Foundations of French Fairy Tales

We all grew up hearing their stories, but how many of us know the history behind our favorite fairy tales? Did you know that fairy tales may never have existed as a literary genre, as they do today, without the influence of a few 17th Century French authors? The political and cultural context of that era shaped these beloved stories and took them from oral tradition to published literature.

Once Upon a Time… il était une fois…

Long before the phrase “fairy tale” was created, people passed down folk tales by word of mouth. These beloved stories changed incrementally over time and distance, with similar versions passed down through generations in different regions of the world. These stories were meant not just to entertain, but to pass along morals and cultural customs. Folk tales showed that life is not inherently good, but happy endings are possible through hard work, determination, and, perhaps, a bit of luck.

We cannot be sure when the first folk tale was created, nor how long these stories passed from generation to generation. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that folk tales started to be published in Europe, having first been embellished or modernized by their authors.

The first known use of the term “fairy tale” was by a female author in 17th Century France. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, called her published folk stories contes de fées (“fairy tales”), birthing the term used thereafter for this widely popular literary genre. Her stories draw heavily from folk tales and often involve heroines overcoming great obstacles to find happiness at the end.

Her desire to dream up fairytale endings was likely inspired by her own storied life.

The Birth of the Fairy Tale

Madame d’Aulnoy’s life seems to have been as wild as a modern-day soap opera, including an arranged marriage, conspiracy to have her husband murdered, and, possibly, espionage.

She was born in Barneville-la-Bertran in Normandy and was given in a pre-arranged marriage at the age of fifteen to François de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a man thirty years her senior.

The marriage between the Baron and Madame d’Aulnoy was not a happy one, likely exacerbated by the Baron’s drinking and gambling problems.

Just a few years after their marriage, the Baron was accused of treason and spent three years in the Bastille. His two accusers are thought to have been the lovers of Madame d’Aulnoy and her mother. And, Madame d’Aulnoy is thought to have conspired with them to rid herself of her husband.

The Baron eventually convinced the court of his innocence and his two accusers were executed. At that same time, a warrant was served for Madame d’Aulnoy’s arrest and she was forced to flee France. She then spent many years abroad and may have worked as a spy to earn her way back to Paris.

Once back in France, Madame d’Aulnoy hosted literary salons in her Parisian home. Salons became fashionable in 17th Century France as a way for like-minded individuals to gather in homes and discuss or create written works, away from the criticism-prone court of French King Louis XIV. Salons especially gave women like Madame d’Aulnoy and her female contemporaries an outlet for enlightened conversations in what was an otherwise male-dominated society.

At many literary salons of the time, women created or adapted folk stories to include subtle storylines as a way of complaining about the king or their unhappy marriages. Women of the time did not have access to formal education and salons offered a chance for them to learn from, and commiserate with, each other.

It is in this environment that Madame d’Aulnoy published her fairy tales in the volumes Les Contes de Fées in 1697-1699 and Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fées à la Mode (New Tales, or Fairies in Fashion) in 1698. Her tales were not suitable for children and written in a conversational style that went out of fashion by the 19th Century. Unfortunately, today, Madame d’Aulnoy is not widely recognized for her important role in bringing fairy tales to the written page.

Perrault: The Father of Fairy Tales

Around the same time that Madame d’Aulnoy published her Contes de Fées, and more than 100 years before the Brothers Grimm penned their works, French author Charles Perrault published his Tales of Mother Goose in 1697.

Perrault was born in Paris in 1628 and dropped out of school when he thought his teachers were being unfair.

He later studied law and practiced architecture, where his success led him to influence the construction of Versailles and the Louvre.

In fact, his review praising modern works brought about the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” in literary and artistic circles. It wasn’t until he stepped back from his career, however, that his success as a writer really took off.

Perrault was in his mid-60s by the time he compiled the stories which would make up his Tales of Mother Goose.

He first attributed his fairy tales to his youngest son, Pierre, and his later works solely to the stock character Mother Goose.

Although his stories were heavily based on earlier folk tales, his style was so popular that he is credited with establishing fairy tales as a new literary genre.

Unlike his contemporary Madame d’Aulnoy, Perrault’s stories appealed to both adults and children. He peppered his tales with morals and messages about how to navigate the world, while his plots sparked the imagination for readers of all ages.

His adaptations of folk tales include such well-known titles as “Cinderella,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” However, readers unfamiliar with Perrault may find surprising differences in his versions than what they are accustomed to. (Spoiler: Red Riding Hood gets gobbled up by the wolf at the end and Sleeping Beauty has an ogre for a mother-in-law).

It is believed Perrault’s tales heavily influenced the works of the Brothers Grimm. And although the Brothers may be more of a household name than Perrault, without his influence, fairy tales may never have existed as we know them today.

Ever After

It is hard to imagine what our world would be like had fairy tales never been published.

They have inspired so much of our current popular culture – from Disney movies to TV shows to advertisements selling everything from self-tanner (imagine Snow White with a Tan) to chocolate (a Kit Kat satisfying the Wolf’s cravings). Their universal appeal and simple storylines continue to offer the ultimate escapism.

The influence that Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault have had on popular culture is hard to deny. And while any diehard fan of fairy tales should be familiar with the Brothers Grimm and the works of Charles Perrault, unfortunately, Madame d’Aulnoy is far from a household name… yet. Thankfully, it may not be the end of the story for Madame.

The feminist themes in her contes have gained more attention in the current #MeToo era. Many recent articles have identified her influence on the genre and two English translations of her works were published in the past two years by Black Coat Press and Princeton University Press.

It is easy to see that the influence of both Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault continues to this day.

Here is hoping their contes de fées will live on ever after.

Have you read these historic Fairy tales in French? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section below.

Image Credits:
1. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy via Wikipedia
2. Charles Perrault via
3. Fairy Tales via Amazon
4. Book via Princeton University Press
5. Book via Black Coat Press
Further reading:
  1. Madame d’Aulnoy, the mysterious fairy-tale queen | Princeton University Press
  2. Pioneering fairytale author D’Aulnoy gets a rare English edition to herself | Fairytales | The Guardian
  3. The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy | Fairytales | The Guardian
  4. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, by Charles Perrault, et al
  5. ‘Peau D’Ane’ – The most fabulous French fairytale of all
  6. French fairytales: Amélie Nothomb gives ‘Barbe-Bleue’ a makeover
  7. Can you guess the secret true story of French fairy tales?
  8. The Island of Happiness: French Feminist Fairytales get a new translation

About the Contributor

Veronica Royce

I studied International Affairs at GWU and loved Washington D.C. so much, I spent the next 10 years there. I now live in Bend, OR with my husband and daughter. A self-described Francophile and Russophile.

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