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So You Want to Read Fairy Tales: Here’s Where to Start

 

Älvalek (Dancing Fairies) by August Malmström, 1866

They’re known by so many names: the good people, the fair folk, the people of peace. They’re generous, vicious, and just plain weird. They’re fairies, and from time out of mind, the people of Europe shared fabulous and sometimes frightening stories of these mysterious beings.

If you’re a fan of fantasy fiction, then it makes sense that you’d like to become more familiar with the genre’s ancient roots. With that in mind, here are several collections of classic fairy tales to put you on the right path.

  • The Fairy Tale Trinity: If you’re going to start reading fairy tales, you should start with the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Anderson.

  • The cover of the book Selected Tales

    Selected Tales

    The Brothers Grimm are where you should begin. Their collections of fairy tales brought these old stories out of the forests and into the parlors of modern readers. You can find complete collections of their work, but they wrote a ton of them. If you’re looking to develop a general familiarity with fairy tales, then you’re better off reading a curated collection like this one. David Luke was a very well respected scholar, and his translation is considered by some to be the definitive in the English language.

     
  • The cover of the book Fairy Tales

    Fairy Tales

    (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

    Your next stop should be the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the author of many tales you’ll recognize: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid” among them. Like Aesop, Andersen used his tale to convey important morals. They were originally written for children, but adult readers will find them of great value, as well.

     
  • The cover of the book Little Red Riding Hood and Other Stories

    Little Red Riding Hood and Other Stories

    Academic Charles Perrault turned his attention to writing fairy tales to entertain children at the age of 67. He’s the author of one of my favorite fairy tales: “Little Red Riding Hood”, which was later one of the inspirations for Angela Carter’s excellent collection The Bloody Chamber.

     
  • Rediscovered Classics: These are long-lost masterworks by storytellers that have only recently found their way to English-speaking markets.

  • The cover of the book The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales

    The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales

    Something you might not know about the Brothers Grimm: They only collected fairy tales from literary sources, which they sometimes bowdlerized to make them more commercially accessible.  They didn’t actually go out into the fields to talk with the peasants who knew them. Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth actually did the legwork the Grimms didn’t, traveling deep into the forests of Bavaria to collect these earthy stories as they were actually told. Maria Tatar, a world-recognized authority on fairy tales translated this collection, so you can be sure of its fidelity to the original source.

     
  • The cover of the book The Tale of Tales

    The Tale of Tales

    You might have heard that many of the original fairy tales had a dark side. Well, sometimes they had a dirty, sexy side as well. Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales is a hilarious and downright bawdy collection of stories from around Italy. Some of these are totally obscene and violent, so maybe you won’t want to share this one with younger kids. If you’re wondering, yes, this book is the basis for the recent film of the same name.  (Note: not to be confused with “CharDee MacDennis: the Game of Games“.)

     
  • Regional Collections: You might also enjoy these collections that focus on the tales of particular nations.

  • The cover of the book Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

    Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

    Poet, fiction writer, and part-time occultist W. B. Yeat’s collection of Irish fairy tales is perhaps a little bit heavy on nineteenth century mysticism and magic. Taken with a grain of salt, this is very readable look at the survival of folk customs and fairy traditions in rural Ireland, and a worthwhile historical document in its own right.

     
  • The cover of the book Russian Fairy Tales

    Russian Fairy Tales

    I bet you know more Russian fairy tales than you might think. Have you ever heard of Baba Yaga? The Swan Maiden? You’ll find these and others in this classic collection. This is a pretty hefty book: Clocking in at 672 pages, you might want to just skip around and read what sounds interesting.

     
  • Out of the Woods: Strictly speaking, “fairies” are part of European folklore, but almost every culture has its own stories of little people, trolls, and magical animals. Ready to venture out of the woods of Europe? Give these wonderful collections a try!

  • The cover of the book Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies

    Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies

    The Chinese have a rich tradition of ghosts and goblins, and were writing them down well before the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen ever picked up their pencils. This collection includes traditional fairy tales, ghost stories, and heroic epics.

     
  • The cover of the book African Folktales

    African Folktales

    The sprawling continent of Africa is the home of numerous tribes and nations, all of which have wonderful storytelling traditions. Roger Abrahams’ African Folktalescollects some of the very best traditional stories from these peoples, and could be a great jumping-off point for a deeper investigation into the topic.

     
  • The cover of the book AMERICAN INDIAN MYTHS AND LEGENDS

    AMERICAN INDIAN MYTHS AND LEGENDS

    The Native American tribes, like the native peoples of Africa, are incredibly diverse. All of them have their own tales and legends, many of which remain unknown to those outside the tribes. American Indian Myths and Legends is a treasure house of storytelling that will enlighten and entertain the curious reader.

     
  • Miscellany: Want a little bit of everything? Here’s a book I think you’ll enjoy.

  • The cover of the book Beauty and the Beast

    Beauty and the Beast

    Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World

    You’re likely familiar with the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, but did you know that the story you know is just one version of a tale known around the world? Maria Tatar has collected many of them in this amazing international anthology.

     
  • All done? Here’s a clip from “The Moth Diaries” (based on the novel by Rachel Klein) to end our round-up. The song that maybe-vampire Ernessa Bloch sings here is inspired by an actual fairy tale: “The Juniper Tree”. Tweet, tweet, tweet…