Ten Hidden Gems from the Fairy Books

After completing over 400 fairy tales in Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, it's easy to get burnt out by all the alternate versions of stories we're already familiar with. The biggest draw of these books is the potential to discover new fairy tales that are as compelling and imaginative as the ones we tell our children. Though these stories are few and far between, I compiled a list of the top ten hidden gems after reading all twelve books. Since this list only contains stories I have never heard of outside the Fairy Books, The Blue Fairy Book is automatically disqualified since it mainly contains popular stories. I also didn't care for any of the stories from The Pink or Lilac Fairy Books even though these are named after the two most feminine colors in the set. The stories listed below are ahead of their time in one way or another with brave princesses who rescue princes, spiteful fairies, and unique visual or story elements that stand out from anything Disney or any other studio has adapted. Get ready to discover the diamonds in the rough of the fairy tale genre. Let me know which story sounds the best in the comments!

"The Golden Branch" (Red Fairy Book)

What makes this story special is that it is one of the only fairy tales in which the prince and princess do not grow up as enchanting beauties who no man or woman can resist. Instead, they are plain and homely-looking, and uninterested in each other when they see each other's portraits. While it still ends with them being blessed by fairies with beauty and changing their names to match, it gets merit for being less superficial than other stories from this time period. The best part is when a fairy gives the princess a choice between beauty and goodness, and she responds that while she would like to be beautiful, it is far more important to be good.

"Fairer-than-a-Fairy" (Yellow Fairy Book)

This is quite possibly my favorite of all the stories listed here. I would love to see it adapted into another medium. It starts out similarly to "Sleeping Beauty" with a fairy taking revenge on a princess because of something her parents did. The fairy was angry that the king and queen named their daughter "Fairer-than-a-Fairy," implying that she is more beautiful than a fairy. If this were adapted, I think the princess would need to be given a cute nickname to avoid getting tongue-tied. For now, I will refer to her as Faira to save time. Faira grows up in a fairy castle and has a decent life despite being separated from her family. One day, she hears a voice when sunlight hits a fountain at a certain angle and forms a rainbow. She learns that the soul of a kind prince is trapped within the rainbow's reflection. Without knowing what he looks like, she falls in love with his soul through the deep conversations they share whenever the rainbow appears over the fountain. When the rainbow stops forming one day, the princess decides to go on a quest to save her prince. She endures an arduous journey to recover his body and wakes him up so they can both live happily ever after.

"An Impossible Enchantment" (Grey Fairy Book)

This story also has a vengeful fairy who takes her anger toward a vain queen out on her daughter. Like Faira, Princess Graziella is ripped from her family and forced to spend her days trapped in a fairy castle. The castle is surrounded by water where merfolk live, and a merman eventually falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Graziella is not attracted to men with fish parts. Though she befriends the merman's sister, she rejects the merman and enlists in the help of a kind-hearted fairy to find a handsome prince to rescue her from the castle. Through the help of her fairy friend, she delivers her portrait to a nearby prince and has his delivered to her to prove that he doesn't have any fish parts. With a little magic, Graziella's captivity is broken, but I couldn't help feeling sorry for that poor merman!
This story starts out similarly to Mulan with a princess who volunteers to embark on a dangerous trial that is meant only for princes because her father has no sons. However, it takes things a few steps further than Mulan and turns into a trans-positive story, which is particularly unusual for something written hundreds of years ago. After the princess completes her trials, she continues masquerading as a man, fights monsters, and rescues damsels like Princess Knight. Eventually, a completely random circumstance causes her wish to be granted and transforms her into a real boy.

"The Three Robes" (Crimson Fairy Book)

After reading so many stories about punishing wicked stepmothers and stepsisters, this is a refreshing tale of forgiveness with a princess who decides to embrace her stepsister instead of scorn her, similar to the relationship between Sofia and Amber from Sofia the First. It starts out like "The Goose Girl" with Princess Lineik's evil stepmother disguising her own daughter, Laufer, as Lineik and trying to marry her off to Lineik's betrothed. When Laufer is tasked with embroidering three robes for the wedding, she panics because she was never educated on how to properly embroider something. Lineik decides to lend a helping hand and embroiders them for her in secret. Eventually, the prince learns the truth about Laufer's identity, but Lineik convinces him to take pity on her because it was only her stepmother who tried to deceive him, and the two girls were powerless to stop her. In the end. Lineik marries the prince and finds Laufer a suitable match, and they all live happily together.

