FAIRY TALE FOUNDERS by William Gilmer

The Brothers Grimm, One Thousand and One Nights, Mother Goose...almost all our knowledge of fairytales and early children’s literature comes from collections. We seem to hear more about these collections, and the people who took the time to compile them, than we do about the original writers. This month I’m looking at the people behind the stories, the people’s whose work deserved collecting in the first place.
Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter was a powerhouse far ahead of her time. We remember her best for fables that showcased anthropomorphized animals like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, but she was much more (which is saying a lot considering The Tale of Peter Rabbit is still one of the best-selling books of all time).

There were many advantages for Beatrix growing up. Her family had wealth through the ownership of one of England’s largest textile printing works, as well as luck in the earlier days of the stock market. Beatrix was privately educated and found a love for nature and the natural sciences. She was a skilled artist and received acclaim for her colorized drawings and descriptions of fungi. Her love of nature and the environment would stay with her over the course of her life.

Beatrix had been raised on fairy tales and the traditional folklore of Scotland. She was an avid reader and always sought to express herself through words or art. While she was on a vacation in Dunkeld, she included the first ideas of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in a letter to a friend back home. In 1900, she finalized the story and began shopping it around for publication. She was unable to find anyone to take the book and decided to self-publish it for her family and friends. Canon Rawnsley received a copy of the book and was so impressed, he persuaded Frederick Warne & Co. to take a chance on it. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 and became so successful that Beatrix would go on to publish twenty-two more books with the company.

With the money she made from writing, Beatrix set off on a life of farming and conservation. Her passion for farming and her skill at raising sheep were almost unmatched (her mastery of sheep breeding became so well known that in 1942 she became the first woman elected president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association). Upon her death she left all her 4,000 acres to the National Trust. Her donation made it possible to create the Lake District National Park. A true Jill of all trades, Beatrix Potter established herself in many different fields and thrived in whatever task she was taking on at the time. In a time when women were blocked from many aspects of industry, Beatrix was a maverick and a trail blazer.
Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy

Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy lived a life worthy of a Hollywood biopic. She was born in 1650 to a noble family and married off at the age of fifteen to a man thirty years her elder. Her husband was accused of treason by two men assumed to be lovers of D’Aulnoy. After a few years in prison, D’Aulnoy’s husband was released, and D’Aulnoy fled her home in north-western France and became a spy for the French government. During this time, she was thought to live in Spain and England. Upon her return to France, she was involved in a plot to take revenge on the abusive husband of her friend, Angélique Ticquet. The two women conspired to have one of Angélique’s servants shoot her husband, but the plan was foiled and resulted in the target being wounded instead of killed. While Madame D’Aulnoy was never implicated in the crime, her friend Angélique Ticquet was beheaded for attempted murder.

As if that wasn’t enough, this former spy and conspirator of murder would become the founding mother of fairy tales. Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy was the principle figure in fairytale précieuses. Précieuses was a French literary style born in the salons of the female elites where well-to-do women conversed about life and literature. One of the most popular games played in these salons involved the telling of fairy tales. While the idea was that the tellings would be impromptu and spontaneous, they were usually well prepared and thoroughly rehearsed.

Apart from her participation in the salon culture, D’Aulnoy was a prolific writer, and penned two different collections of fairy tales, Les Contes des Fees (Tales of fairies) and Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fees a la Mode, were published in 1697 and 1698. These stories were not meant for children and reflected the language of the courts and salons at the time. Changes were made throughout the years to make the tales palatable for younger audiences, so much so that today some of the stories are nearly unrecognizable from their original forms.

The salon literary culture had a significant impact on writings of all forms, but especially fairytales. The works of the précieuses influenced  Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (author of the original Beauty and the Beast) and Charles Perrault (Cinderella). While you won’t see very many references to Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, she was, without a doubt, the mother of the fairytale as we know it today.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was as equally unique as he was prolific. Born in Denmark in 1805, he wrote some of the most well-known fairy tales and childrens stories in the Western world. To his credit are the familiar titles, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Ugly Duckling”, among many other works. Besides fairy tales, Andersen found initial success writing travelogues, short stories, and his breakthrough novel, The Improvisatore, which was based on his time traveling throughout Italy. He also put together stage plays and other theatrical works, though these produced little commercial or critical success.

Andersen fell in love with fairy tales from an early age when his father would read him One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Though he was born with dyslexia, he did eventually learn how to read. Much to his editor’s dismay, he struggled with spelling throughout his life. While he grew up poor and endured the death of his father at a young age, Andersen found success in writing early on, publishing his first story, "The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave," at the age of seventeen.

Even though Andersen is remembered today for his fairy tales, this acclaim took some time to materialize. Published entries for his multi-installment book, Fairy Tales, which contained some of his best-known works, occurred in 1835 and 1837, but sold poorly. After this, he focused on novels and poetry which performed far better for him. It wouldn’t be until 1845, with the translation and reprinting of some early works, that Andersen would find fame in fairy tales. While he still pursued other forms of writing, he worked on fairy tales and childrens stories for the rest of his life and became one of the best-known writers of children’s literature.

There are many other people that I wish could have been included on this list, but unfortunately, we don’t know who they are. Many of our beloved stories of fairies and folklore were passed down orally for generations before ever being written down, making nearly impossible to trace them back to a single source. Even when we know the original writers of these stories, it’s easy to see the lives of those people overshadowed by the success of their works. It takes special people to craft stories that last for hundreds of years...special people that are still out there. You can take part in this tradition by submitting your stories to Enchanted Conversation where we’re always hunting for the next Potter, D’Aulnoy, and Andersen! Just try not to get your friend beheaded in the process.

William Gilmer is a writer and poet living in Michigan where Fall never lasts long enough. Over two dozen of his pieces have been published both online and in print. Keep an eye out for his monthly articles in Enchanted Conversation Magazine, and if there isn’t enough going on in your feed, follow him on Twitter @willwritethings

Cover: Amanda Bergloff


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Comments

  1. I would not have thought of including Beatrix Potter in the lineup of fairy tale writers - but I guess she really is, isn't she! For that matter, so is C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, L. Frank Baum...
    As for Mme D'Aulnoy, some of her stories are, umm, interesting. Among other things, she didn't necessarily abide by the "happily ever after" ending! But then, neither did Andersen.

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  2. Thanks for a very interesting article, William. Doesn't it seem that all of these authors were rebels in some way? For instance, Andersen was frustrated in his hopes of acquiring a noble patron, and several of his stories openly poke fun at nobles and royalty. Potter and d'Aulnoy both went their own way, as well.

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  3. Very interesting article! I’d actually never heard of Mme D’Aulnoy, but now I will seek out whatever I can find on her. I am always starving to learn more about interesting figures, people not usually included in history books, and loved learning here about those responsible for many of my favorite stories of all time. Very gratifying! Thanks for your well-researched article, William!

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