Gustave Doré's illustration to the European fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
A fairy tale or fairy story is a fictional story that usually features folkloric characters (such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, witches, giants, and talking animals) and enchantments, often involving a far-fetched sequence of events. In modern-day parlance, the term is also used to describe to something blessed with unusual happiness, as in "fairy tale ending" (a happy ending) or "fairy tale romance", though not all fairy tales end happily. Colloquially, a "fairy tale" or "fairy story" can also mean any far-fetched story.
In cultures where demons and witches are perceived as real, fairy tales may merge into legendary narratives, where the context is perceived by teller and hearers as having historical actuality. However, unlike legends and epics, they usually do not contain more than superficial references to religion and actual places, persons, and events; they take place "once upon a time" rather than in actual times.
The history of the fairy tale is particularly difficult to trace, because only the literary forms can survive. Still, the evidence of literary works at least indicates that fairy tales have existed for thousands of years, although not perhaps recognized as a genre; the name "fairy tale" was first ascribed to them by Madame d'Aulnoy. Literary fairy tales are found over the centuries throughout the world, and when folklorists collected them, they found fairy tales in every culture. Fairy tales, and works derived from fairy tales, are still written today.
The older fairy tales were intended for an audience of adults as well as children, but they were associated with children as early as the writings of the précieuses; the Brothers Grimm titled their collection Children's and Household Tales, and the link with children has only grown stronger with time.
Folklorists have classified fairy tales in various ways. Among the most notable are the Aarne-Thompson classification system , and the morphological analysis of Vladimir Propp. Other folklorists have interpreted the tales' significance, but no school has been definitively established for the meaning of the tales.
The Russian tale Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf features no fairies, but a talking wolf.
Although the fairy tale is a clearly distinct genre, the definition that marks a work as a fairy tale is a source of considerable dispute. Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folktale, criticized the common distinction between "fairy tales" and "animal tales" on the grounds that many tales contained both fantastic elements and animals. Nevertheless, to select works for his analysis, Propp used all Russian folktales classified as Aarne-Thompson 300-749-in a cataloguing system that made such a distinction-to gain a clear set of tales. His own analysis identified fairy tales by their plot elements, but that in itself has been criticized, as the analysis does not lend itself easily to tales that do not involve a quest, and furthermore, the same plot elements are found in non-fairy tale works.
One universally agreed-on factor is that the nature of a tale does not depend on whether fairies appear in it. Obviously, many people, including Angela Carter in her introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales, have noted that a great many of so-called fairy tales do not feature fairies at all. This is partly because of the history of the English term "fairy tale" which derives from the French phrase contes de fée, and was first used in the collection of Madame D'Aulnoy in 1697.
As Stith Thompson and Carter herself point out, talking animals and the presence of magic seem to be more common to the fairy tale than fairies themselves. However, the mere presence of animals that talk does not make a tale a fairy tale, especially when the animal is clearly a mask on a human face, as in fables.
J. R. R. Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", agreed with the exclusion of "fairies" from the definition, and defined fairy tales as stories about the adventures of men in Faërie, the land of fairies, fairytale princess dwarves, elves, and not only other magical species but many other marvels. However, in the same essay, by that very definition, he excludes tales that are often considered fairy tales, citing as an example The Monkey's Heart, which Andrew Lang included in The Lilac Fairy Book. Other tales that include no magic but are often classified as fairy tales include What Is the Fastest Thing in the World? and Catskin.
Some folklorists prefer to use the German term Märchen to refer to the genre, a practice given weight by the definition of Thompson in his 1977 edition of The Folktale: "a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land, humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses." The characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal: princesses and goose-girls; youngest sons and gallant princes; ogres, giants, dragons, and trolls; wicked stepmothers and false heroes; fairy godmothers and other magical helpers, often talking horses, or foxes, or birds; glass mountains; and prohibitions and breaking of prohibitions. Italo Calvino cited the fairy tale as a prime example of "quickness" in literature, because of the economy and concision of the tales.
Wilhelm (left) and Jacob Grimm (right) from an 1855 painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann.
Originally, stories we would now call fairy tales were merely a kind of tale, not marked out as a separate genre. The German term "Märchen" means, literally, "tale" rather than any specific type. The genre itself was first marked out by writers of the Renaissance, who began to define a genre of tales, and became stabilized through the works of many writers, becoming an unquestioned genre in the works of the Brothers Grimm. In this evolution, the name was coined when the précieuses took up writing literary stories; Madame d'Aulnoy invented the term contes de fée, or fairy tale.
Prior to the definition of the genre of fantasy, many works that would now be classified as fantasy were termed "fairy tales", including Tolkien's The Hobbit, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Indeed, Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" includes discussions of world-building and is considered a vital part of fantasy criticism. Although fantasy, particularly in the sub-genre fairytale fantasy, draws heavily on fairy tale motifs, the genres are now regarded as distinct.
A picture of Mother Goose by Gustave Doré: reading written (literary) fairy tales.
