The Fairy Tellers

Title: The Fairy Tellers: A Journey Into the Secret History of Fairy Tales
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey
Author: Nicholas Jubber
Pages: 336pp
Price: $24.95 / $11.99

Who first told the story “Cinderella”? What are the cultural origins of “Sleeping Beauty”? What was the political landscape when the stories about Baba Yaga were composed? How closely does the modern “Beauty and the Beast” resemble the classic “Cupid and Psyche”? And which once popular stories have been lost, or which stories were barely known in the past, but are now considered to be classics?

In his wide-ranging book, Jubber crosses centuries and continents, traveling from the dusty markets of late Medieval Syria to the gilded halls of Versailles, from the bitterly cold winters of Saint Petersburg to the dense green forests of central Germany. Along the way, he tackles social collapse and renewal, political upheaval, ethnic strife, religious division, gender construction and reconstruction, agrarianism versus industrialization, and much much more. It is a tour de force, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

I have been a life-long fan of fairy tales. I was raised on a steady diet of Grimm and Perrault, which turned into a passion for writing my own versions of classic, as well as original, fairy tales. Only recently, however, have I taken an interest in the sources of the fairy tales I love. I knew the names d’Aulnoy and Marie de France and Basile and Andersen — but I knew there had to be more names, more authors and collectors and editors. And I learned their stories in Jubber’s The Fairy Tellers.

Take Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. In 18th century France, she suffered through a terrible marriage, was widowed by age twenty-six, and had to sell off her inherited estate bit by bit to settle her deceased husband’s debts. Nearly penniless, she moved to Paris where she attracted the attention of playwright and literary censor, Prosper Jolyot de Crebillon, taking shelter in his terrible, leaky, animal-infested apartment. It was here that she wrote numerous fairy tales, including her most famous: “Beauty and the Beast.” Like so many fairy tales, it drew upon her life experiences — and oh so subtly attacked the status quo of the day, including the treatment of women and marital customs.

Another example: Ivan Khudiakov. Only eighteen years of age, he tramped through the villages of Russia, sitting down in huts and around campfires to collect the stories of the traditional skomorokhi. His Great Russian Fairy Tales was the first such collection, ever. But Khudiakov was a socialist, a political radical seen as a threat by the government. His fairy tales (the government censors argued) mocked the Tsar and the Orthodox Church, and undermined the social hierarchy. Khudiakov (most shockingly) even published a cheap manual, A Tutorial for Beginners to Learn to Read and Write, aimed at educating the illiterate serf class.

Fairy tales are not just fairy tales. They never have been. They are about us: our fears and desires; the societies we live in and how we want to change them; ideas about justice and punishment; the relationships between the sexes and the relationship between humanity and the natural world; and so much more. There is a reason that so many of these stories had to be told in secret, or disguised as children’s entertainment; there is a reason that so many of their authors were harassed, imprisoned, or even executed by the Powers That Be.

The Fairy Tellers by Jubber is a excellent dive into the history of modern fairy tales, a history which is still being told as new sources are discovered. Highly recommended to lovers of fairy tales everywhere, as well as fans of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Tatar; Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales by Forrester; and The Writing of the Gods by Dolnick.

[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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