How Long Have Fairy Tales Existed?

From Cinderella to The Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty to Rapunzel, fairy tales have been a beloved part of literature throughout history — just ask any kid from 3 to 93. In fact, most of us know the stories by heart — from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”!

But what exactly is a fairy tale? And how long have they been around? You might be surprised to learn that they’ve been around a lot longer than previously thought, and they include more than just fairies.

Fairy tales are folk tales or fables that include a wide range of characters and typically have a magical element. In addition to fairies, fairy tales feature princes and princesses, kings and queens, witches and ogres, dwarfs and giants, elves and dragons, and various talking animals.

These characters find themselves in magical worlds where animals can talk, lamps hold genies, princesses sleep for a hundred years, mirrors reveal the most beautiful person, and grandmothers aren’t always what they seem. In fact, if you can imagine a fantastic and magical situation, there’s probably a fairy tale that includes it.

Today, you can find numerous books filled with fairy tales at the library. However, this wasn’t always the case. The earliest fairy tales were passed down orally from one generation to the next before they were ever written down.

Over time, fairy tales were collected and recorded in different cultures. Historians who have studied fairy tales have been amazed to discover how similar some of the stories are despite the significant differences and distances between countries.

For example, the story of Cinderella has similar versions in countries like England, France, Egypt, Iceland, Siberia, China, Korea, and Vietnam. Some experts believe there could be hundreds of versions of this story, each with unique aspects based on the culture it originates from.

For many years, experts believed that fairy tales originated in the early 16th or 17th century. This estimation was based on when they were first written down, taking into account several generations of oral tradition before being recorded.

However, recent research has used techniques from biology to analyze the language used in fairy tales across different cultures. Their findings suggest that many fairy tales are thousands of years older than previously believed.

For example, Jack and the Beanstalk can be traced back to a group of stories told over 5,000 years ago, during the split of Eastern and Western Indo-European languages. Similarly, Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin could both be over 4,000 years old.

The oldest fairy tale, however, might be The Smith and the Devil, which tells the story of a blacksmith who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers. Researchers believe this ancient fairy tale could date back over 6,000 years to the Bronze Age!

Give it a Try

Are you ready to have some fun with fairy tales? Ask a friend or family member to help you explore the following activities:

Reinvent Your Favorite Fairy Tales and Discover Your Role in Them

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to give a fresh twist to a beloved fairy tale, fable, or nursery rhyme. Combine two classics and imagine what would happen if Little Red Riding Hood lost a shoe in the woods on her way to her grandmother’s house. Step into the shoes of the spider that sat beside Little Miss Muffet as she enjoyed her curds and whey. Or, write an eagerly anticipated sequel that recounts the story of Rapunzel’s first haircut. If you have artistic talents, you can even include illustrations! If you prefer the stage, turn your tale into an entertaining play for a family night. Unleash your creativity and let your imagination soar!

Curious about your role in a fairy tale? Take a quick quiz to discover your personality traits and find out which character you would be. Are you destined to be royalty? Maybe a fairy? Invite a friend to take the quiz as well. Did you both get the same results? Did you land the role you wanted?

Need assistance in reimagining a classic fairy tale? Visit ReadWriteThink’s Fractured Fairy Tales student interactive online. What new story will you create? Share your revised version with a friend and see which they prefer: the original or your fresh interpretation?

Additional Resources

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