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Once Upon a Time: A Guide to Fairy Tales

Learn more about fairy tales, including the history, list of popular stories, books, plus more.

Last Updated on April 19, 2024 by BiblioLifestyle


Fairy tales have been enchanting audiences for centuries with their magical worlds, fantastic heroes, and unforgettable stories.  These whimsical tales have been loved by both children and adults alike, and with good reason!  They offer us a glimpse of a world beyond our own, where anything is possible.  

Growing up I have fond memories of being read fairy tales before bed and when I was old enough, I would read them myself. I was captivated by the adventures of brave princes and princesses, talking animals, and mischievous fairies. These stories taught me valuable lessons about bravery, kindness, and determination. They also sparked my imagination and creativity, encouraging me to dream big and believe in the impossible. So in this article, l want us to take a closer look at fairy tales – from their history, different types, the most popular stories, plus a list of books.

What are fairy tales?

Fairy tales have been around for centuries but are believed to have origins in the oral traditions of ancient cultures, with some of the earliest known tales coming from ancient cultures such as Egypt and India.  However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that they were popularized in Europe by writers such as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.

Fairy tales are stories featuring mythical creatures such as fairies, goblins, and dragons alongside humanoid characters such as princes, princesses, and witches.  These tales often contain morals or lessons and are designed to entertain and educate.  Many famous fairy tales have been passed down from generation to generation, often changing slightly over time, depending on the culture, but are usually recognizable by their magical elements.

what is a fairy tale

About Fairy Tales

The History of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have a rich history, with many cultures around the world having their own unique versions of these stories.  In ancient times, they were often told orally and passed down through generations.  As time passed, they began to be written down. This practice began in the Greco-Roman period and continued through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Some of the earliest collections are The Thousand and One Nights, published in Arabic between the eighth and 14th centuries, and the collection of stories compiled by the Brothers Grimm in Germany in the early 1800s.  The Brothers Grimm’s work, in particular, played an essential role in popularizing fairy tales and making them accessible to a wider audience.

What’s the oldest fairy tale?

The oldest known fairy tale is believed to be “The Smith and the Devil,” dating back approximately 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.  The tale, involving a blacksmith making a pact with a malevolent supernatural entity, survived through the ages, making its way into several cultures and languages.  It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of stories able to adapt and evolve across time and geography while retaining their core elements.

Do fairy tales still exist?

Absolutely!  Fairy tales are not only still in existence, but they continue to thrive and adapt in our contemporary world.  Modern tales may not always resemble the traditional ones we’re familiar with, as they often take on new forms to stay relevant to the times.  They are found in books, films, television series, and even video games, reaching audiences on a global scale.  Many of these tales incorporate modern themes and characters while preserving the enchanting narratives and moral lessons that characterize the fairy tale genre.

Types of Fairy Tales

There are many different types of fairy tales, each with its own unique characteristics and themes.  Some of the most common ones include:

  • Animal Tales: These stories feature animals as the main characters and often involve talking animals or animals with human-like qualities.
  • Wonder Tales: Also known as “magic” tales, these stories typically revolve around a hero or heroine embarking on a journey to overcome obstacles and defeat evil forces.
  • Fables: These are short tales that teach moral lessons through the use of anthropomorphized animals, plants, or inanimate objects.
  • Märchen: Meaning “wonder tales” in German, these are tales that have been passed down through generations and are often darker and more violent than modern adaptations.
Fairy tales

List of Fairy Tales

13 Most Popular Fairy Tales

  1. Cinderella: This classic tale follows the journey of a young girl who overcomes her cruel stepmother and stepsisters to find true love with the help of her fairy godmother.
  2. Snow White: In this well-known story, a princess is forced to flee from her evil stepmother and takes refuge in the home of seven dwarfs.
  3. Sleeping Beauty: A princess is cursed by an evil fairy to fall into a deep sleep on her 16th birthday, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss.
  4. Beauty and the Beast: This tale tells the story of a young woman who learns to see past appearances and falls in love with a cursed prince who appears as a beast.
  5. Little Red Riding Hood: A young girl is sent on a journey through the woods to visit her grandmother, only to encounter a cunning wolf along the way.
  6. Hansel and Gretel: This story follows two siblings who are abandoned in the forest and stumble upon a house made of candy owned by a witch.
  7. The Little Mermaid: A mermaid princess falls in love with a human prince and makes a deal with a sea witch to gain legs and be able to live on land.
  8. Rapunzel: A princess is locked away in a tower by an evil witch until she is rescued by a prince who climbs up her long golden hair.
  9. The Frog Prince: When a princess loses her favorite ball in a well, she makes a deal with a frog to retrieve it, not expecting to fall in love with him.
  10. The Snow Queen: This tale follows the journey of a young girl as she tries to save her best friend from the clutches of the cold-hearted Snow Queen.
  11. The Ugly Duckling: A duckling is mocked and mistreated for being different but grows up to be a beautiful swan.
  12. The Three Little Pigs: Three pigs build houses of straw, sticks, and bricks to protect themselves from the big bad wolf.
  13. Aladdin: A poor street urchin finds a magical lamp containing a genie that grants him three wishes, leading him on an adventure to win the heart of a princess.

