Once Upon a Time | Exhibit Digest
The exhibit explores classic fairy tales and traditional stories from around the world through a surprising array of books, toys, games and art held at our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books.
Each one of the exhibit's main panels is found below, word for word.
You can find more items from the exhibit on our Digital Archive.
Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales from the Osborne Collection
A child wanders from the safe path on a trip through the woods. A boy sells the family cow for some magic beans. A mistreated girl yearns to go to the ball. A youngest son inherits a talking cat. These simple, yet powerful tales are beloved by children and adults alike.
Fairy tales are stories of spells, journeys, tests, riddles, dangers and (usually) happy endings. They speak to our innermost hopes, dreams and fears. Endlessly re-imagined in literature, film, television, and performance, fairy tales continue to have a profound influence on our culture.
This exhibit explores classic fairy tales and traditional stories from around the world through a surprising array of books, toys, games and art held at the library’s Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. These enchanting items reveal the enduring appeal of the opening phrase "Once upon a time…."
Where do fairy tales come from?
Fairy tales have deep roots. A Cinderella-type story called Rhodopis was recorded by Greek geographer and historian Strabo in the 1st century BCE. Another Cinderella variant, Yè Xiàn, dates from 9th-century China. Beauty and the Beast can be linked to the 2nd-century Cupid and Psyche by Roman writer Apuleius.
These tales were passed down through both oral tradition and written record. Some became famous after they were included in landmark collections. Among the most noted collectors of “classic” fairy tales are Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) is equally well-known for his original fairy stories, such as The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen.
Charles Perrault, 1628–1703
Charles Perrault was a French civil servant and writer. His Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times) of 1697 included eight tales, among them: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots.
Jacob Grimm, 1785-1863 and Wilhelm Grimm, 1786–1859
German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of their Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) in 1812. This was followed by a second volume in 1815. The Brothers gathered stories through a network of friends, acquaintances and neighbours. Their final edition of 1857 contained over two hundred fairy tales, folktales and legends.
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, 1711–1780
Born in Rouen, France, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont was a prolific author of fairy tales and other works for women and children. She is best-known for her version of Beauty and the Beast which appeared in her anthology Magasin des enfants (Young Misses Magazine) in 1756.
Little Red Riding Hood
The better to eat you with!
This story of a girl’s encounter with a scheming wolf is one of our best-known tales. In Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood (1697) she is simply eaten – there is no happy ending. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Little Red Cap (1812), a passing huntsman comes to the rescue. In a related story from China called Grandaunt Tiger, or Grandmother Tiger, the heroine defeats the villain (in this case a fearsome tiger).
The king’s son had it proclaimed…that he would marry her whose foot this slipper would just fit.
Yè Xiàn in China, Cenerentola in Italy, Rashin Coatie in Scotland—this “rags to riches” tale is known around the world. Most famous is Charles Perrault’s Cinderella of 1697, in which the girl is helped by a fairy godmother, who transforms pumpkin into coach, mice into horses, lizards into footmen, and rat into coachman. Cinderella attends the ball in a dress of “gold and silver, all beset with jewels” and on her feet, a pair of glass slippers, “the prettiest in the whole world.”
The Master Cat, or, Puss in Boots
There was a miller whose only inheritance to his three sons was his mill, his donkey, and his cat… The eldest took the mill, the second the donkey, and the youngest nothing but the cat.
Perrault’s tale of a clever cat is one of many stories to feature an animal who helps the hero or heroine succeed. Puss convinces a king and princess that his penniless master is the aristocratic Marquis of Carabas. He makes the young man rich by stealing an ogre’s lands and castle.
In a similar story, Constantino Fortunato by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, published in 1553, the cat is a fairy in disguise.
Jack and the Bean Stalk
Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman…
The first appearance of this traditional English tale was titled “Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” in Round about Our Coal-fire: or Christmas Entertainments (1734).
In an 1807 retelling published by Benjamin Tabart, Jack meets a fairy who tells him that the giant had robbed and killed Jack’s father. This wicked deed justifies Jack’s theft of the giant’s magic objects.
When folklorist Joseph Jacobs put together his anthology English Fairy Tales (1890), he discarded Tabart’s moral gloss, relying instead on the story he remembered from childhood.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?
This thrilling tale was the subject of the first animated feature film produced by Walt Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In the film, the prince awakens Snow White with a kiss. In the original Brothers Grimm tale, the bearers of her coffin stumble, accidentally jolting the piece of poisoned apple from her throat.
The Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs
Here are two English nursery classics, from the earliest written and printed examples to twentieth century retellings. Both tales involve talking animals and the favoured number “three.”
Somebody has been eating my porridge!
Somebody has been sitting in my chair!
Somebody has been lying in my bed!
Beauty & the Beast
Beast was disappeared and she saw, at her feet, one of the loveliest princes that eye ever beheld…
A merchant is lost in the forest. He arrives at a Beast’s castle, where he plucks a single rose. The enraged Beast offers to spare the merchant in exchange for one of his daughters.
The familiar version of this tale was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780), a French writer who worked as a governess in England. It was intended as a moral lesson for her pupils, stressing the virtues of self-sacrifice and the importance of good character over appearance.
The Coloured Fairy Books
Folklorist Andrew Lang published twelve volumes in his Coloured Fairy Book series from 1889 to 1910. The first books contained European tales and stories from The Arabian Nights; later titles added tales from Japan, Turkey, India, Africa, North America and other regions.