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Joseph Jacobs and the Fairy Tales of "Merrie England"

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

In his preface to English Fairy Tales, folklorist and scholar Joseph Jacobs writes, “Who says that English folk have no fairy tales of their own?” Inspired by the work of Charles Perrault in France and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany, Australian-born Jacobs set out to gather folk and fairy tales in his adopted home of England. His collection English Fairy Tales was soon followed by a second volume called More English Fairy Tales, and his work helped popularize such well-known tales as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Henny Penny,” and “Tom Thumb.” Jacobs believed many of the tales contained a spirit of amusement befitting “Merrie England,” and, in his preface, he points to the story of “Tom Tit Tot” (a story closely resembling “Rumplestiltskin”) as “unequaled among all other folk-tales . . . for its combined sense of humour and dramatic power.”

While Jacobs’ focus was on tales from England, he follows each tale in the collection noting parallels with other stories collected elsewhere. His tale “Mr Fox,” for example, is very similar to the Brother Grimm’s “The Robber Bridegroom”; he finds a parallel for “The Three Little Pigs” in the Italian story “The Three Goslings”; and after “Jack and the Beanstalk,” he notes the use of beanstalks in Russian folk tales. The roots of folk and fairy tales run deep, and while the tales told in a particular region are transformed to reflect the culture, many stories from the oral tradition transcend time and location.

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