The fairy tale, told orally, is a sub-class of the folktale. Many writers have written in the form of the fairy tale. These are the literary fairy tales, or Kunstmärchen. The oldest forms, from Panchatantra to the Pentamerone, show considerable reworking from the oral form. The Brothers Grimm were among the first to try to preserve the features of oral tales. Yet the stories printed under the Grimm name have been considerably reworked to fit the written form.
Literary fairy tales and oral fairy tales freely exchanged plots, motifs, and elements with each other and with the tales of foreign lands. Many 18th century folklorists attempted to recover the "pure" folktale, uncontaminated by literary versions. Yet while oral fairy tales likely existed for thousands of years prior to the literary forms, there is no pure folktale. And each literary fairy tale draws on folk traditions, if only in parody. This makes it impossible to trace forms of transmission of a fairy tale. Oral story-tellers have been known to read literary fairy tales to increase their own stock of stories and treatments.
Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilissa the Beautiful.
The oral tradition of the fairy tale came long before the written page. Tales were told or enacted dramatically, rather than written down, and handed down from generation to generation. Because of this, the history of their development is necessarily obscure. The oldest known written fairy tales stem from ancient Egypt, c. 1300 BC, and fairy tales appear, now and again, in written literature throughout literate cultures, as in The Golden Ass, which includes Cupid and Psyche (Roman, 100-200 AD),or the Panchatantra (India 200-300 AD), but it is unknown to what extent these reflect the actual folk tales even of their own time. The stylistic evidence indicates that these, and many later collections, reworked folk tales into literary forms. What they do show is that the fairy tale has ancient roots, older than the Arabian Nights collection of magical tales (c. 1500 AD), such as the Vikram and the Vampire, and Bel and the Dragon. Besides such collections and individual tales, in China, Taoist philosophers such as Liezi and Zhuangzi recounted fairy tales in their philosophical works. In the broader definition of the genre, the first Western famous fairy tales are those of the Greek Aesop (6th century BC).
Allusions to fairy tales appear plentifully in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and the plays of William Shakespeare. King Lear can be considered a literary variant of fairy tales such as Water and Salt and Cap O' Rushes. The tale itself resurfaced in Western literature in the 16th and 17th centuries, with The Facetious Nights of Straparola by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (Italy, 1550 and 1553), which contains many fairy tales in its inset tales, and the Neapolitan tales of Giambattista Basile (Naples, 1634-6), which are all fairy tales. Carlo Gozzi made use of many fairy tale motifs among his Commedia dell'Arte scenarios, including among them one based on The Love For Three Oranges (1761). Simultaneously, Pu Songling, in China, included many fairy tales in his collection, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (published posthumously, 1766). The fairy tale itself became popular among the précieuses of upper-class France (1690-1710), and among the tales told in that time were the ones of La Fontaine and the Contes of Charles Perrault (1697), who fixed the forms of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Although Straparola's, Basile's and Perrault's collections contain the oldest known forms of various fairy tales, on the stylistic evidence, all the writers rewrote the tales for literary effect.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones painted The Sleeping Beauty.
The first collectors to attempt to preserve not only the plot and characters of the tale, but also the style in which they were preserved, were the Brothers Grimm, collecting German fairy tales; ironically enough, this meant although their first edition (1812 & 1815) remains a treasure for folklorists, they rewrote the tales in later editions to make them more acceptable, which ensured their sales and the later popularity of their work.
Such literary forms did not merely draw from the folktale, but also influenced folktales in turn. The Brothers Grimm rejected several tales for their collection, though told orally to them by Germans, because the tales derived from Perrault, and they concluded they were thereby French and not German tales; an oral version of Bluebeard was thus rejected, and the tale of Briar Rose, clearly related to Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, was included only because Jacob Grimm convinced his brother that the figure of Brynhild proved that the sleeping princess was authentically German folklore.
This consideration of whether to keep Sleeping Beauty reflected a belief common among folklorists of the 19th century: that the folk tradition preserved fairy tales in forms from pre-history except when "contaminated" by such literary forms, leading people to tell inauthentic tales. The rural, illiterate, and uneducated peasants, if suitably isolated, were the folk and would tell pure folk tales. Sometimes they regarded fairy tales as a form of fossil, the remnants of a once-perfect tale. However, further research has concluded that fairy tales never had a fixed form, and regardless of literary influence, the tellers constantly altered them for their own purposes.
"Tấm Cám" Silk painting by Yên Hòa: the Vietnamese fairy tale The Story of Tam and Cam..
