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Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales

The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies

Jan M. Ziolkowski

Publication Year: 2007

When did fairy tales begin? What qualifies as a fairy tale? Is a true fairy tale oral or literary? Or is a fairy tale determined not by style but by content? To answer these and other questions, Jan M. Ziolkowski not only provides a comprehensive overview of the theoretical debates about fairy tale origins but includes an extensive discussion of the relationship of the fairy tale to both the written and oral sources. Ziolkowski offers interpretations of a sampling of the tales in order to sketch the complex connections that existed in the Middle Ages between oral folktales and their written equivalents, the variety of uses to which the writers applied the stories, and the diverse relationships between the medieval texts and the expressions of the same tales in the "classic" fairy tale collections of the nineteenth century. In so doing, Ziolkowski explores stories that survive in both versions associated with, on the one hand, such standards of the nineteenth-century fairy tale as the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Carlo Collodi and, on the other, medieval Latin, demonstrating that the literary fairy tale owes a great debt to the Latin literature of the medieval period. Jan M. Ziolkowski is the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book was inspired long ago by Albert B. Lord, who encouraged me to be alert to oral literature and folklore. Its chapters have gained immeasurably from discussions with students in classes at Harvard University. I am also indebted to three undergraduates or erstwhile undergraduates from outside courses. As research assistants during the long...

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pp. 1-15

Fifteen years ago I cast about for a topic that would enable me to connect today’s culture with the literature in my main field of interest (and please do not put down this book after reading the next three words), Medieval Latin literature. My professional situation prompted me to think of folktales and fairy tales. On the one hand, half of my appointment was in...

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1. Folktales in Medieval Latin Poetry

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pp. 16-64

The nineteenth century did not invent the folktale, any more than did either the seventeenth or the sixteenth century. By the time of the Romantic tellings and writings, many of these narratives were already hoary and had crossed back and forth repeatedly for centuries between oral and written states. One answer to the question of when they originated could be...

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2. Between Sacred Legend and Folktale: A Whale of a Story about a Tenth-Century Fisherman

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pp. 65-92

In a lifetime that coincided with well more than the first half of the twentieth century, the animator and entrepreneur Walt Disney (1901–66) produced animated films of versions of many “classic” fairy tales. His early films Little Red Riding Hood (1922), The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922), and Puss in Boots (1922), for example, draw on the heritages of both the Brothers...

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3. A Cautionary Tale: Little Red Riding Hood in the 1020s

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pp. 93-124

It has been said that Little Red Riding Hood (known in the earliest French version as Le petit chaperon rouge, in the Grimms’ tale as Rotkäppchen) “is a fairy tale figure as meaningful and widespread as almost no other”: “She is the only peasant girl who can claim to be a favorite on a par with famous princesses, and she has been analyzed, modified, parodied, and caricatured...

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4. True Lies and the Growth of Wonder: An Eleventh-Century “Little Claus and Great Claus”

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pp. 125-163

It may be true that Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “Little Claus and Great Claus” (“Lille Claus og store Claus” in Danish) has not come close to attaining the hallowed Walt Disney status of “The Little Mermaid.” Indeed, it has not even achieved the name recognition of “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Match...

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5. The Wonder of The Turnip Tale (ca. 1200)

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pp. 164-199

This chapter touches on not just a single past but, at a minimum, three different ones. In this triptych, the leftmost panel is lost medieval oral folk narrative, such as can be discerned behind the thick varnish of medieval textuality; the central frame contains the Latin verse adaptation of that oral narrative; and, last but not least, the rightmost panel is...

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6. The Reorientation of The Donkey Tale (ca. 1200)

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pp. 200-230

In this chapter, I will focus on the medieval background of a story that goes by the title “Das Eselein” (which means “The Donkey” or “The Little Ass”) in the famous fairy tale collection of the Brothers Grimm (app. 5C).⁶ At the heart of the tale lies the motif of a man transformed into a donkey, which also appears in such famous ancient stories as Apuleius’s...

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Conclusion: Sadly Never After

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pp. 231-239

One simple but sophisticated definition holds that “[t]he fairy tale is a form of artistic narrative using marvellous motifs in addition to motifs referring to social reality in a way that influences the development of the plot.”² Both The Turnip Tale and The Donkey Tale meet this definition, but they have two features that have impeded their acknowledgment as fairy...


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pp. 241-365


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pp. 367-443


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pp. 445-479


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pp. 481-500

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025220
E-ISBN-10: 0472025228
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472033799
Print-ISBN-10: 0472033794

Page Count: 512
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2007