Fairy Tales Old Wives and Printing Presses: Ruth Bottigheimer Argues That the Survival of Our Best-Loved Fairy Tales Owes More to Popular Print Tradition Than to Fireside Story-Telling Passed Down through the Generations

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TALKING ANIMALS, magic numbers, supernatural creatures, and fabulous transformations have drawn children and adults into fantastical narratives for millennia. From the late Middle Ages onwards, one plot in particular dominated these tales in Europe. Rooted in medieval romances, this centred on a prince or princess who had been driven from the royal hierarchy, forced to flee palace or castle, suffer discomfort and danger, before experiencing a reversal of fortune enabling them to marry back in to royalty and regain royal birthright. Such tales, typically, formed part of a lengthy verse romance; scores of them were circulating in the 1400s.

In 1551, the Venetian Gian Francesco Straparola (c.1480-c.1555) published Le Piacevoli Notti (The Pleasant Nights). Scattered through the book were stories--whose plots had already proved popular in print and in the piazza--about princes and princesses fallen on hard times whose sufferings ended when they regained royal status. One such was 'Guerrino', a prince who freed a caged wild man whom his royal father had captured, resulting in Guerrino having to flee his father's rage. The story ends well for Guerrino, however, when after a series of adventures he ends up marrying the Princess Potentiana and inheriting the kingdom of Sicily.

Straparola's 'restoration' stories were accompanied by others with an entirely new plot. These new stories told of a poor boy or girl who, with the help of magic creatures (fairies or other), end up rich and married to a royal partner. One of these rags-to-riches tales in Straparola's collection was 'Costantino Fortunato', about a poor boy, a princess, and a talking cat who cleverly brought about their marriage. We can call these 'rise' tales.

It was no accident that rise tales first appeared in Renaissance Venice. Here the potential market of book--buyers included literate artisans for whom such tales spoke to their condition. And their condition, according to two generations of historians of sixteenth-century Venice, was one of economic fluctuation and uncertainty.

A second Italian writer, Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), further nourished the European fairy-tale tradition by creating fifty stories, which brought scores of plots (including 'Rapunzel' and 'Cinderella') and magical motifs from ancient sources into the modern Italian and northern European tradition. Delivered before fellow literati in the Accademia degli Oziosi (Academy of the Garrulous) in Naples in the 1620s, Basile's tales were published after his death as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of the Tales, 1634-36). Only later did the book take on the name by which it is now best known, the Pentamerone.

Like many contemporaries, Straparola and Basile adopted the model of their fourteenth-century predecessor Boccaccio: a set of stories told by a troupe of storytellers brought together by an unusual event. Boccaccio's had been the Florentine plague of 1348; Straparola adapted the equally real civil unrest in 1533 that unseated a Storza and created a miniature court of elegant, literate Venetians on the island of Murano. Basile, in contrast, imported a crew of crippled and scabrous crones from Naples' narrow streets and open piazzas.

Folklorists have usually interpreted Straparola's and Basile's storytellers at face value. A literary and historical analysis of their work, however, shows their narrators to be a literary trope, an invented cast of characters whose language is repeated mechanically, in Straparola's case, and inventively ironised in Basile's. Straparola and Basile are largely forgotten by the modern world, and so are numerous late seventeenth--and early eighteenth-century French fairy-tale authors. The exception is Charles Perrault (1628-1703). A bureaucrat whose job was to burnish Louis XIV's public image, he served under the protection of Jean-Baptiste Colbert until ousted by Colbert's nephew in 1683.

Perrault spent several years trying to regain Louis' favour. …