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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Blog Preview: Upcoming Post Ideas

I’ve been brainstorming about my upcoming posts and decided to post a list of them, as a sort of preview.
1. Fairy Tales in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”

Joss Whedon loves making pop-culture references, and fairy tales are no exception to this rule.  I’ve compiled a list of “Buffy“/”Angel” fairy tale references and will post them along with some analysis.

2.  Fairy Tales in “Harry Potter”

J. K. Rowling shows us, in her Harry Potter books, that fairy tales often hold more truth than we imagine.  In fact, she found them so important that she created a whole book of wizarding fairy tales (“The Tales of Beadle the Bard“).  After all, each culture has its own, unique legends and fairy tales.  I will take a look at what these mean in the world of Harry Potter.

3. The Path: A Contemplative Fairy Tale Video Game

I will review “The Path,” a contemplative video game based on the popular fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.”

4. No More Disney Princesses:  Is This Good or Bad?

Disney has decided to stop producing its famously retold versions of classic fairy tales.  I will analyze the situation, discussing its positive and negative effects on the fairy tale medium.

5. Andrew Lang’s Colored Fairy Books

Although these books are out of print, I am lucky enough to have a bunch of them.  I will describe these books and their origins, comparing them to some of their original sources, and updating their sparse Wikipedia story synopses.

6. What are Fairy Tales, Anyway?

In this post, I will explain why “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Wizard of Oz” are not fairy tales.  I will also explain why the works of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame D’Aulnoy are “half fairy tales.”

7. Fairy Tales in Popular Music

Fairy tales, as part of our shared cultural knowledge, are more ingrained in pop-culture than we often realize.  Using song lyrics and clips, I will show how fairy tales have made their way onto all of our mp3 players.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth

Many of us are familiar with director Guillermo del Toro‘s haunting 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth.”  This beautiful film was deeply inspired by fairy tales.  This post will take a closer look at del Toro’s inspiration.

9. King Arthur and Robin Hood as Fairy Tales

In this post, I will show how stories based on actual historical figures can and have evolved into fairy tales.

10. Sondheim: Fairy Tales and Urban Legends

Stephen Sondheim has based several of his hit Broadway musicals on fairy tales and their close cousins, urban legends.  In this post, I will detail the ways in which Sondheim was clearly inspired by these stories, as well as what he did to further and expand them.

My plan is to create all of these posts on my blog, but I can not promise that they will all appear.  If there’s anything on this list that you’re particularly excited to see, feel free to let me know.

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