5 favorite lesser known fairy tales

Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Beauty and the Beast. These popular fairy tales (along with a few more I haven’t mentioned) have been illustrated, retold, fractured, and adapted countless times, and they are still going strong. They’re only a small handful of the great number of fairy tales available to us, though. Today I want to highlight five of my favorite lesser-known fairy tales.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

via SurLaLune Fairy Tales

This is the most popular of the lesser-known fairy tales on this list. It’s enjoying a resurgence in YA fantasy fiction, with such offerings as Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George and Entwined by Heather Dixon.

I loved the imagery of this tale–the tattered shoes, the princesses in their ball finery, the magic staircase and the invisibility cloak,  the groves of silver, gold, and diamond leaves, the well-lit castle in the center of the lake. That, and I’m a sucker for the kind man of humble origins solving the mystery and winning the princess.

Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins

I didn’t discover this until a few years ago when I got the Lauren Mills’ picture book retelling out of the library for my children. I instantly adored the wild-haired feisty Tatterhood with her red cloak and her white goat and her big wooden spoon for whacking hobgoblins with. I loved her fierce bond of loyalty to her sister, her courage, her adventurous spirit. And when she does finally settle down to become more of a conventional fairy tale princess, it’s with a twinkle in her eye and on her own terms.

King Thrushbeard

I hesitate to add this one, though I loved it as a child. A haughty princess taunts and rejects all her noble suitors. After dismissing the last one, mockingly calling him “Thrushbeard”, her father loses patience with her and declares he will marry her to the next man to come to his gates. The weeping princess thus finds herself wed to a beggar, who insists she earn her keep. Long story short, the beggar is really King Thrushbeard and the princesses, humbled and kinder, takes her place as his queen at the end.

I like fish-out-of-water stories, and lesson-learned tales, but I don’t like the Taming of the Shrew method of a husband schooling his wayward wife. I include this tale–but with reservations. That, and because I think it would be fun to break some time!

Snow White and Rose Red

I  enjoyed the rural setting and loved the non-romantic relationships in this one–the love between mother and daughters, the sisterly bond between Snow White and Rose Red, and the friendship between the bear and the girls. I also found it highly amusing that the girls’ every encounter with the ill-natured dwarf led to the latter losing a piece of his beard as a result of their help!

Liang and the Magic Paintbrush

This is the version I read to my children, though I grew up with a different one, whose illustrations I still remember vividly. Liang, a poor Chinese boy, is gifted with a magic paintbrush that makes pictures come to life. When the greedy emperor discovers this, he hunts Liang down and Liang uses his wits to put an end to the man and escape with his paintbrush.

What are your favorite lesser-known fairy tales?


  1. Well, you definitely picked out one of them: The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I also love Mother Hulda, The Golden Bird, and Faithful John. Some of my other favorites are ones I can’t find their titles online, but they are from other countries: one where a little man tricked a rich traveller into exchanging his heavy coat for the little man’s holey one by saying the wind blew right through the holes, and the same little man paid for the smell of a stall-owner’s pilaf with the jingle of his money. Also Why the Sea is Salt and The Three Princes of Serendip.

    Okay, that’s a few of my favorites, and there I will stop.

    • I haven’t heard of most of these, but I’ve come across several versions of the “paying for the smell of food with the sound of money” story. I like them just as well as the nail/stone soup tales. :)

      • I am really lucky for growing up with books of fairy and folk tales from all over the world. I literally grew up in a library. I still have a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, which is where the first three come from.

        • I had a gorgeous book of fairy tales from around the world when I was a girl. I’d have loved to include some of those, but alas, the book is in Pakistan and I don’t remember enough details/titles to google those that I read over and over again.

