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.

Disney Princesses No More?

The L. A. Times reported in Nov. 2010 that Disney will no longer be producing their famous retold fairy tale films, as many of today’s children find them uncool, and the films have little appeal for boys.  Although this statement was later retracted, Disney’s potential discontinuance of their fairy tale movies could have a large impact on fairy tales themselves.  There would be potential for results both negative and positive.  I’ve broken these into pros and cons for easy reading.

Pros: Although it is perfectly natural for fairy tales to evolve over time, many of the fairy tales Disney has tackled over the years may have been changed a little too much, and many of the most interesting details have been lost.  All of the gore has been edited out of these stories for today’s children.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think if Ariel survives and marries the prince, then she isn’t actually “the Little Mermaid,” and a version of “Rapunzel” where no one gets blinded hardly seems likes Rapunzel at all.  Generations of children have missed out on hearing these stories in their entirety, and the end of Disney fairy tales might mean a return to the originals, either through reading or through another film company willing to more honestly tackle the classics.  Not only that, but the Disneyfication of stories like “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Peter Pan” has led to many people falsely classifying them as fairy tales when, in fact, they are not.  Perhaps, if these beloved stories were less closely associated with actual fairy tales like “Snow White” and “Cinderella,” this confusion could be avoided.

Cons: Disney princess films have done a lot to further the fairy tale genre in our modern society.  Certainly, these tales are a part of shared cultural knowledge leading to constant remakes, but how much of that can be attributed to our exposure to them in their Disney versions?  These movies have been part of childhoods across the globe since the 1937 release of Disney’s “Snow White.”  Certainly, many of these stories had lasted for hundreds of years before Walt Disney ever got his hands on them, but these movies certainly impacted the genre and did their part to extend its already lengthy shelf-life.  I hope that these stories are ingrained enough in our society to be passed down to children long after Disney stops producing fairy tale movies, but it’s possible that Disney has done more to further them than we might imagine.

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