What Exactly is a Fairy Tale, Anyway?

A problem I’ve noticed a lot, when discussing fairy tales with others, is that many people don’t quite seem to know what that term really means.  Indeed, if you haven’t spent time researching and rereading fairy tales, as well as learning their origins, it might be difficult to truly know.  For this reason, I’ve done my best to explain what this term means to me, as well as all the grey areas that may crop up.

 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traveled around and recorded folktales from the oral tradition.

True Fairy Tales

Generally speaking, fairy tales have no discernible authors and are deeply rooted in oral tradition.  Certainly, someone must have invented them at some point in the past, but they spread by word of mouth and became ingrained in cultures.  These stories were passed down through generations and evolved as they spread, which led to many versions of some of them.  For instance, Cinderella, Allerleirauh, Cap ‘o Rushes, Donkeyskin, The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter, Catskin, The She-bear and many others are all different versions of the same (or an extremely similar) story, and are all classified as Aarne Thompson fairy tale type 510B (the persecuted heroine).  By the time they were actually collected and penned by people like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Charles Perrault, no one could be sure where any of them had truly come from.

Half-Fairy Tales

This is a term I use to classify things written by people like Hans Christian Andersen and Madame d’Aulnoy.  This is because, although we can trace specific stories back to them, they were literally attempting to create new fairy tales.  They were inspired by preexisting folk tales and wanted to create some of their own.  Not only that, but some of their stories are based on fairy tales that existed before; a good example of this is “The Princess and the Pea,” which Andersen claims to have heard as a child.  Although these are not fairy tales in the truest sense of the word (Although inspired by the oral tradition, they did not emerge from it.), it is difficult to completely separate them from the genre, especially when some of them do have roots in it.

Common Misconceptions

That being said, the number of adaptions of certain stories (both by Disney and otherwise) has led some people to mistake them for fairy tales.  The following is a list of stories that are often incorrectly assumed to be fairy tales.

Although it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what is a fairy tale and what is not, the easiest way to decide is by doing a little digging; if you can find an author, it is not a true fairy tale.  Certainly, there are some in-between areas where people like Andersen and d’Aulnoy are concerned, but these are few and far between.

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Once Upon a Webcomic: Ryan North Strikes Again

Some of you may recall last week’s Once Upon a Webcomic on Ryan North’s “Dinosaur Comics.”  Apparently, since that time, Ryan North has become determined to blow my mind.  His last three webcomic posts have been a fantastic series on fairy tales.

The first of these retells “Little Red Riding Hood” including some of the more disturbing details from older versions of the story.  Yes, in some versions, Little Red actually did eat her dead grandmother and escape because she told the wolf she had to poop and didn’t want to have an accident in the bed.

In his next comic, North addresses “Sleeping Beauty.”  Some of the information he gives us is true; the Prince really did rape the title character, causing her to give birth to the twins who woke her from her slumber.  Of course, he also provides us with some false information.  “Sleeping Beauty,” while it describes the character, is not her name.  She has been known, in different versions of the tale, as Talia, Aurora, Briar Rose, and more.

Finally, North writes a comic strip in which T-Rex tries to write his own less disturbing fairy tale.  Of course, he fails when he creates a story with a gender-confused protagonist (reminiscent of Ozma) who uses magic to enable her friends to cannibalize an evil wizard.

With any luck, Ryan North will keep reflecting on fairy tales in their grisly, original forms and make comic strips about even more of the old favorites.

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