The Most Popular Fairy Tale Stories of All Time
From rags to riches, the goose that laid the golden eggs, escaping a witch’s oven—these are the stories and images that shape our happily ever afters.
Once there was a hardworking girl with a heart of gold and a wicked stepmother. She got a makeover from a fairy godmother and scored a dream date at the ball with a prince who tracked her down by her single lost glass slipper… and this story crossed the globe for thousands of years, winning hearts wherever it went. Although our version of “Cinderella” was recorded by 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, according to the well-respected scholarly website Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, there may be as many as 1,500 traditional variants of the tale around the world, including “The Girl with the Rose Red Slippers” from ancient Egypt, and a ninth-century A.D. Chinese version that just might explain the story’s fascination with small feet.
This is the fantasy that just won’t quit. Apparently “the Cinderella area of [Sur La Lune] receives over twice as many visitors as any other tale” every day, and the story has inspired countless modern retellings including Walt Disney’s iconic 1950 cartoon, the blockbuster film Pretty Woman, the novel and movie Ella Enchanted, which reimagines its dutiful heroine with a curse that makes her obey, and too many others to name. Some even saw the familiar fairy tale in the furor around Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry. You may not be surprised by this fact, but you’ll find these facts about Disney characters pretty surprising.
Beauty and the Beast
No plot could be more romantic than this one: A kind and virtuous Beauty offers herself as a hostage to free her father from the castle of a fearsome Beast. When she falls in love with the Beast despite his outward appearance, he’s transformed into a handsome Prince. Who among us has not felt unworthy of a lover yet longed to have our inner value recognized? Who has not dreamed of romantic love with the power to redeem and transform? No wonder “Beauty and the Beast,” originally a French story, is the second most frequently visited story on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales.
Of all the many retellings, our favorite is probably French director Jean Cocteau’s surreal 1945 film version La Belle et la Bête, but the Disney version is certainly the most prevalent (and lucrative). So far Beauty and the Beast has rung the company’s cash register as a cartoon, a Broadway musical, a soundtrack album, and, most recently, a live-action film with Emma Watson. It’s also spawned innumerable related merchandise items such as Disney’s Enchanted Rose Jewelry Box, princess-pink sheet sets from Target emblazoned with the motto “Beauty is Found Within,” and ornately cut gold foil B&B-inspired wedding invitations from an Etsy store called Shimmering Ceremony. Did you know that you can even buy Disney wedding gowns?
Hansel and Gretel
Our next tale has little to do with hungers of the heart; it’s all about the stomach. In a time of famine, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in a great forest by their wicked stepmother. Unable to resist eating pieces of a real gingerbread cottage, the hungry children are captured by the cannibal witch who lives there; in the end, they must shove her into her own fiery oven to escape.
This narrative about the dangers of unwholesome appetite and children’s drive for survival is as morbidly fascinating as a true crime story. Maybe that’s why it’s one of the most frequently visited fairy tales on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales even without any publicity from Disney. Some scholars believe that the Great Famine of 14th-century Europe inspired the familiar German version of “Hansel and Gretel” recorded by the famous Brothers Grimm some 500 years later. Regardless, this gruesome story is one of the most widely told around the world; variants include “The Story of the Bird That Made Milk” in southern Africa (in which the father is the villain of the piece), the southern Indian tale, “Kadar and the Cannibals,” and our absolute favorite, the Russian folk tales of Baba Yaga, a witch with steel teeth who lives in a house on chicken legs and flies around in a mortar and pestle. Now, could you guess which famous horror movies were inspired by true stories?
Little Red Riding Hood
Though the story was probably intended as a warning for children to follow directions, the rebellious character of Little Red Riding Hood is the most modern of the fairy tale heroines we’ve met so far. Red sets off alone to visit her grandmother with instructions not to step off the forest path—advice she promptly disregards, attracting the attention of a talking wolf who sets out to eat and impersonate Grandma. What happens next depends on what you read. In the 17th-century French version recorded by Charles Perrault, Red gets gobbled up by the wolf. The End. In other tellings, across Europe, North America, China, Japan, and Ghana, she’s saved at the last minute by a guy with an axe, or the wolf chokes on her hood, or he eats both Grandma and Red but is forced to vomit them up unharmed.
Naturally, bold, independent Red has continued to attract fans: The 19th-century English novelist Charles Dickens called her his “first love,” saying of his childhood, “I felt if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.” Of the many recent retellings on page and screen, our favorite is the animated film Hoodwinked! with Anne Hathaway voicing a wonderfully sassy, attitudinal Red.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White is more of a patsy than many of these fairy tale heroines (which is saying quite a bit). The most active thing she does is mother a household full of dwarfs. She never retaliates against the evil queen who tries to kill her for her youth and beauty, she waits for her prince frozen in her glass coffin, as feminist critics have put it, “an object, to be displayed and desired… patriarchy’s ideal woman, the perfect candidate for Queen.” In an essay entitled “My Stepmother, Myself,” Garrison Keillor actually suspects the prince of necrophilia! Yikes!
Regardless, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated full-length Disney film, launching a hugely successful franchise and setting the pattern for all those to come, with warbling songs, sidekicks for comic relief, and lots of animal helpers (always our favorite part). It was also the first film soundtrack ever to be released separately as an album. Surprisingly “Snow White” revived the evil queen’s distinctively Grimm directive to cut out Snow’s heart and bring it home in a box. But Disney’s queen did escape the original fairy tale punishment of being forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes. According to Film Site,”[the movie] took almost four years and an astronomical (at the time) $1.7 million to create, and was released for its premiere during the Christmas season of 1937.”
