Lands of Enchantment: A History of Fairy Tales

December 5, 2016 | Nicole

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Magical tales of spells, journeys and enchantments form a dominant genre within children’s literature and exert a profound influence on our culture.

Where do they come from?

Join us for an illustrated talk, Lands of Enchantment: A History of Fairy Tales, presented by Martha Scott, from the library’s Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, on Wednesday December 7th at 6:30 pm, in the Hinton Learning Theatre at the Toronto Reference Library.

Martha will discuss best-loved stories and landmark collections from the European tradition of literary fairy tales, with images taken from books held by the Osborne Collection.



The Osborne Collection’s earliest fairy tale, Historia di Lionbruno (The History of Lionbruno), was printed in Venice around 1476. It begins as an impoverished fisher agrees to sell his youngest son to the Devil. The boy, named Lionbruno, is left on an island for the devil to claim. He is then rescued by a fairy named Madonna Aquilina, who flies with him to her magical realm. And so his adventures begin…

Historia di Lionbruno

Here is the first page of Historia di Lionbruno, printed by Vindelinus de Spira, ca. 1476.

Two early Italian collections containing fairy tales were very influential in the development of the genre. Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights) was published in Venice in 1550-1553. It contains 75 stories, about 15 of which are fairy tales. This woodcut from a 1604 edition of Straparola’s collection illustrates the tale “Contantino Fortunato,” an early version of “Puss in Boots.”


Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, published in Naples in 1634 to 1636, was the first European book to consist entirely of fairy tales. Among its 49 stories are prototypes of many familiar tales, such as “La Gatta Cenerentola” (“The Cat Cinderella”), in which a young woman named Zezolla receives help from a magic date tree. The tree gives her clothes and horses to attend the royal feasts. Zezolla loses her slipper at the feast, and the love-struck king orders all women in the land to try the slipper on.


Stories from the Pentamerone

In this illustration by Warwick Goble from Stories from the Pentamerone, 1911, Zezolla’s father visits the Grotto of the Fairies on behalf of his daughter.

Charles Perrault was a French civil servant whose 1697 collection, Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Stories, or, Tales of Passed Times), gives us some of our best known tales, among them: “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and the grisly “Bluebeard.”

The Osborne Collection contains many volumes of Perrault’s tales dating from 1697 to present day.

This image is from an 1820 volume Contes des fées (Fairy Tales) by Charles Perrault. In this frontispiece illustration, Cinderella performs a graceful dance for her fellow storybook characters. To view the entire book in PDF format, check out the library’s Digital Archive.

  Contes des fees

During the late 1600s, fairy stories became very fashionable in France — in addition to Perrault, a number of female writers wrote and published their own tales. Chief among them was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. Her collections of fairy tales, Contes des fées (Tales of the Fairies), and Contes nouveaux ou Les Fées à la mode (New Tales, or, Fairies in Fashion) were published in 1697 and 1698. This image by Edmund Dulac illustrates d’Aulnoy’s “Green Dragon,” from A Fairy Garland: Being Fairy Tales from the Old French (1928). As in Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the story begins with a curse placed on a baby princess by a wicked fairy.


A Fairy Garland

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German scholars who began collecting folk tales in their early twenties. In 1812 they published the first volume of their collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). They worked on this collection throughout their lives, publishing six revisions within their lifetimes. Their final (seventh) edition contained over 200 tales. Among their most famous stories are: “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Frog King,” “Rapunzel,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” ”The Elves and the Shoemaker” and many more.  

Kinder und Hausmärchen

The frontispiece to Volume I of the Grimm’s second edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) illustrates the tale “Little Brother, Little Sister,” in which two children escape from their wicked stepmother by running into the woods. The boy drinks from an enchanted stream and is turned into a fawn.

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark in 1805. He grew up in poverty, but went on to become one of the world’s best-known children’s writers. Andersen created 156 original fairy tales; his stories were not taken from traditional folktales, but were his own literary creations.

Andersen’s most famous tales include: “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Snow Queen” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The Snow Queen and Other Stories from Hans Andersen

The Snow Queen and Other Stories from Hans Andersen, 1911

Be sure to visit Osborne’s exhibit The Snow Queen’s Palace: Amazing Stories by Hans Christian Andersen, on display on the 4th floor, Lillian H. Smith branch from December 10, 2016 to March 4, 2017.


Once upon a time_TDGallery2016DSCF3074

And don’t miss Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales from the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books on display in the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery from November 5, 2016 to January 22, 2017.

Did you know that most of the Osborne Collection’s fairy tale books published before 1910 are available in digital form through the Toronto Public Library website? Go to the Digital Archive, type “fairy tales” into the search box, and choose from approximately 600 digitized books.

For further reading on the history of classic fairy tales, check out:

The Classic Fairy Tales, Opie    Once Upon a Time, Marina Warner    From the Beast to the Blond, Marina Warner

                The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar     Classic Fairy Tales, Tatar