The Most Popular Fairy Tale Stories of All Time

Sleeping Beauty


If you found Snow White annoyingly passive, meet Sleeping Beauty, whose main claim to fame is, obviously, her century-long snooze, thanks to the curse of the wicked fairy who isn't invited to Beauty's christening. Throughout her childhood, everyone coddles young Beauty, sometimes known as Briar Rose, but on her 16th birthday, fate finds her, and off to sleep she goes.

Sleeping Beauty may be a far-fetched tale, but it's also a far-reaching one; according to Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, it dates to the "Volsunga Saga" from 13th-century Iceland, is found all across Europe, especially France, Italy and Germany, and even appears in The Arabian Nights.

In 1890, Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote the musical score for a much-loved Sleeping Beauty ballet, and later still, the folks at Disney borrowed some of his music for their 1959 animated film version. Disney's Sleeping Beauty was lavishly created in 70mm traditionally inked cells, but originally it "napped at the box office," as one newspaper put it. This may be one reason it was Disney's last fairy tale feature for 30 years, until The Little Mermaid made its splash.

Ironically, Disney achieved a much greater success with Maleficent in 2014, which retells Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the vengeful fairy, played magnificently by Angelina Jolie. There is also a scandalously spicy adult novel, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice writing as A.N. Roquelaure, which explores some of the other ways the prince might have woken up the young princess, and what might have happened afterward. Don't leave it around if you have kids!

Puss in Boots

puss in bootsBritish Library/Robana/REX/Shutterstock

Best known of the fairy tale "animal helpers," Puss is a bold, swaggering trickster who masquerades as the servant of a great nobleman; eventually, his clever tactics bring his young master fame, fortune, and a fancy wife. The story was probably first recorded in 16th-century Italy, but Puss seems to have acquired his swashbuckling boots about 100 years later in France, in the same book of stories featuring Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, and he's been rocking them ever since.

What's with the boots? In an age when the poor mostly went barefoot, shoes were an important status symbol. Think Nike Airs but even more so. And as Sur La Lune Fairy Tales points out, "Footwear is important in many popular fairy tales, such as Cinderella's slipper… and the red-hot dancing shoes found in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Mostly we defy anyone not to find them pretty cute.

Clearly, those boots were made for walking because Puss has managed to travel astonishingly far around the world. Scholars say, "The story has been found in all parts of Europe, across Siberia, onward to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It also traveled with colonists and travelers from Europe to Africa and the American Indians."

More recently, of course, the irrepressible Puss has found new fans and stolen the show in Dreamworks' Shrek movies, voiced by a smoldering Antonio Banderas whose signature introduction is "Puss… in Boots!" When Shrek saves Puss from a hairball, he earns himself a formidable ally. Could any of us ask for better? We think not.

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If you've ever checked out hairstyles in the doll section of a toy store, you won't be surprised to find that Rapunzel is still such a beloved and influential story. More recently Mattel released a popular 2002 CGI computer-animated film, Barbie As Rapunzel, and Disney had a hit with the 2010 feature-length cartoon, Tangled. The girl with the climb-able curls is isolated in a tower by a wicked witch. Of course this being a fairy tale, it's only a matter of time before a handsome prince shouts, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair," and before you know it, they're united in perfect bliss.

Surprise! The Grimm version of Rapunzel is so very much grimmer. Rapunzel winds up in the witch's clutches in the first place because her pregnant mother couldn't stop stealing magic herbs from the old crone's garden. (And you thought cravings for pickles and ice cream were bad!) The witch finds out about Rapunzel's secret visitor when the girl's unexpected pregnancy bursts the seams of her dresses. Using Rapunzel's hair as a lure, the witch catches the prince and throws him to the ground, where thorns pierce his eyes. She leaves him to wander alone for years in the wilderness. (Jealous much?) But it is a fairy tale, so eventually Rapunzel, now the mother of the prince's toddler twins, runs into him by chance; her tears fall onto his face, miraculously restoring his vision, and leading the couple to their belated happily ever after.

This is what it's like to play a Disney princess in real life.

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