Fairy tales and folklore come from a variety of sources, changing as they are told and retold. And some of these tales have been inspired by real historical figures, whose lives either formed the genesis of the story or altered it along the way. So what is fact and what is fiction?
Top image: Dream and Harun from Sandman.
Numerous fairy tales have some germ in real historical events. You have stories like "Hansel and Gretel," where the characters may not be based on specific characters, but is inspired by the very real horrors of famine. There's the "Pied Piper of Hamelin," which is set in the actual town of Hamelin (or Hameln), Germany, where local legend claims that 130 children were seduced away from home by a piper. Some commentators link the "piper" to charismatic figures like Nicholas of Cologne, who encouraged children to join the Children's Crusade. But a more modern theory asserts that the story of the piper is more allegorical, and that it doesn't represent a historical incident in which children were lured away by a sole figure but rather represents young people emigrating to other regions.
But some fairy tales have been linked to real people whose personal histories and legends may have found their ways into fairy tales. However, it is important to remember that, before these fairy tales were canonized in Western literature through the likes of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, many of the people mentioned in this piece already aspects of their lives reinterpreted again and again through folklore and gossip, so that there are often gulfs between the real people and the familiar tales.
So how did these people actually influence these tales? Author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien actually had a bit to say about that in his seminal lecture "On Fairy-Stories," discussing the similarities between romances about Bertrada of Laon, the mother of Charlemagne who is often referred to as "Bertha Broadfoot," and "The Goose Girl," a fairy tale recorded by the Grimms:
Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty. For this reason, to take a casual example, the fact that a story resembling the one known as The Goosegirl (Die Gänsemagd in Grimm) is told in the thirteenth century of Bertha Broadfoot, mother of Charlemagne, really proves nothing either way: neither that the story was (in the thirteenth century) descending from Olympus or Asgard by way of an already legendary king of old, on its way to become a Hausmärchen; nor that it was on its way up. The story is found to be widespread, unattached to the mother of Charlemagne or to any historical character. From this fact by itself we certainly cannot deduce that it is not true of Charlemagne's mother, though that is the kind of deduction that is most frequently made from that kind of evidence. The opinion that the story is not true of Bertha Broadfoot must be founded on something else: on features in the story which the critic's philosophy does not allow to be possible in "real life," so that he would actually disbelieve the tale, even if it were found nowhere else; or on the existence of good historical evidence that Bertha's actual life was quite different, so that he would disbelieve the tale, even if his philosophy allowed that it was perfectly possible in "real life." No one, I fancy, would discredit a story that the Archbishop of Canterbury slipped on a banana skin merely because he found that a similar comic mishap had been reported of many people, and especially of elderly gentlemen of dignity. He might disbelieve the story, if he discovered that in it an angel (or even a fairy) had warned the Archbishop that he would slip if he wore gaiters on a Friday. He might also disbelieve the story, if it was stated to have occurred in the period between, say, 1940 and 1945. So much for that. It is an obvious point, and it has been made before; but I venture to make it again (although it is a little beside my present purpose), for it is constantly neglected by those who concern themselves with the origins of tales.
On the other hand, you will occasionally come across an almost plausible, but utterly untrue "real" story behind a fairy tale. For example, Hans Traxler's 1963 book The Truth About Hansel and Gretel, which claims that the witch in the tale was based on a real woman called the "baker witch" who invented gingerbread, is a hoax, if an amusing one. And there are fairy tales that are connected to people whose existence is difficult to verify. Many scholars connect the story of Rapunzel to an early damsel-in-a-tower story, that connected to the Christian Saint Barbara. But there aren't contemporary historical writings about Barbara, so even beyond the whole locked-in-a-tower thing, it's hard to say who she really was, if she existed. Incidentally, the whole hair ladder business can be traced to a Persian predecessor of Rapunzel, Rudāba, who appears in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.
A particularly helpful resource in research this post is SurLaLune, which features annotations and backgrounds on numerous fairy tales. This post was inspired by a Mental Floss post about two possible historical Snow Whites.
1. Conomor (Bluebeard)
Charles Perrault published "La Barbe bleue" in his Tales of Mother Goose, recounting the story of a woman who marries a nobleman who has been widowed many times over. When he leaves for a trip, the man tells his bride that she may go into any part of his castle, save for a tiny room beneath the room. Overwhelmed by curiosity in her husband's absence, the young woman unlocks the room and discovers, to her horror, that it is filled with the bodies of his brutally murdered previous wives. Things end happily for her—yes, her terrible husband finds out about her trespass, but he's killed by the woman's brother before she can join the rest of his wives.
Statue of Saint Tréphine via Wikipedia.
Bluebeard likely comes from earlier Breton legends (and many of the motifs are ancient; just look at "Cupid and Psyche" for wifely curiosity), and there are a few contenders for the murderous nobleman's inspiration. Among them in Conomor, an early medieval ruler of Brittany, who appears in Gregory of Tours' Historia Francorum. According to historical accounts, Conomor was married to a woman named Tréphine, the daughter of Waroch, count of Vannes, and murdered both her and their son.
