ON FAIRYTALES Folktales, the roots of the fairytale tree

Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings or twisted and fractured mash-ups, fairytales never lose their appeal. This issue, storyteller Tom Phillips talks about how versions of essentially the same folktale can be found throughout the world.

In my last article (in January's Words & Pictures), I focused on the difference between fairytales and folktales, showing how fairytales are simply folktales that have been written down and their form and structure has become fixed and widely recognisable. This has meant that, since the mass publication of books of these fairytales and, later, the converting of these fairytales to the big and small screens, their narratives, characters, and tropes have become set firm within our collective consciousness. Over the last half a decade or so though, film directors and writers have delighted in presenting us variations of these stories, playing with setting, character gender, and many more aspects of the tale. The end results are always recognisable as, for example, a Cinderella story. But, this has been done many times before, many years ago. In fact, this was a common thing to do in the time before print and the solidification of folk stories into fairytales. These variations can be found all over the world.


In the writing down of folktales into collections such as the famous one by the Brothers Grimm, they became fairytales, and thus the fairytale genre was created with these early books setting the forms and conventions for future collections. However, these folktales from which fairytales came, were just one version of many that had spread across the world. If we take the Cinderella story — well, why not as we have mentioned it before? — and look for examples of this story across the world in folktales, we find it everywhere! The story, at its very heart, involves a girl losing her mother, being mistreated, losing everything, before rising higher than ever before through some divine help. This is what we storytellers call the ‘Bare Bones’ of the story. So, now we know those, let’s look at other examples of folk stories from around the world that follow these conventions.


In East Anglia, the story of Cap o’Rushes, a young girl who disguises herself in an outfit of rushes, tells a very similar narrative to that of Straggletag

Europe has a large variety of them. In one particular folktale, the youngest of three princesses is taunted into trying on her deceased mother's wedding ring that is notorious for its odd shape. When this is found to fit, it is decreed that she must marry the king, her own father (which neither she or her father were best pleased about). The young princess receives help from the woodland animals to make a disguise and, after requesting three dresses over three weeks to delay the wedding, she uses this to escape. She finds herself in a strange land where she works in disguise as Straggletag, the kitchen assistant. 

The young prince is looking for a bride and throws three balls, at which, each time, a beautiful young woman appears in a different dress each time, dances with him before fleeing. Through happy chance, a meeting and a shared phrase, usually something like ‘In a land where dogs lay eggs and geese bark,’ The prince realises that Straggletag is the woman from the balls, she sheds her disguise and they marry. Now wed, she can no longer marry her father, who is invited to that far off kingdom and they all live happily ever after. Well, if that’s not a Cinderella story I don’t know what is!

Illustration from an 1865 version of Cinderella
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]


We also need look no further than our own shores here in the UK. In East Anglia, the story of Cap o’Rushes, a young girl who disguises herself in an outfit of rushes, tells a very similar narrative to that of Straggletag (her real name often being Sapsarrow). In my own home county of Leicestershire, the story made famous by Shakespeare, King Lear (Leir in the traditional spelling), the founder of Leicester itself, is, at heart, a Cinderella story, with the youngest of the three daughters, Cordelia, ostracised by her own father and exiled only for chance and luck to bring them back together again with Cordelia becoming queen of France.

Sometimes it’s wolves hunting down a little girl, other times it's child-eating witches in gingerbread cottages! 

Cinderella stories give us hope in a better future, that there is a fairy godmother out there ready to help us all overcome and, one day, marry our prince or princess. This is why this folktale trope has become such a staple of the tradition and has spread so far. Another popular style are stories to warn children to stay out of dangerous places, such as the woods. Sometimes it’s wolves hunting down a little girl, other times it's child-eating witches in gingerbread cottages! The fairytale of Hansel and Gretel is one of hard times, hard choices but, ultimately, a scary child-eating witch. The message, here, is to stay out of the woods and not trust strangers with good things to eat. But child-eating witches are common around the world, from Europe to Asia. 

Once again, bringing it back to Leicestershire, we have our very own child-eating witch, the infamous Black Annis. Blue of skin with a single red eye in her forehead, reflecting her singular vision to extract revenge on the people of this world for taking her beloved many moons ago, she has clad her talon like nails in metal and sits in wait above her bower for children to come by. Intrigued by the cave in the rocks in the Dane hills to the west of Leicester, children would approach only to be fell upon by Black Annis in her black hooded cloak. Their skins ripped from their flesh and worn around the waist of their killer, their body eaten raw. The cave was not quite as appealing as a gingerbread house but this story certainly stopped children staying out too late in the woods, I can assure you!


Cinderella stories give us hope in a better future, that there is a fairy godmother out there ready to help us all overcome and, one day, marry our prince or princess

Bringing it full circle though, Eastern Europe has the infamous Baba Yaga, a child-eating hag that lives in a house on chicken legs, and flies around in a pestle and mortar. The most famous story being a crossover between Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel it seems. We hear of young Vasilisa, who’s mother died when she was young, being sent by her step-mother and step-sisters to ask Baba Yaga for skull candles to decorate their home ready for her father's return. However, due to Vasilisa’s pure heart, she receives helps from three mystical horsemen, passes all of Baba Yaga’s tests and escapes unharmed with the skull candles that ultimately become the doom of her step-family.


This article could go on and on with examples of the many and varied versions of famous fairytales from folklore across the world. I have shared but a few, mostly from the UK and Europe as these are my stories from my culture, but there are many more. I would urge you to go out, listen to storytellers, pick and read folktale books and discover these variations and enjoy them. Use them as inspiration for your writing and know that there are never any new ideas in writing, just old favourites re-imagined in fun and creative ways. After all, Star Wars was just a retelling of the classic hero’s tale… Oh, maybe that should be my next article*, we will see…

*Look out for Tom Phillips' next article for 'On Fairytales' in July

*Header image: Tita Berredo


Starting life as a primary school teacher, Tom 'the Tale Teller' Phillips began telling the stories he heard as a youngster to his class, soon branching out into the world of adult storytelling as well. After a decade of telling tales, Tom wrote two folktale books for The History Press, using his knowledge of folktales and researching more along the way. Tom continues to tell stories to all ages, writing in his free time.


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org


  1. This is a very interesting article and I would like to have seen it much longer and exploring more parallels between folktales and fairy tales. Perhaps I should read Tom's books! I did an MA in children's literature at Roehampton and remember studying Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist, who analysed fairy stories according to psychoanalytic theory and Vladimir Propp and others who curated fairy tales across the world. I was amazed to learn that there are 400 versions of Cinderella, the first version originating in China because of foot binding. In my Creative writing MA at Kingston we explored intertextuality which applies across all genres, especially fairy tales. Recurring motifs and themes. A fascinating subject which I think all children's writers should study as it is all probably hard wired into our DNA and influences our writing more than we realise! Thank you for a good read.

  2. The above is from Lucy Daniel Raby, author of Nickolai of the North. I used folk tales across Europe to research this book.

  3. G.Chapman , born in Leicestershire.22 May 2024 at 10:08

    Quite fascinating, I learned a lot from this x


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