Once upon a time in Europeana… Finding fairytales in our collections

How old were you before a cracked mirror no longer filled you with dread? And a forest no longer conjured up thoughts of witches and wolves? Even if we haven’t read them for many years, fairytales enter our psyche in a very special way.

Tomorrow, it will be 312 years since the death of Charles Perrault, the father of the modern fairytale. It’s perhaps not a date nor a name that mean very much, but the influence of this man, and his vivid contribution to our collective imagination, have little diminished since his death in 1703.

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Along with maybe better-known writers like Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, you can thank Perrault for many of your most cherished childhood stories. A subversive at heart, and a critic of Louis XIV’s court, he rescued popular oral tales from disappearing into the mists of time, immortalising them in a slim volume of tales published at the end of the seventeenth century.

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The book was a huge success, and Perrault became a well-known figure in Paris’ literary circles. Even if you haven’t read Perrault’s book, you’ll know his characters well, from Little Red Riding Hood and the fearsome wolf, to the pirate Blue Beard and Cinderella.


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So why do these tales endure?

Well, there are lots of theories; some suggest they tap into our buried urges and deepest fears, while others read them as timeless tales of good and bad, teaching children, and society at large, what makes right from wrong.

As these different objects from our collections show, the stories take the real world and real people and give them a fantastical twist. Numbers, colours and everyday objects acquire mystical powers – threes and sevens spell luck and magic, while shiny red apples become synonymous with danger.

Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, some papercut figures inspired by his tales, and a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales.

Snow White, a German fairytale, first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

Whatever their hidden meanings, it’s clear from a journey through our collections just how much they’ve captivated imaginations of storytellers, actors, painters and writers across Europe. A book of fairytales is often one of the first things a child will own, no matter where they live, and it offers them a pass into the world of our shared cultural heritage.

So, which tale did you love the most?

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1. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 2. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 3. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. 4. Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Public Domain. 5. Deventer Musea, CC BY-SA. 6. British Library, Public Domain. 7. Spielzeugmuseum Nürnberg, CC BY NC SA. 8. Deventer Musea, CC BY-SA. 9. Battersea Arts Centre, CC BY NC SA. 10. Museon, CC BY. 11. British Library, Public Domain.

One thought on “Once upon a time in Europeana… Finding fairytales in our collections”

  1. The fairy-story I love best must be “Leaf by Niggle”, a short story by JRR Tolkien; closely followed by his other short tale called “Smith of Wootton-Major”.
    These often-overlooked, but remarkable stories appeal to me because they are not barely disguised moral tales as many of the Grimm stories are, but report of the dealings by otherwise ordinary people with (as JRRT calls it) ‘the land of Faërie’.

    I’m inclined to follow Tolkien’s opinion about fairy-tales, as outlined in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, in that the defining characteristic of such a story is that it “(…) touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. (…) ”

    Another point he raises is that a fairy-story is not necessarily addressed to children; in fact, it may not be meant for them at all. I think that it is more a characteristic of our age that we have come to associate them with children.
    Fairy-stories, truly imaginative stories (labeled ‘fantasy’ or SF or fairy-tales) tap into our imaginative faculties*. Sadly, our culture has developed an ambivalent relationship with it: fairy-stories have been relegated to the nursery; only ‘geeks’ dare to associate themselves with Fantasy and SF. Something ‘imagined’ is often plainly synonymous with ‘a falsehood’; ‘serious’ literature should be about ‘real things’ (as opposed to ‘imagined things’): even when it’s fiction.

    Yet, as author Neil Gaiman stressed in an article in the Guardian, it turns out that people who are truly innovative and creative all share a love for fantasy and science fiction – for tales that ask the reader to use their imaginative faculties.
    He tells about visiting the first SF & Fantasy convention in China, where his hosts told him that this discovery had prompted their change of heart towards this genre.

    Maybe it’s about time we take our fairy-stories a bit more seriously!

    * however, the reverse isn’t true: the label ‘SF’ or ‘Fantasy’ (or even ‘fairy-tale’) doesn’t guarantee that it’s imaginative. Simply throwing a couple of swords or dragons in what’s basically a soap-opera in all other respects doesn’t make it ‘fantasy’; just as transporting such a story aboard a space-ship doesn’t necessarily make it SF.

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