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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Famous Victorian Fairy Tales

Victorian fairy tales are a new genre of fairy tales for me. I grew up listening to Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables for the most part. I didn't even know that there was such a thing as a Victorian fairy tale until my boyfriend bought me a book of them for Christmas last year. While I haven’t heard of very many Victorian fairy tale titles, I have certainly heard of many of their famous authors. It appears that many of the authors of these little tales were also big name authors of well-known classic literature. While you may have never heard of The Magic Fish Bone or The Selfish Giant, I am sure you have heard of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde (respectively). Am I right?

I thought we would take a look at some of these tales here to give you a taste for you to explore more on your own.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning
This is a tale that you may know – the piper who is brought into town to lure away the rats that are plaguing the town of Hamelin with his wonderful piping skills. Only, the town doesn’t pay and he lures their children away, just as he did the rats. The moral of this story is to pay those that are due … or bad things will happen.
Did you know "pied" refers to the color pattern he wears?

Tying this in historically – there is a theory that this story is in relation to a historical event where Hamelin lost many of their children – from a plague, or possibly a retelling of Nicholas of Cologne who led the Children’s Crusade.

Browning is well known for writing the poem, My Last Duchess which was recently the inspiration for the historical fiction book The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas. You can read a full version of this story thanks to Indiana University.

The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens
This is a tale set in a royal household – a king is told by an old woman that he should give the bones of the fish from dinner to his oldest child and that the bones will grant a wish. He does so and gives them to his daughter. Many accidents occur to the family and the king wants his daughter to use the wish, but she doesn’t and fixes these problems herself. In the end she wishes it was payday and all of the problems are solved. The moral of this tale, I think, is that good things come to those who wait.

The above is a very, very simplified version of the tale (if you want to read a hilarious summary with commentary – I suggest you check out Sarah’s Journal!). You can also read the entire illustrated version online, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Charles Dickens is most well known for stories such as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. The Magic Fishbone was part of the 4 story collection of holiday romances – A Christmas Carol was also part of the collection. It is also interesting to note that it was originally stated that it was written by Miss Alice Rainbird, age 7. I don’t know what Dickens was doing with this, but anyway.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame
This story is set in a small farming town where a shepherd boy discovers and befriends a poetry loving dragon that has no interest in doing any of the terrible things that dragons do. The townsfolk then discover the dragon and want him killed – they bring in St. George. A fake battle ensues (although it looks to the townsfolk that it is real) and the dragon is “killed”. Then St. George reveals that the dragon is reformed and they all accept him. This story is about not judging others and acceptance.

This was originally a chapter in a book by Grahame called Dream Days, but this story became much better known than the actual book! You can read all of Dream Days (or just The Reluctant Dragon chapter) online thanks to The Gutenberg Project.

This is my favorite Victorian fairy tale – and I loved it before I even knew it was a Victorian fairy tale. In 1941, Disney released an animated short film of this story – replacing St. George with Sir Giles, but other than that sticking fairly close to the story. I have seen this over and over again (I also loved the other animated short on the tape – Morris the Midget Moose – both have great messages). I am attaching the video below.

The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde
A giant builds a beautiful garden and then goes away to visit a friend. When he returns there are children playing in his garden and he is furious. He chases them away and builds a wall around it. In the garden now it is always winter. One day he notices it is spring again in the garden and notices that somehow the children have come back to the garden. He goes to destroy the wall, seeing his error, but all the children run away except one boy who is crying. The giant helps him to climb the tree he was trying to climb and befriends the child. He knocks down the wall and the children return, but he doesn’t see that little boy. One day when he is old he sees the boy under a tree with the stigmata. The giant realizes that the child is the Christ child and is told he will go with the child to his Garden. The happy giant then dies later that day. I think the moral of this story is about friendship and seeing the error in one’s ways.

This is the first of the Victorian fairy tales I have come across that has had a religious element to it. This was part of a collection of tales by Wilde called The Happy Prince and Other Tales. As a whole, the tales in this book are about bringing happiness to others in life and death.  Wilde is best know for his book The Picture of Dorian Gray and his play The Importance of Being Earnest.   You can read this tale online thanks to Read Books Online.

This year, composer Dan Goeller wrote an orchestral piece to accompany this story. There are some teaser clips on Youtube that I have strung together below – but it doesn’t tells the whole story. Regardless, the music is beautiful and very evocative of the tale. There are also some great illustrations to go along with it. Definitely check it out!

I hope that this has been an exciting introduction to Victorian fairy tales to you. I myself can’t wait to finally have some down time to jump into my book of them. Have you read any Victorian tales?

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Very interesting post. I knew about the Pied Piper and The Reluctant Dragon, but not the others. In fact, The Reluctant Dragon happens to be one of my favorites as well. Thank you for sharing, Heather. I have always loved fairy tales. No matter our age, fairy tales give us a connection to our childhood and to the past.

  2. Great post! I only knew The Pied Piper and Selfish Giant (I love Oscar Wilde's stories), but the other two were a complete novelty to me. I must read The Reluctant Dragon - it sounds ever so lovely!

  3. Michelle - I have to agree. Not only do they connect us with our past but it gives a window into the times too.

    Irena - I hope you enjoy it if you get the chance to read it!


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