Fairy tales, in previous centuries, weren't considered stories for children only. The name "fairy tale" comes from the French conte de fée, a term coined in 17th century Paris for a literary fashion popular with adult readers. At the heart of the 17th century's profusion of literary fairy tales are the remnants of much older tales from the oral tradition -- mixed with literary influences from medieval romance, and from 16th century Italian publications. French writers from the salons of Paris -- such as Madame D'Aulnoy, Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier, Comtesse de Murat, and Charles Perrault -- created complex, enchanting tales still known and enjoyed by readers today (though often in simplified forms) : Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, The White Cat, The Discrete Princess, Bearskin, and numerous others. A second wave of French writers added to the genre in the 18th century, including Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the original author of Beauty and the Beast.
German writers (especially the Germantics Romantics) took up the literary fairy tale form in the 18th and 19th centuries, creating adult works inspired by previous French and Italian stories mixed with tales from the German folk tradition -- as popularized by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their prolific circle of writers and scholars. Also in the 19th century, Denmark's celebrated Hans Christian Anderson created such beloved fairy tales as The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen; and England's Oscar Wilde penned poignant stories such as The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale and the Rose. By this time, however, fairy tales had become increasingly associated with children. The older, darker stories were cleaned up by Victorian editors and published in the prosperous new market for children's books.
This bowdlerization of fairy tales continued in the 20th century, epitomized by the simple cartoon versions created by Walt Disney. Alas, these simple versions of the tales are the only ones most readers know today -- versions in which the complexity, sensuality, and horror have been carefully toned down, or stripped out altogether. Where once we had stories of active heroines making their own way through the dark of the woods, now we have girls who sit crying in the ashes, awaiting rescue by a rich Prince Charming. Where once Sleeping Beauty was impregnated by her prince, waking all alone at the birth of twins, now she's awakened by a chaste kiss and the tale ends promptly with a wedding.
Despite the pervasive Disney influence, at the end of the 20th century a revival of adult fairy tale literature began (primarily) among three overlapping groups of authors: feminist "mainstream" writers, feminist poets, and writers of fantasy literature. Foremost among them is Angela Carter, whose brilliant re-working of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber (1979), influenced a generation of writers and did more than other single text to bring fairy tales back into vogue with adult readers.
Four decades later, the revival is still going strong, with many fine authors working with fairy tale themes. The story collections pictured below are by two of the very best of them, Theodora Goss and Veronica Schanoes -- both of whom, it should be noted, are fairy tale scholars as well as excellent writers of fiction.
If you'd like more recommendations of fairy-tale-inspired novels and stories, you'll find them here.
Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories & Poems by Theodora Goss was published by Mythic Delirium Books, 2019, and won the 2020 Mythopoeic Award. The Burning Girls & Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes was published by Tor Books this year. Both volumes contain introductions by Jane Yolen, a fairy tale master herself.
The illustrations above are by Angela Barrett, from her beautiful editions of Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. All rights reserved by the artist.