A popular myth rose up around Conomor and Tréphine, who is sometimes regarded as a saint. According to the myth, Conomor was many times widowed when he married Tréphine. After Tréphine comes across a room containing relics of Conomor's wives, their ghosts appear to warn her that Conomor will kill her if she becomes pregnant. Sure enough, after Tréphine becomes pregnant, Conomor hunts her down and beheads her. Fortunately for Tréphine, St. Gildas is able to replace her head upon her shoulders, mystically bringing her back to life. She gives birth to a son, Trémeur, who ultimately falls to Conomor's blade.
2. Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard, Part Deux)
While Conomor has the whole wife-killing and mythical trophy room going for him, another historic Breton often termed "Bluebeard" is Gilles de Rais. The 15th-century Baron de Rais was famous for fighting alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years' War, but that glory is often overshadowed by his alleged crimes. Gilles was accused of, and ultimately confessed to, sodomizing and murdering dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children. Forty bodies were discovered and Gilles was executed by hanging and burning in 1440.
Portrait of Gilles de Rais by Éloi Firmin Féron via Wikipedia.
So what's the connection between the bloody baron and Bluebeard? Well, some think it comes from the idea of a monstrous noblemen, one whose reputation causes parents to warn their children away from his estate—much as the maidens in Perrault's story knew to steer clear of Bluebeard. Gilles de Rais was actually "retried" in 1992 by an arbitration court of writers, historians and doctors, who found the long-dead nobleman not guilty.
3. Margaretha von Waldeck (Snow White)
This claim is recent and comes from just one source, so take it with the appropriate grains of salt. In 1994, German historian Eckhard Sander published Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?), claiming he had uncovered a story that may have inspired this particular slumbering princess. According to Sander, 16th-centurry Count Philip IV of Waldeck had a daughter named Margaretha who was not particularly liked by Count Philip's second wife, Catherine of Hatzfeld. He claims that, at one point, Margaretha became the mistress of Phillip II of Spain, but her happy story was cut short when her health failed and, at age 21, she died. According to Sander, Margaretha's shaky handwriting toward the end of her life suggested that she may have been poisoned. But Margaretha's stepmother was already eight years dead by the time the young lady took her final breath in 1554.
Sander also has a theory for that poisoned apple business. He says there is a historical account of a man being arrested for giving children poisoned apples, and that those real apples made their way into fairy tales.
4. Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina Freifräulein Von Erthal (Snow White Again)
Not convinced by Sander's claim about Margaretha? Well, there is another possible historical Snow White, Maria Sophia Von Erthal. A fabulist study group in Lohr, Bavaria, claims that theirs is the true Snow White. This alleged Snow White was the daughter of Philipp Christoph von Erthal, a 18th-century landowner and senior administrator of the Prince Elector of Mainz, and Maria Eva, Baroness von Bettendorff. After the baroness' death, Erthal remarried, this time to Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen, Countess of Reichenstein. The countess was said to be quite domineering when it came to her stepchildren.
The biggest piece of evidence from the fabulists' perspective is that the castle where Maria Sophia was born is home to a "magic mirror." The Mirror Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz in Lohr constructed "talking mirrors," acoustical toys that seemed to speak. This particular mirror was constructed in 1720, and the belief is that it was in the house at the time that the Countess of Reichenstein lived there. The fabulists claim that the story of Snow White was inspired by Claudia Elisabeth Maria's harsh treatment of her stepdaughter, who was otherwise universally beloved.
The stories of both of these women are set in mining towns. Sander claims that the so-called dwarves were inspired by children who worked the mines and the fabulists of Lohr claim that the smallest tunnels could be access only by very short miners.
5. Rhodopis (Cinderella)
The Cinderella story greatly pre-dates the fairy tale "Cinderella," and the first known instance of a Cinderalla story is that of Rhodopis, whose story is told by the Greek historian Strabo in the first century BC. But the likely historical Rhodopis lived a few centuries earlier and appears in the writings of 6th-century BC historian Herodotus. This Rhodopis was a slave—and apparently had an affair with her fellow slave, the storyteller Aesop—and served as a hetaira, a sort of courtesan. Charaxus, the brother of Sappho, apparently fell in love with Rhodopis and purchased her freedom, something that apparently earned him a scolding poem from his sister. (It is not entirely clear whether Rhodopis is the same person as Doricha, the courtesan connected to Charaxus in this story; but Rhodopis/Doricha appears to be either one or two real women.) Herodotus says that Rhodopis continued her work as a hetaira after that and became so wealthy that she had a memorial built to herself in Delphi.
