In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fairy Tales and Folklore

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Feminist Approaches to Victorian Fairy Tales
  • Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Science
  • Rewriting Fairy Tales
  • Fairy Tales and Folklore in Victorian Fantasies
  • Fairy Tales and Folklore in Victorian Novels
  • Anthologies
  • Online sources
  • Journals

Victorian Literature Fairy Tales and Folklore
Laurence Talairach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0186


Fairy tales and folklore pervaded Victorian society. Fairy tales and folktales were rewritten and revised, translated, edited and collected, and illustrated, and their characters and motifs were found in art, literature, and science alike. The second half of the 19th century saw a dramatic rise in the publication of literary fairy tales, and folklorists collected and classified folktales. These publications appeared in various forms, climaxing with the folklorists Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales (1890) and Andrew Lang’s fairy books, published from 1889 to 1910, which gathered fairy tales and folktales from all over the world. Authors such as Lewis Carroll, Dinah Mulock Craik, Charles Dickens, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Laurence Housman, May Kendall, Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, Louisa Molesworth, Mary de Morgan, Christina Rossetti, John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, and William Butler Yeats wrote literary fairy tales. Fairy tales and folklore also informed Victorian fiction: references to supernatural creatures, such as changelings, fairies, elves, and gnomes, continued to be made in Victorian novels, which used character types, conventions, and plot patterns directly borrowed from classic fairy tales and folklore, as in the novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. The 1860s sensation novels, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), and fin-de-siècle gothic fiction, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), used references to fairy tales to probe gender relationships and investigate woman’s identity and the nature of female sexuality. This was also the case in fairy ballets, operas, and fairy plays or “extravaganzas,” which showcased more and more technologically complex and sensational magical transformations. At the same time, however, fairy tales and folktales were increasingly designed for juvenile audiences in the course of the 19th century. The publication of Edgar Taylor’s translation of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales in 1823, published as German Popular Stories and illustrated by George Cruikshank, suggested that fairy tales were accepted in the nursery and paved the way for many Victorian collections of folktales and fairy tales aimed at young readers. Fairy tales were also used throughout the Victorian period to express anxieties or mediate knowledge, as in the case of popular science works. Although ballads, tales, legends, and myths had been collected and examined for over a century, leading to the development of taxonomies and indexes as in cabinets of natural history, late-Victorian anthropologists’ and ethnographers’ approach to fairy tales and folktales illuminated the period’s search for origins—the origins of fairies and those of human nature. The protean nature of fairy tales and folklore generally served to bridge the gap between old and new visions of the world: folktales and fairy tales could praise science and technology and map out new scientific methods; they could deal with the spiritual, belief, and faith; and they could even propose new definitions of humans—and particularly of women.

General Overviews

Fairy tales and folklore take so many different forms in the Victorian period that it would be impossible to propose a general overview. Keightley 1850 and Briggs 2002 provide a survey of the various types of fairy and folk characters found in the British Isles, looking at regional differences and highlighting the presence of fairy and folk creatures in Romantic and Victorian art and literature, including poetry, as well as the rise of folklore studies. Both Briggs 2002 and Gilbert 2002–2003 attempt to draw lines between folk and fairy beliefs and types, on the one hand, and fairies and fairy tales found in 18th- or 19th-century art and literature, on the other. The proximity between folktales and myths is foregrounded by Dorson 1968, which shows how British folklorists were influenced by theories such as those developed by evolutionary scientists or mythologists, while Sumpter 2009 questions the separation of the study of folklore and of the literary fairy tale as different research areas. Sumpter 2009 also points out how reductive it is to look at the fairy tale exclusively as children’s literature and demonstrates the influence of 19th-century scientific debates on fairy tales as well as that of the establishment of the Folklore Society in Britain in 1878. Simpson and Roud 2000, Zipes 1991, and Warner 1995 all define fairy tales in broad terms, dealing with folklore and fairy lore alongside more classic literary fairy tales. Warner 1995 explores some of the most classic fairy tales from antiquity to the 20th century, focusing particularly on women as storytellers and explaining how fairy tales recorded changing attitudes to women. Harries 2001 foregrounds the influence of 17th-century conteuses on contemporary women writers using fairy and folk conventions to deal with gender issues and gender stereotypes. Zipes 1991 focuses on literary classic fairy tales and follows their evolution in the course of the 19th century, contending that the stories were more and more aimed at child audiences and took part in the bourgeois process of civilizing children. Highlighting as well the subversive potential of fairy tales, he argues that fairy tales offered a mirror to reflect the flaws of society and criticize manners, mores, and norms. Tatar 1992 focuses on fairy tales as children’s literature and traces the transformations of folktales into cautionary tales in the 19th century.