"Rubezahl" (Brown Fairy Book)

This is another story with girl power elements that stands apart from the rest. The princess in this story is ripped away from her friends and captured by a gnome named Rubezahl who takes her to live in his underground palace. It seems like there is nothing Rubezahl can do to please her until he realizes that she simply misses her ladies who she used to hang out with. He gives her some magic turnips that turn into imitations of her friends, but they don't last forever. Eventually, the clones get old and withered when the turnips dry out. It ends like most other stories with the princess getting rescued and running off with a prince, but the focus on the bond she shared with her ladies makes it unique.

"The White Doe" (Orange Fairy Book)

This story contains elements of everything that make fairy tales great and combines them into one super long fairy tale. Like Faira and Graziella, it starts with a princess who is cursed because of something her parents did, forcing her to be locked away in a tower to avoid the terrible fate that might await her if she sees the light of day before her fifteenth birthday. Princess Desiree has two ladies-in-waiting, one good and one evil one. The evil one sets a trap for her to see sunlight shortly after she gets engaged to a prince, which turns her into a white doe. She then pulls a "Goose Girl" and convinces Desiree's betrothed that she is actually the princess, which he has some trouble believing after having seen Desiree's portrait. Meanwhile, Desiree's good lady-in-waiting discovers the doe in the woods and eventually figures out that she is the princess. She protects her and enlists in the aid of a fairy who allows Desiree to resume her human form by night like Odette in "Swan Lake." Unfortunately, the prince also discovers the white doe and thinks she would make a great hunting target. Desiree spends her days trying to escape the prince's arrows and her nights crying to her best friend that the prince will never know her for who she really is. Of course, everything works out in the end because of true love.

"The Girl-Fish" (Orange Fairy Book)

Since none of the Fairy Books contain a version of "The Little Mermaid," this was the closest replacement I could find. It's about a girl who gets turned into a fish and meets the fish queen, who is a mermaid that was once human and is unable to return to her castle and family unless someone can recover her magic crown. The girl-fish goes on a quest to find the crown and brings it back. After everyone turns human again, the queen learns that her son is in love with the girl who saved her and gives the happy couple her blessing.

"The Frog and the Lion Fairy" (Orange Fairy Book)

This story starts out like many of the others with a young queen who gets captured by a wicked fairy and is forced to live in her underground castle. The biggest difference is that this queen is already married and is separated from her husband because of the Lion Fairy. Not only that, but she soon gives birth to a daughter who grows up in the underworld without ever knowing her father. Instead of being about finding love, this fairy tale is about reuniting a family. The queen befriends a talking fairy frog who agrees to go on a quest to find her husband and tell him that she is still alive. The king must endure many trials to be reunited with his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, Princess Muffette falls in love with a prince who must save her and her mother from a dragon. The family is eventually reunited after years of hardship and separation.

"Samba the Coward" (Olive Fairy Book)

This story is a shorter one than most of the others on this list. I included it because it's one of the few older fairy tales about a brave princess who proves herself superior to her prince. Prince Samba's family is concerned for him throughout his childhood when he does not develop the masculine traits of bravery and strength that princes are supposed to have. When he grows up, he decides to flee his war-torn nation of thieves to find a more peaceful kingdom. There, a princess falls in love with him and marries him. Then she learns that he has PTSD from being surrounded by war and bandits all his life, making him afraid to do anything heroic. Instead of scorning him, she is a supportive wife and goes on several quests in his place, disguising herself in his armor. Eventually, she teaches him to be brave on his own merit. In the end, he reveals to her father that it is the princess, and not him, who is truly brave.


Alysa Salzberg said…
I was so excited about this post! Congratulations on reading all of these stories and thanks for the recommendations. I will be reading "Fairer-than-a-Fairy" and "Samba the Coward" very soon!
Lady Culturina said…
I thought I knew most of fairy tales, but I read only half of them! My favorite is The Golden Branch, and (maybe it's the translation?) but the prince and princess were described downright ugly and disabled, the princess did not had legs. Sure, it's refreshing that they do not start as beauties.
Lisa Dawn said…
Half is still pretty good since I had never seen any of these listed in any fairy tale anthologies or adaptations outside the Fairy Books! The versions in these are a little different than some of the ones I was familiar with, so I'm not surprised about "The Golden Branch." It did say the princess needed a crutch to walk, but not that she didn't have legs. That would have made things a lot more difficult for her!
Lady Culturina said…
Oh wow, when I read it in french (the original language) she needed the then equivalent of a wheelchair! Meanwhile, the prince was an hunchback. Certainly the translation bowdlerized it.
Lisa Dawn said…
Yes, the prince being a hunchback is accurate to the story I read. You can click on the titles of the stories in this list to read the Fairy Book version of them.

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