The Fairy Tellers
A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales

- Nicholas Jubber

Goodreads Book Blurb:

The surprising origins and people behind the world’s most influential magical tales: the people who told and re-shaped them, the landscapes that forged them, and the cultures that formed them and were in turn formed by them.

Who were the Fairy Tellers?

In this far-ranging quest, award-winning author Nicholas Jubber unearths the lives of the dreamers who made our most beloved fairy tales: inventors, thieves, rebels and forgotten geniuses who gave us classic tales such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Baba Yaga’.

From the Middle Ages to the birth of modern children’s literature, they include a German apothecary’s daughter, a Syrian youth running away from a career in the souk and a Russian dissident embroiled in a plot to kill the tsar.

Following these and other unlikely protagonists, we travel from the steaming cities of Italy and the Levant, under the dark branches of the Black Forest, deep into the tundra of Siberia and across the snowy fells of Lapland. In the process, we discover a fresh perspective on some of our most frequently told stories. Filled with adventure, tragedy and real-world magic, this bewitching book uncovers the stranger lives behind the strangest of tales.


My Review:

***Thanks to NetGalley and Nicholas Brealey Publishing for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.

If you’ve ever wondered about the people behind popular fairy tales, this is definitely the book for you.

Over the course of my trail, I tried to work out what makes a 'fairy tale'. An eventyr, 'adventure', a Märchen, a 'little tale', hikayah al-khayaliyeh, a 'story of the imagination'.

It’s been a while since I read non-fiction, so it took a few chapters for my brain to readjust to facts over fiction. It helped that there are summaries of fairy tales interspersed between chapters, and, to be honest, these were probably my favourite parts.

The reason these stories still speak to us is because they were set down by people who knew poverty and wealth, love and hate, fear and excitement, just as we do today; people who shared in the humus of human life.

Jubber is unafraid and thankfully unwilling to shy away from the misogyny, racism, and prejudice in many of these original stories. It’s interesting to see how these collectors and writers of fairy tales come from a wide range of backgrounds. I went into The Fairy Tellers aware of the obvious – Giambattista Basile, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson, but I was very excited to learn about some female fairy tellers. Namely, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, for who ‘Beauty and the Beast’ could almost be considered autobiographical, Baroness d’Aulnoy, who had a circle of ladies competing in fairy telling competitions when she wasn’t busy being a spy, and Dortchen Wild who provided the Brothers Grimm with at least a dozen of their collected fairy tales and ended up married to Wilhelm Grimm. Of course, it’s never surprising when men in history overshadow women, but it’s nice to have the record set straight.

One of the less palatable lessons of traditional fairy tales is that curiosity (especially in young women) is often answered with punishment rather than reward. But if you've got the itch, you're going to find it awfully hard to stop scratching.

Giambattista builds his stories around women fighting with all the resources at their disposal. For all their flaws, and for all the platitudes of conventional misogyny sprinkled throughout the book, they are rarely silent or inactive.

It was also nice to move to different, somewhat unexpected parts of the world to learn more about the men behind some famous fairy tales. Hanna Dyab, a Syrian writer, brings us Aladdin and Ali Baba, Ivan Khudiakov is considered a Russian revolutionary who popularised Baba Yaga, and Somadeva, a prolific poet from India whose book was:

twice as long as the Odyssey and the Iliad combined - roughly the length of The Lord of the Rings.

Sure, there are princes and princesses, but only occasionally: Hanna shows that anybody can drive a story. The way is led by rope makers and robbers, slaves and street kids, tea sellers and tree fellers.

It was interesting to see how fairy tales moved in and out of fashion throughout time and to be able to follow their journey and evolution to the stories we know so well today.

Stories flowed along the routes of caravans and ships, burrowing into their new host societies, adapting to local conditions, reshaped by new storytellers who added their own spin on them and made them their own.

Besides, where else can you read about someone being

murdered by a volcano


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