Defining the fairy tale is a difficult task, but luckily I’ve got some awesome helpers to aid me, in true fairy-tale style.
Let’s be clear from the start: fairy tale (two words) is the noun, and fairy-tale (hyphenated) is the adjective form. That’s the current accepted scholarly practice, anyway. There’s a lot in this post, so at the end I’ve got a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) summary.
Of the major genres of folk narrative, fairy tale falls under the subheading of folktale. Folktales are fictional, formulaic stories, with a variety of characters and structures. Fairy tales are distinct from other folktales (such as fables and narrative jokes) in terms of their characters (and other motifs) and structures but also their functions, contexts, and more.
So, let’s start with why fairy tales are usually considered to be folktales (and not legends or myths): fairy tales are clearly set in a fictional version of our world, which brushes up against the supernatural in ways that are normalized rather than awe-inspiring or terrifying. Nobody thinks that a story beginning with “Once upon a time” actually happened or is a part of our history. Rather, there are conventions that govern how fairy tales portray the world, and these align with non-mimetic fiction. (want more in this vein? read Max Lüthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Folklore Studies in Translation)
However, the relationship between folktale and fairy tale is a complicated one. We would probably state that all fairy tales are folktales, but not all folktales are fairy tales. This is both because we consider folktale to be the larger, umbrella genre under which fairy tales are categorized, but also because of the historical relationship between the two genres.
Jack Zipes – one of the most prolific fairy-tale scholars of the last few decades – has a lot to say here. I’m going to quote extensively from Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:
Originally the folk tale was (and still is) an oral narrative form cultivated by non-literate and literate people to express the manner in which they perceived and perceive nature and their social order and their wish to satisfy their needs and wants. Historical, sociological, and anthropological studies have shown that the folk tale originated as far back as the Megalithic period and that both non-literate and literate people have been the carriers and transformers of the tales. (7)
As a literary text which experimented with and expanded on the stock motifs, figures and plots of the folk tale, the fairy tale reflected a change in values and ideological conflicts in the transitional period from feudalism to early capitalism. (10)
The rise of the fairy tale in the Western world as the mass-mediated cultural form of the folk tale coincided with the decline of feudalism and the formation of the bourgeois public sphere. Therefore, it quickly lost its function of affirming absolutist ideology and experienced a curious development at the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the dominant, conservative bourgeois groups began to consider the folk and fairy tales amoral because they did not subscribe to the virtues of order, discipline, industry, modesty, cleanliness, etc. In particular, they were regarded as harmful for children since their imaginative components might give young ones “crazy ideas,” i.e., suggest ways to rebel against authoritarian and patriarchal rule in the family. Moreover, the folk and fairy tales were secular if not pagan and were not condoned by the Christian Church that has its own magical narratives to propagate… On the other hand, within the bourgeoisie itself there were progressive writers, an avantgarde, who developed the fairy tale as a form of protest against the vulgar utilitarian ideas of the Enlightenment. (15)
Cristina Bacchilega expands on these points in Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies:
Because the “classic” fairy tale is a literary appropriation of the older folk tale, an appropriation which nevertheless continues to exhibit and reproduce some folkloric features. As a “borderline” or transitional genre, it bears the traces of orality, folkloric tradition, and socio-cultural performance, even when it is edited as literature for children or it is marketed with little respect for its history and materiality. And conversely, even when it claims to be folklore, the fairy tale is shaped by literary traditions with different social uses and users. (3)
The evolution of the fairy tale from the folktale happened in a specific time and place: Western Europe, in the 16th-19th centuries. There were strands of fairy-tale-like things swirling around beforehand, and in other regions too. Prime examples include:
- From ancient Greece: “Cupid and Psyche” which is basically “Beauty and the Beast” (more on this in the excellent book Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson)
- From 9th century China: a story, “Yeh hsien,” that’s clearly recognizable as “Cinderella” (more information on where to obtain a copy from SurLaLune)
- From the European Middle Ages: there are snippets of stories that resemble fairy tales in a religious context, which Jan Ziolkowski brilliantly discusses in Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies
- From the Arabic world, because hello, The Arabian Nights
But again: fairy tales crystallized as a coherent genre during the early modern period in Europe. Major players were Italian, French, and German writers and wow I wish I could go into that history in this post but it’s already too long. SurLaLune’s early history of fairy tales covers much of this ground.
Okay just kidding one brief detour into history: the reason we have the term fairy tale at all is the fault of the French, whose fad for conte de fée – literally tales of the fairies – in the late 17th and early 18th centuries did, in fact, feature tales with fairies in them (fairy godmothers, fairy villains, and so on). But not all fairy tales have (or need to have) fairies in them. As I discuss in my post about tale types, this is a huge reason why scholars look at the underlying structural components of a narrative’s plot in order to group similar tales together, since it doesn’t matter if a magic fish or fairy godmother is helping Cinderella get to the ball so long as the action is performed.
The corollary to that last point (that not all fairy tales have fairies in them) is that not all stories with fairies should be classified as fairy tales. When told as potentially true, they’re more likely to be legends.
