Fairy tales Once Upon a time

An illustration from the book “Puss in Boots” by Charles Perrault, published in 1900
An illustration from the book “Puss in Boots” by Charles Perrault, published in 1900 | Photo (detail): © Wikimedia Commons / archive.org

In fairy tales Puss in Boots tread in fine footwear; his story crossed borders: earliest records of it are found in Italy, then via France the story reached Germany. Its details vary, but basically the story remained the same; in a similar way, many fairy tales have roved from country to country.

Do you know the story of Puss in Boots? The third son of a miller receives as his only inheritance a cat. But this cat, a famous trickster, cunningly makes his poor owner the son-in-law of the king. The cat made into a fairy tale, in which he appears as a nobleman, in boots; and the fairy tale, in turn, crossed many borders. 

In France, the story appeared at the time of Louis XIV, written down by the famous collector of fairy tales Charles Perrault. But even before this, the story can be found in the collection of Italian fairy tales by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (Costantino Fortunato) and Giambattista Basile (Cagliuso). The names of the characters and the details of the story vary, of course, but the narrative core remains the same. Via France the fairy tale reached the brothers Grimm. The two fairy tale collectors from Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm, were close friends of the sisters Hassenpflug, who lived like the brothers in Kassel. The great-grandmother of the sisters, a Swiss lady, had once married a parson from France, which exerted a strong French influence on the family. And so the sisters passed on these and other stories from France to the brothers Grimm. But the sisters Hassenpflug were only one of several sources from which the brothers Grimm received their stories. Another was Dorothea Viehmann, a market woman from Hesse, who also had French ancestors.

And even before the brothers Grimm included this fairytale in their collection, it had already been the subject of a satirical comedy by the German Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck, who contrasted the enchanting world of the fairy tale with the philistine theater audience. Nor did the journey of the story end with the brothers Grimm: before the German dramatist Tankred Dorst wrote his first piece about it, performed in 1964, the English adaptation (Puss in Boots) was published with great success, the French painter Gustave Doré designed his famous engraving for it, and Walt Disney filmed the tale in 1922. Puss knew no borders.

Puss in Boots: A clever cat roves through Europe

  • The first edition of Ludwig Tieck’s “Der gestiefelte Kater” (Puss in Boots) of 1797 Illustration (detail): Illustrator unknown © Public domain
    The first edition of Ludwig Tieck’s “Der gestiefelte Kater” (Puss in Boots) of 1797
  • An etching for “Das Märchen vom gestiefelten Kater” (The Fairy Tale of Puss in Boots) by the German artist Otto Speckter (1807-1871) Illustration (detail): © Otto Speckter
    An etching for “Das Märchen vom gestiefelten Kater” (The Fairy Tale of Puss in Boots) by the German artist Otto Speckter (1807-1871)
  • “Le chat botté” (Puss in Boots), a copper engraving by the French graphic artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883) Illustration (detail): © Gustave Doré
    “Le chat botté” (Puss in Boots), a copper engraving by the French graphic artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
  • “Le chat botté” (Puss in Boots), a copper engraving by the French graphic artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883) Illustration (detail): © Gustave Doré
    Gustave Doré also illustrated the fairy tale book “Fairy Tales” by Charles Perrault.
Not only the fairy tale of Puss in Boots, but also many other fairy tales, as before mythologies, have roved from country to country, changing a little bit each time. Only the beginning of the stories is always the same: Once upon a time, Il était une fois, Es war einmal, C’era una volta. Like traditional songs, fairy tales are part of the popular and basically oral culture: grandmother tells her grandchildren fairytales in the evening by the fireplace. But there have always also been written traditions. Even when fairy tales were written down, doubtless contrary to their nature, this by no means prevented their dissemination.

Curiosity about fairytales from all over the world

Europe is not of course the sole possessor of a tradition of fairy tales; this exists worldwide. But Europe has shown a curiosity about fairytales from all over the world for centuries, as well as also being itself a fertile ground for many fairytales. Among the great fairy tale collectors in Europe are, of course, those already mentioned: the Frenchman Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century, the Grimm brothers in Germany of the Romantic era in nineteenth century, and the Italians Straparola in Venice of the sixteenth and Basile in Naples of the seventeenth century. Many other names could also be cited in this list, such as the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer, who blazed the trail as a pioneer for the great names of European fairy tales as early as the fourteenth century.

But it is much more important to know that the fairy tale in Europe provided not only material for literature very early on, but also for plays, films, operas and even ballets, pictures and comics. As a final note, let the brothers Grimm, who were well aware that the fairy tale was without borders, speak for themselves. In the third volume of their Children’s and Household Tales, they wrote: “Do not the same fairy tales re-emerge in the most distant places, as a spring breaks through at far-off spots?”
Art, Literature und Language

A contribution from France

with relation to Italy,
Germany