Since then, we’ve seen many influential movie retellings: Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and several literary works including Snow, a graphic novel set in 1930s New York City.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Finally, a fairy tale hero who’s a boy! Jack is a bold trickster and a rule-breaker, not unlike his compatriots Aladdin and Peter Pan. He trades the family’s only cow for a handful of magic beans. When a giant beanstalk sprouts overnight, Jack seizes the chance to climb to a giant’s castle and steal all of his magical possessions.
As Sur La Lune Fairy Tales points out, “The desire for a means of ascending to the sky is as old as the Tower of Babel and Jacob’s Ladder. Asia has the story of the branch of the Bodhi of Buddha which grows rapidly towards the sky once it is planted.” There are versions found among Europeans, Scandinavians, and Native American groups across Canada.
But the story we know is from England. In fact, Jack is actually English, or why would the giant call out “Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”? Jack himself is the perfect role model for young imperialists being raised to conquer the globe: Daring, athletic, and bold, he feels entitled to everything he can grab, from the giant’s golden harp to the goose that lays the golden eggs. He ruthlessly chops down the beanstalk, killing the giant. Can’t you just see him claiming the world in the sky for queen and country?
There have been two fairly lame live-action films of this story over the past decade, Jack and the Beanstalk (Avalon, 2010) and Jack the Giant Slayer (Warner, 2013) but as far as we can see, this exciting action adventure opportunity is still open for the taking. Fairytale filmmakers, take note!
If you found Snow White annoyingly passive, meet Sleeping Beauty, whose main claim to fame is, obviously, her century-long snooze, thanks to the curse of the wicked fairy who isn’t invited to Beauty’s christening. Throughout her childhood, everyone coddles young Beauty, sometimes known as Briar Rose, but on her 16th birthday, fate finds her, and off to sleep she goes.
Sleeping Beauty may be a far-fetched tale, but it’s also a far-reaching one; according to Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, it dates to the “Volsunga Saga” from 13th-century Iceland, is found all across Europe, especially France, Italy and Germany, and even appears in The Arabian Nights.
In 1890, Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote the musical score for a much-loved Sleeping Beauty ballet, and later still, the folks at Disney borrowed some of his music for their 1959 animated film version. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was lavishly created in 70mm traditionally inked cells, but originally it “napped at the box office,” as one newspaper put it. This may be one reason it was Disney’s last fairy tale feature for 30 years until The Little Mermaid made its splash.
Ironically, Disney achieved a much greater success with Maleficent in 2014, which retells Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the vengeful fairy, played magnificently by Angelina Jolie. There is also a scandalously spicy adult novel, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice writing as A.N. Roquelaure, which explores some of the other ways the prince might have woken up the young princess, and what might have happened afterward. Don’t leave it around if you have kids!
Puss in Boots
Best known of the fairy tale “animal helpers,” Puss is a bold, swaggering trickster who masquerades as the servant of a great nobleman; eventually, his clever tactics bring his young master fame, fortune, and a fancy wife. The story was probably first recorded in 16th-century Italy, but Puss seems to have acquired his swashbuckling boots about 100 years later in France, in the same book of stories featuring Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, and he’s been rocking them ever since.
What’s with the boots? In an age when the poor mostly went barefoot, shoes were an important status symbol. Think Nike Airs but even more so. And as Sur La Lune Fairy Tales points out, “Footwear is important in many popular fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s slipper… and the red-hot dancing shoes found in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Mostly we defy anyone not to find them pretty cute.
Clearly, those boots were made for walking because Puss has managed to travel astonishingly far around the world. Scholars say, “The story has been found in all parts of Europe, across Siberia, onward to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It also traveled with colonists and travelers from Europe to Africa and the American Indians.”
More recently, of course, the irrepressible Puss has found new fans and stolen the show in Dreamworks’ Shrek movies, voiced by a smoldering Antonio Banderas whose signature introduction is “Puss… in Boots!” When Shrek saves Puss from a hairball, he earns himself a formidable ally. Could any of us ask for better? We think not. Check out the Disney tweets only true fans will appreciate.
If you’ve ever checked out hairstyles in the doll section of a toy store, you won’t be surprised to find that Rapunzel is still such a beloved and influential story. More recently Mattel released a popular 2002 CGI computer-animated film, Barbie As Rapunzel, and Disney had a hit with the 2010 feature-length cartoon, Tangled. The girl with the climb-able curls is isolated in a tower by a wicked witch. Of course this being a fairy tale, it’s only a matter of time before a handsome prince shouts, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair,” and before you know it, they’re united in perfect bliss.
Surprise! The Grimm version of Rapunzel is so very much grimmer. Rapunzel winds up in the witch’s clutches in the first place because her pregnant mother couldn’t stop stealing magic herbs from the old crone’s garden. (And you thought cravings for pickles and ice cream were bad!) The witch finds out about Rapunzel’s secret visitor when the girl’s unexpected pregnancy bursts the seams of her dresses. Using Rapunzel’s hair as a lure, the witch catches the prince and throws him to the ground, where thorns pierce his eyes. She leaves him to wander alone for years in the wilderness. (Jealous much?) But it is a fairy tale, so eventually, Rapunzel, now the mother of the prince’s toddler twins, runs into him by chance; her tears fall onto his face, miraculously restoring his vision, and leading the couple to their belated happily ever after. Now, we know you love learning about these fairytale princesses, but here’s what it’s like to play a Disney princess in real life.