  • Briggs, Katharine. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Provides a survey of the origins, history, and types of little people, looking at regional differences in Cornish, Welsh, and Celtic fairies and examining fairy beasts and plants, hags, monsters, and spirits of all kinds found in folk tradition. Contains chapters on 18th- and 19th-century fairies found in art and literature. Includes a chapter on (mostly 19th-century) folklorists and collectors. Includes appendices with fairy types and individuals, extracts from fairy poems, and a bibliography. Originally published in 1967.

  • Dorson, Richard. The British Folklorists: A History. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

    Offers a historical approach to British folklore, focusing on figures such as Andrew Lang, George Laurence Gomme, Alfred Nutt, Edwin Sydney Hartland, Edward Clodd, and William Alexander Clouston. Argues that evolutionist theories influenced British folklore. Mentions the work of mythologist Max Müller and its influence on Andrew Lang, highlighting therefore the relationship between folklore, fairy tale, and myth.

  • Gilbert, Robert A., ed. Victorian Sources of Fairy Tales. 2 vols. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes, 2002–2003.

    Contains facsimiles of works by British folklorists (Joseph Ritson, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, John Thackray Bunce, David MacRitchie, Edwin Sidney Hartland) and collections of fairy tales by Dinah Craik, Anthony Hamilton, Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, Charles Lamb, and George MacDonald. Tries to draw lines between folk and fairy beliefs and Victorian children’s fantasy fiction and fairy tales.

  • Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice upon a Tale: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691188539

    Looks at the “complex” tradition of fairy tales by women writers as opposed to the “compact” didactic fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Explains that late-20th-century fairy tales by women writers (A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Emma Donoghue) have been influenced by the conteuses of the 1690s (Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Catherine Bernard, Marie-Jeanne l’Héritier, Charlotte-Rose de la Force) whose tales were aimed at adult audiences.

  • Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries. London: H. G. Bohn, 1850.

    Provides a comprehensive account of fairy lore and various types of little people. First published in 1828.

  • Simpson, Jacqueline, and Steve Roud, eds. A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Useful source that provides entries on English folklorists, fairy lore, fairy-tale writers, and fairy-tale characters, from Cinderella to Jack the Giant Killer.

  • Sumpter, Caroline. “Fairy Tale and Folklore in the Nineteenth Century.” Literary Compass 6.3 (April 2009): 785–798.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2009.00630.x

    Useful resource that maps out various explorations of Victorian folktales and fairy tales both in the Victorian period and in contemporary scholarship. Highlights the various meanings of the term fairy tale, explaining that recent historical analyses of European fairy tales have underlined the drawbacks of transhistorical, structuralist approaches to the genre. Defines the Victorian fairy tale as a “baggy monster” (786), ranging from orally collected folktales to children’s fantasies.

  • Tatar, Maria. Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691214818

    Analyzes the pedagogical role of fairy tales as children’s literature and the evolution of fairy tales from folktales to more didactic texts aimed at disciplining young audiences. Traces the transformation of ribald folktales into cautionary fairy tales focusing on the role played by fear and corporal punishment to educate children and shape docile bodies. Looks at variants of many classic fairy tales.

  • Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Vintage, 1995.

    Looks at the origins, rewritings, illustrations, and adaptations of some of the most classic fairy tales, such as “Cinderella,” “Bluebeard,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Donkeyskin,” from antiquity to the 20th century, focusing particularly on their tellers. Relates women’s storytelling to patterns of fairy-tale romancing and foregrounds the role fairy tales played to exchange knowledge while highlighting changing attitudes to female voices.

  • Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    Looks at the sociohistorical development of the literary fairy tale and the role fairy tales played in the Western civilizing process. Examines classic fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, and L. Frank Baum. Includes two chapters on fairy tales written during the Weimar and Nazi periods in Germany as well as postwar fantastic fairy tales for children. First published in 1988.

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