Because fairy tales cover so much territory and so many time periods, they’re fair game for a number of academic disciplinary approaches. As a folklorist of course I’m biased; I think we get first claim on studying fairy tales due to their roots in oral tradition. Fairy-tale studies has become its own interdisciplinary field, but we all bring distinctive theories and methods to the table depending on where we got our start and our academic training. For instance, Andrew Teverson takes a literary approach to defining fairy tales which is nonetheless inclusive in Fairy Tale (The New Critical Idiom).
As a generic form, the fairy tale is a many-tongued genre, a cultural palimpsest; because even as it speaks of the time in which it is told, it carries the memory of the other times in which it has circulated and flourished. It bears the print of the hand that holds it, but under that print it carries the marks of earlier hands. Thus as we read the stories of Perrault, we see in these stories the lineaments of older, Italian storytellers; as we enter German forests with the Brothers Grimm, we are able to glimpse the lines of human transit that tie nineteenth-century Germany to eleventh-century India; and as we read the polished literary adaptations of Victorian Englishmen, we hear, or think we hear, an echo of feudal roots. The fairy tale may, as a result, seem timeless, but it seems timeless not because it has not history, but because it has too many histories, because it is plural and many voiced. (5)
I really like Teverson’s framing here. Now for his actual definition:
A fairy tale typically deals with the experiences of a youthful protagonist engaged on a journey, or in a series of tasks and trials, that has been necessitated by a change in his or her status: the death of a parent, or the loss of a magical object. This journey or series of tasks takes place in an imaginative environment, peopled by strange beings and wonderful creatures, some of which prove helpful, and some of which become hazardous threats. Almost invariably, the progress of the hero is hindered by the actions of a dangerous opponent, such as a witch, an ogre, a wolf, a tyrant king, or a malignant stepmother, but equally invariably (that is to say, almost but not quite) the hero or heroine overcomes his or her opponent, completes the journey or the set of tasks, and in so doing, secures for himself or herself a more comfortable life, and a more socially eminent position than seemed possible at the start of the story. Not all fairy tales fulfil [sic] exactly this pattern, and the phenomenal imaginative richness of this genre is such that even when this pattern is fulfilled, it takes such varied and inventive forms that it is sometimes difficult to ma a fairy tale onto this bald schema. (32-33)
The upsetting and restoration of balance in the protagonist’s life is one reason why I state that fairy tales usually begin with the dissolution or disruption of the nuclear family, and end with either the establishment of a new one or the fixing of the old one. As Bengt Holbek writes in his monumental must-read book Interpretation of fairy tales: Danish folklore in a[n] European perspective (FF communications), fairy tales track the development and entwining of two protagonists through a series of clustered plot points or moves. Three of these major changes are noted in my bulleted section below.
Further, fairy tales communicate about life changes using magical elements as a code. Holbek notes:
The symbolic elements of fairy tales convey emotional impressions of beings, phenomena, and events in the real world, organized in the form of fictional narrative sequences which allow the narrator to speak of the problems, hopes, and ideals of the community. (435)
Thus, despite their clear departures from reality in many ways, fairy tales always relate back to the cultural context in which they’re being told (or written). And I think that’s a good point for me to end on, since for all the flights of fancy we see in fairy tales, they makes the most sense when interpreted in context.
Whew, okay, this was a lot of information. Here’s the TL;DR version. When I teach fairy tales in a classroom setting, I emphasize the following points:
- Fairy tales are:
- Fictional narratives about magic, quests, and transformations
- Oral and literary; elite and mass/folk
- About changes in the main characters
- From youthful to mature
- From low-status to high-status
- From single to married
- Fairy tales are NOT:
- Universal, timeless, or ageless
- Just for children
- Anonymous (usually)
In other words, fairy tales comprise a complex genre with ever-shifting terrain, so precision with language (and when referring to translations and editions) is super important. Fairy tales have their own history, and while the genre is quite flexible and expansive, it’s not so general as to be a vague or meaningless term.
I only got to cite a few of the amazing scholars who make up our community in this post, so make sure to check out the works of Maria Tatar, Donald Haase, Lewis Seifert, Pauline Greenhill, Kay Turner, and (with some reservations if it’s published after 2000) Ruth Bottigheimer. Cool folks in my generation of scholars include Linda Lee, Veronica Schanoes, Christy Williams, Brittany Warman, and Sara Cleto. There are more, too, but I’ve gone on too long already in this post, arg!
Finally, here’s a list of previous blog posts I’ve made about fairy tales. I especially recommend checking out the first one, as it lays out some important research principles for people just starting to learn how to talk about fairy tales (in a way that won’t come across as offensively naive or colonizing to fairy-tale scholars and folklorists):
- How Not To Be An Ass While Studying Fairy Tales
- Hello Blog! Let’s Talk about Fairy Tales (one of the first posts on my blog; also contains a lot of info about how we classify fairy tales)
- Process, Revision, Meaning, and Fairy Tales (which was the introduction to my master’s thesis on father-daughter incest fairy tales)
- Why the Translation You Read of a Fairy-Tale Collection Matters
- ICFA 37: Wonder Tales (Conference Recap)
- Fairy Tale Story Time with Auntie Jeana
- Hans Christian Andersen on Art
- The Grimms on Censorship
- Fairy Tales and #TwitterTypes