jack Zipes. The Zipes translation, currently in a third edition, includes extra fragments and earlier manuscripts, but many readers prefer Manheim's translations. The choice is aesthetic and should be decided by the individual reader. However, if you are looking for a reliable English translation, I recommend selecting either one or both of these translations.

Note: Many scholars prefer to use the Grimms' term märchen (translation: wonder tales or magic tales) to refer to fairy tales, considering the term to be more accurate with less problematic connotations.


Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-1885) and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe (1813-1882) are Norway's answer to the Brothers Grimm. They were friends as teenagers but formed their literary partnership in their early twenties while still students. Both were interested in folklore at an early age through their personal experiences listening to it and their reading of the Grimms' work. When they learned each had independently started collecting folk stories, they decided to work in tandem. Asbjørnsen was a zoologist while Moe was a theologian, ultimately becoming a bishop, but their lasting contribution has been their collection and publication of Norwegian folktales. The men built upon the work of Andreas Faye, a clergyman, who published the first collection of Norwegian folktales in 1833. Asbjørnsen and Moe personally collected the tales, traveling around Norway during summer vacations and throughout the seasons, often walking on foot and visiting villages to hear the tales firsthand.

Unlike the Grimms, Asbjørnsen and Moe were also committed to writing the tales as they heard them, infusing them with the vernacular and keeping to the traditional plots without their own additions to the tales. They did not write the tales verbatim, however, and they sometimes fused versions of a tale into one cohesive whole.

In 1845--some sources state years from 1841 to 1845--Norske Folkeeventyr (Norwegian Folk Tales), the first collection of their tales was published with immediate success in Norway. An even more successful second edition appeared in 1852 with several more editions appearing in later years. Later editions also introduced the beloved illustrations of Erik Werenskiold and Theodor Kittelsen. Some of the most popular tales from the collection are The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, The Master Maid, Tatterhood, Soria Maria Castle, Why the Sea is Salt, and The Twelve Wild Ducks. The collection is also known simply as Asbjørnsen and Moe, especially in Norway where it is considered part of the national identity.

The first English translation of Norske Folkeeventyr by George Webbe Dasent appeared in 1858 as Popular Tales of the Norse. Despite pressure to change the tales to meet English tastes and morals, he states in his notice to the first edition that "the merit of an undertaking of this kind rests entirely on its faithfulness and truth; and the man who, in such a work, wilfully changes or softens, is as guilty as he 'puts bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.'" Dasent added thirteen tales to the second edition of 1859 and once again explains that he did not change the content, but commands children to not read the final two tales due to adult content. The third edition of 1888 with 59 tales is available on this site at Popular Tales of the Norse. It remains one of the most accurate and complete translations of Norske Folkeeventyr available in English. It is currently in print from Dover Publications as East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

Moe's son, Moltke Moe, continued his father's work, collaborating with Asbjørnsen when his father was too busy with his theological duties. He became the first professor of folklore and fairy tales at Christiania University.


Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)


Aleksandr Afanasyev (1826-1871) was the pioneer of Russian folklore. His Russian Fairy Tales includes 600 texts and variants and remains the most comprehensive collection of East Slavic folktales available today.

Afanasyev was devoted to preserving all of the variants he could find, including the nuances of their dialects, grammar and syntax. Some of the best known tales originally collected by Afanasyev include Baba Yaga and Vasilissa the Beautiful, Father Frost, The Frog-Tsarevna, and Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf.

Most collections of Russian folklore are derived or descended from Afanasyev's work. The entire collection of Afanasyev's tales has never been translated into English. The best English translation and most comprehensive collection available is Russian Fairy Tales translated by Norbert Guterman.

Ivan Bilibin, the most famous Russian from the Golden Age of Illustration, illustrated many of the most popular tales collected by Afanasyev and others.

Great Britain

Some popular fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, are English in origin.


Jeremiah Curtin

Joseph Jacobs

Oscar Wilde

Katharine Briggs


Andrew Lang's Colored Fairy Books.

The Classic Fairy Tales by Opie.

Further Reading

Sutton, Martin. The Sin-Complex: A Critical Study of English Versions of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen in the Nineteenth Century. Kassel: BrGrimm-Gesellschaft e.V., 1996.
Amazon.com: Buy the book in hardcover.

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Page created 1/2007; Last updated 9/9/09