    • The story with the man paying for the smell of bread with the sound of money is actually from the tale “Candide” by Voltaire, in case you wished to know. :)

  2. One of my favourite fairy tales is called East of the Sun, West of the Moon. A young girl from a big (but poor) family is taken away by a polar bear in exchange for food and money. She later discovers the polar bear is a prince in disguise. The prince vanishes and the girl tracks him down to a castle. There are a couple variations of what happens next. One version has her searching the castle and working for a bunch of trolls until she finds the prince and kills the trolls. In another version, the girl is taken to the prince’s bedchamber where he has fallen under a sleeping drink (given to him by a troll disguised as a human). This continues for several nights until the castle workers inform the prince she has been visiting him. The prince fakes taking the sleeping drink and meets the girl. The decide to play a trick on the troll. Whoever gets to wash his nightshirt clean gets to marry him. Turns out trolls can’t wash things clean, but the girl can and wins the prince’s hand in marriage.

    Another fairy tale I like is The Firebird. Mercedes Lackey does a good version of this one.

  3. I wouldn’t list Thrushneard as a favorite of mine, but I know it. I think that story’s saving grace is that the king doesn’t try to make her mind, like the fellow in Taming of the Shrew. He tries to make her more sympathetic… and if ever a princess needed to learn to be more sympathetic, it’s that one. {Amused Smile}

    I’ll share my own favorites later; a toasted cheese sandwich wants my attention NOW. {SMILE}

    Anne E lizabeth Baldwin

    • I decided to include Thrushbeard because it was one of my favorite tales as a child, when I was not bothered by the subtext. I wonder, though, if I’m being too harsh on Thrushbeard. He obviously couldn’t bring such a spoiled, haughty queen to his court–she’d have made a mess there. He could’ve let her marry someone else, only then she might have gotten worse, or truly ended up as a beggar’s wife, which have been bad for her. He found *something* in her to care about to try to save her from herself.

      Or maybe it was just a power play on his part. :P

      Without more information from the story, it’s hard to tell. His motivations, as far as I know, are not made clear.

      • I think you’ve just given a great example that shows why fairytales are so persistent. They’re simple stories but they hold up to endless analysis, even when the perspective changes over generations. Can’t wait to see if you “break” this one!

        • I’ve backbrained this, Liv. The stories in SHATTERED simmered for months, maybe even more than a year, before I wrote them. My muse takes its time over fairy tale retellings. :D

      • I know what you mean about childhood favorites. I’d list Issunboshi, a kind of Japanese Tom Thumb, for the same reason. He’s a bit… simple for my tastes these days, but I didn’t care about that when I was a kid. So he’s one of favorites still, for nostalgia as much as anything else. {Smile}

        Other favorites include Childe Rowland, a Scottish legend about fetching a princess back from the fairies that I love because the princess is his sister, not some stranger he wants to marry to win a kingdom. Then there’s Gawaine and the Green Knight and Carradoc of the Shrunken Arm, two side tales to King Arthur. Huon of the Horn and Ogier the Dane are two side-tales to the cycles of Charlemange that I love. And Kawelo and the Hilo version of The Woman in the Moon are my favorites among Hawaiian legends. We grow up with Hawaiian legends and Japanese fairytales like Issunboshi right beside the American standards in Hawai’i. {Smile}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

        • Yes, while I’m a sucker for romance, it is refreshing once in a while to see familial relationships highlighted.

          I love Gawain and the Green Knight, especially the translation by Marie Borroff that tries to preserve so much of the original poetry of the tale.

          I haven’t read the Charlemagne side-tales or the Japanese and Hawaiin ones. More to stories to check out! Thanks, Anne!

          • If it’s really romance, I’m interested enough. By that I mean they should get to know each other first, then win their hand because they like the person. Unfortunately, that’s a minority arrangement. More often, the contest is won before the parties meet. To my mind, that’s not romance; that’s a political arrangement to get a kingdom to rule. I’m not interested in politics; I’m interested in personal relationships. {Smile}

            Interestingly, all the stories I mentioned include space to develop personal relationships before the climax. Often they’re romantic relationships, sometimes they’re friendships, or other family relationships, but they’re always central to the story. They shape the story, or even outright drive it. Because that’s what gets my attention: stories about people and their relationships. {Smile}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. Hi Rabia, there’s a modern re-telling of The 12 Dancing Princesses that I absolutely love – have you read it? It’s Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. This one is a keeper on my bookshelf!

Share Your Thoughts