Lesser Known Fairy Tales That Are Just As Enchanting

  • The Blue Light: In this German fairy tale, a disenfranchised soldier discovers a magical blue light that summons a dwarf to do his bidding, leading to a series of adventures.
  • The Tinderbox: A soldier comes into possession of a magical tinderbox and uses it to woo a princess in this Danish fairy tale.
  • East of the Sun, West of the Moon: This Norwegian fairy tale tells the story of a girl on a quest to rescue her bear-prince from a wicked troll queen.
  • The Light Princess: In this Scottish fairy tale, a princess is cursed to be without gravity, leading to numerous whimsical and dramatic events.
  • The Princess and the Pea: The real identity of a true princess is discovered through a single pea hidden under a pile of mattresses in this Danish fairy tale.
  • The Seven Ravens: This German fairy tale follows a young girl who embarks on a journey to save her brothers, who have been turned into ravens.
  • The Goose Girl: A princess’s maid steals her place and forces her to become a goose girl in this German fairy tale.
  • The King of the Golden River: In this English fairy tale, a kind-hearted brother must complete a quest to turn a river into gold and save his valley.
  • The Wild Swans: A princess must knit shirts from nettles to break a curse on her brothers in this Danish fairy tale.
  • The Three Golden Hairs: In this Italian fairy tale, a young prince sets out to retrieve three golden hairs from the head of the devil to save his father’s life.

Fairy Tale Books

There are countless books available that offer retellings, new interpretations, and original stories. Here are just a few options:

  • “The Complete Fairy Tales” by Hans Christian Andersen
  • “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” by the Brothers Grimm
  • “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories” by Angela Carter
  • “Fairy Tales for Angry Little Girls” by Lela Lee
  • “The Land of Stories” series by Chris Colfer
The Complete Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

The Complete Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

This collection features some of the most beloved tales written by acclaimed Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, including “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Princess on the Pea,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Also included is “The Tallow Candle”—one of the earliest stories written by Andersen, just discovered recently!


The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm

The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm

Featuring 211 classic tales from the Brothers Grimm, including favorites such as “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “The Frog Prince,” “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The collection is accompanied by 40 color plates and 60 black-and-white illustrations from award-winning English illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose books and prints are now highly sought-after collectibles.


fairy tales list

Frequently Asked Questions about Fairy Tales

What is the most popular fairy story?

The most popular fairy tale is often considered to be “Cinderella.” Known around the world and translated into many languages, this classic tale of a kind and humble girl who overcomes adversity to find true love has captivated audiences for centuries. The story’s themes of transformation and reward for goodness resonate with readers and listeners of all ages, making “Cinderella” a beloved staple.

What is the most simple fairy tale?

The most straightforward fairy tale is arguably “The Three Little Pigs.” This tale has a simple storyline that’s easy to follow, making it ideal for young children. In the story, each of the three pig siblings builds a house – one of straw, one of sticks, and one of bricks. The Big Bad Wolf tries to blow each house down, with the first two succumbing to his huffing and puffing. However, the brick house remains standing, demonstrating the value of hard work and careful planning. Despite its simplicity, “The Three Little Pigs” conveys meaningful life lessons that resonate with audiences of all ages.

What is the 13th fairy story?

The 13th fairy tale in many classic collections is the Brothers Grimm’s tale “The Three Spinners.” This story revolves around a lazy girl who dislikes spinning. Her mother’s attempts to force her to work catch the attention of the queen, who insists that the girl spin flax for three days. Three older women, each now differently-abled with was caused by spinning, visit the girl and offer to spin the flax for her if she invites them to her wedding and treats them as her aunts. The girl agrees, and they spin all the flax. Impressed, the queen allows the girl to marry her son, and at the wedding, the prince is so horrified by how the women are differently-abled due to spinning that he agrees never to let his bride spin again. This fairy tale, like many others, offers valuable lessons about work, patience, and keeping promises.

What is the oldest fairy story?

The oldest known fairy tale is believed to be “The Smith and the Devil,” estimated to be about 6,000 years old. The story, which is about a blacksmith who makes a pact with a malevolent supernatural entity, has variations across many cultures and continents. It was first documented in the Bronze Age, but linguistic analysis suggests that it could be much older. Despite its age, the core narrative of a skilled craftsman outwitting a devilish figure remains salient in folklore, underscoring the enduring power and charm of fairy tales.

Is Shrek a fairy tale?

Yes, “Shrek” can be considered a fairy tale, but with a modern and humorous twist. An animated movie produced by DreamWorks Animation, “Shrek” features traditional elements such as princes, princesses, dragons, and magic, intertwined with popular culture references and satirical spins on classic fairy tale tropes. The story revolves around Shrek, an ogre who embarks on a quest to rescue Princess Fiona for a selfish lord wishing to become King. However, the twist is that Shrek himself is the protagonist, challenging the conventional representation of ogres as villains in fairy tales. Thus, while “Shrek” is a fairy tale, it is also a parody, cleverly subverting and redefining age-old narratives.

Is Pinocchio a fairy tale?

Yes, “Pinocchio” is indeed a fairy tale. It was originally written by Italian author Carlo Collodi in 1883. The story revolves around a wooden puppet named Pinocchio who dreams of becoming a real boy. His adventures and misadventures, guided by his conscience personified as a talking cricket, offer valuable life lessons. The magical transformation of Pinocchio into a real boy at the end, as a reward for his honesty, bravery, and selflessness, is a hallmark of traditional fairy tales.

What is your relationship with fairy tales?

Fairy tales are magical tales that have been enchanting audiences for centuries.  Their origins may be steeped in ancient oral traditions, but their influence is ever-present in modern literature and entertainment.  With so many different types, there is sure to be something for everyone.  After all, once upon a time is always a great place to start.

Do you read fairy tales?  Did you read any during your childhood?  Do you read any to your children or the little ones in your family?  What are some of your favorites?  Let us talk about it in the comments below!


A Guide to Fairy Tales

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