Strabo's tale of Rhodopis is a bit more fanciful, and more easily recognizable as a Cinderella story. In this story, Rhodopis (whom Strabo claims is called "Doricha" by Sappho) is living in Naucratis, Egypt, the place where Charaxus bought her freedom. One day, a bird steals Rhodopis' sandal and carries it off, eventually dropping it in the lap of the king of Egypt. The king seeks out the owner of the sandal and eventually discovers Rhodopis in Naucratis and marries her—without any pesky stepsisters getting in the way.
6. Jenny Lind (The Nightingale)
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales came from a variety of sources. Some were retellings of stories he had heard in his youth; others were inspired by events from his childhood. And some of the tales appear to have been based on people who fascinated Andersen. One such person was opera singer Johanna Marie "Jenny" Lind. Lind was a 19th-century superstar, traveling across Europe and America (the latter was on PT Barnum's dime) to show off her talents as a soprano.
Daguerreotype of Jenny Lind by Poly Von Schneidau via Wikipedia.
Andersen was obsessed with Lind, and although his more passionate affections for her were never requited, the two did become friends. He wrote in his autobiography, "Through Jenny Lind I first became sensible of the holiness of Art. Through her I learned that one must forget one's self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men, have had a more ennobling influence upon me as a poet than Jenny Lind."
Many Andersen scholars see Lind's influence in multiple Andersen stories, notably in "The Nightingale," his tale of a Chinese Emperor who falls in love with a nightingale's song only to lose interest after receiving a beautiful mechanical bird. Andersen watched one of Lind's Copenhagen performances before penning the story, and also paid a visit to the newly opened Tivoli Gardens, which featured a strong Asian motif. The story actually influenced Lind's life as well; after its publication, Lind became popularly known as "the Swedish Nightingale."
In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Carol Rosen wrote of Lind, "She inspired at least partly two of his best-known children's stories, The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor's Nightingale, but when she rejected him as a suitor she became the Snow Queen, whose heart was made of ice." But Rosen may have been taking poetic license on that last point.
7. Al-Khayzuran bint Atta (Scheherazade)
The name for the clever storyteller from The Thousand and One Nights may come from the legendary queen Homai of Kianian, who was known by the epithet Chehrazad. But the historical figure who is often cited as the prototypical Scheherazade is Al-Khayzuran, mother of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. Al-Khayzuran was kidnapped by slavers as a child, but she ended up marrying the caliph Al-Mahdi. Al-Khayzuran convinced Al-Mahdi to make her sons his heirs over the children of his other wives, and was said to have wielded great influence over her son during his reign.
Scheherazade illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett.
8. Harun al-Rashid (Harun al-Rashid, The Thousand and One Nights)
While his mother may have provided an inspiration for Scheherazade, Harun al-Rashid himself turns up in many of the folkloric tales in The Thousand and One Nights. Harun was a famed patron of the arts and education, and his establishment of Baghdad as an arts center influenced the portrayals of the glittering Baghdad court in the stories. A fictional version of Harun turns up in several stories, including "Harun al-Rashid and Abu Hasan, the Merchant of Oman," "The Tale of Attaf," and "The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman."
Thanks to his featured role in The Thousand and One Nights, Harun frequently turns up in modern fiction that plays off of folklore, including Neil Gaiman's comic Sandman, and Italo Calvino's metafictional If on a winter's night a traveler, and likely gives his name to the titled character in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Incidentally, in both real-life and fiction, Harun al-Rashid had a vizier named Ja'far.
9. Richard Whittington (Dick Whittington and His Cat)
This is a more obscure story to modern readers, but it's a great example of how folklore can spring up around a real person, completely twisting the details of their life. The real Richard Whittington was the grandson of a knight-at-arms and son of a wealthy landowners. He himself became a successful textile trader—in fact, he was so wealthy that, by 1397, he was lending money to the King of England. He became a Councilman and, later, became mayor of London, a position he served in four times. Whittington was also a great philanthropist, financing a unmarried mother's ward, public drainage systems, a public toilet, and Greyfriars library during his lifetime and leaving the grand sum of £7,000 to charity upon his death.
Engraving of Sir Richard W(h)ittington and his cat via Wikipedia.
The folkloric Dick Whittington was also the mayor of London and also a great philanthropist, but that is where the similarities end. By the early 17th century, Dick Whittington's biography went something like this: the young Dick was raised in poverty and went to London to seek his fortune. He becomes a scullion for a merchant named Fitzwarren and purchases a cat to control the rodent population in Fitzwarren's home. It's that cat that eventually makes the folkloric Dick Whittington a wealthy man. The cat is sent on one of Fitzwarren's trade ships to be sold, and the ship finds itself on the Barbary Coast, where a king—fresh from a feast that was overrun by vermin—purchases the cat for a massive sum of money, making Dick Whittington richer than even Fitzwarren. And so Dick marries Fitzwarren's daughter, Alice, and eventually goes on to become mayor of London.
The story of Dick Whittington and his cat became quite popular, inspiring ballads, puppet plays, and operas and appearing in books of English fairy tales. However, there's no evidence that the historical Richard Whittington even owned a cat.