The work of the Brothers Grimm influenced other collectors, both inspiring them to collect tales and leading them to similarly believe, in a spirit of romantic nationalism, that the fairy tales of a country were particularly representative of it, to the neglect of cross-cultural influence. Among those influenced were the Russian Alexander Afanasyev (first published in 1866), the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe ( first published in 1845), the Romanian Petre Ispirescu (first published in 1874), the English Joseph Jacobs (first published in 1890), and Jeremiah Curtin, an American who collected Irish tales (first published in 1890). Ethnographers collected fairy tales over the world, finding similar tales in Africa, the Americas, and Australia; Andrew Lang was able to draw on not only the written tales of Europe and Asia, but those collected by ethnographers, to fill his "coloured" fairy books series. They also encouraged other collectors of fairy tales, as when Yei Theodora Ozaki created a collection, Japanese Fairy Tales (1908), after encouragement from Lang. Simultaneously, writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald continued the tradition of literary fairy tales. Andersen's work sometimes drew on old folktales, but more often deployed fairytale motifs and plots in new tales. MacDonald incorporated fairytale motifs both in new literary fairy tales, such as The Light Princess, and in works of the genre that would become fantasy, as in The Princess and the Goblin or Lilith.
Two theories of origins have attempted to explain the common elements in fairy tales found spread over continents. One is that a single point of origin generated any given tale, which then spread over the centuries; the other is that such fairy tales stem from common human experience and therefore can appear separately in many different origins.
Fairy tales with very similar plots, characters, and motifs are found spread across many different cultures. Many researchers hold this to be caused by the spread of such tales, as people repeat tales they have heard in foreign lands, although the oral nature makes it impossible to trace the route except by inference. Folklorists have attempted to determine the origin by internal evidence, which can not always be clear; Joseph Jacobs, comparing the Scottish tale The Ridere of Riddles with the version collected by the Brothers Grimm, The Riddle, noted that in The Ridere of Riddles one hero ends up polygamously married, which might point to an ancient custom, but in The Riddle, the simpler riddle might argue greater antiquity.
Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated in a 1927 story anthologyFolklorists of the "Finnish" (or historical-geographical) school attempted to place fairy tales to their origin, with inconclusive results. Sometimes influence, especially within a limited area and time, is clearer, as when considering the influence of Perrault's tales on those collected by the Brothers Grimm. Little Briar-Rose appears to stem from Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, as the Grimms' tale appears to be the only independent German variant. Similarly, the close agreement between the opening of Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood and Perrault's tale points to an influence-although Grimms' version adds a different ending (perhaps derived from The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids).
Fairy tales also tend to take on the color of their location, through the choice of motifs, the style in which they are told, and the depiction of character and local color.
Fairy tales also tend to take on the color of their location, through the choice of motifs, the style in which they are told, and the depiction of character and local color.
Originally, adults were the audience of a fairy tale just as often as children. Literary fairy tales appeared in works intended for adults, but in the 19th and 20th centuries the fairy tale came to be associated with children's literature.
The précieuses, including Madame d'Aulnoy, intended their works for adults, but regarded their source as the tales that servants, or other women of lower class, would tell to children. Indeed, a novel of that time, depicting a countess's suitor offering to tell such a tale, has the countess exclaim that she loves fairy tales as if she were still a child. Among the late précieuses, Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont redacted a version of Beauty and the Beast for children, and it is her tale that is best known today. The Brothers Grimm titled their collection Children's and Household Tales and rewrote their tales after complaints that they were not suitable for children.
Cutlery for children. Detail showing fairy-tale scenes: Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.
In the modern era, fairy tales were altered so that they could be read to children. The Brothers Grimm concentrated mostly on eliminating sexual references; Rapunzel, in the first edition, revealed the prince's visits by asking why her clothing had grown tight, thus letting the witch deduce that she was pregnant, but in subsequent editions carelessly revealed that it was easier to pull up the prince than the witch. On the other hand, in many respects, violence - particularly when punishing villains - was increased. Other, later, revisions cut out violence; J. R. R. Tolkien noted that The Juniper Tree often had its cannibalistic stew cut out in a version intended for children. The moralizing strain in the Victorian era altered the classical tales to teach lessons, as when George Cruikshank rewrote Cinderella in 1854 to contain temperance themes. His acquaintance Charles Dickens, protested "In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected."
Psychoanalysts such as Bruno Bettelheim, who regarded the cruelty of older fairy tales as indicative of psychological conflicts, strongly criticized this expurgation, on the grounds that it weakened their usefulness to both children and adults as ways of symbolically resolving issues.
The adaptation of fairy tales for children continues. Walt Disney's influential Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was largely (although certainly not solely) intended for the children's market. The anime Magical Princess Minky Momo draws on the fairy tale Momotarō.
John Bauer's illustration of trolls and a princess from a collection of Swedish fairy tales.
In contemporary literature, many authors have used the form of fairy tales for various reasons, such as examining the human condition from the simple framework a fairytale provides. Some authors seek to recreate a sense of the fantastic in a contemporary discourse. Some writers use fairy tale forms for modern issues; this can include using the psychological dramas implicit in the story, as when Robin McKinley retold Donkeyskin as the novel Deerskin, with emphasis on the abusive treatment the father of the tale dealt to his daughter. Sometimes, especially in children's literature, fairy tales are retold with a twist simply for comic effect, such as The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka. A common comic motif is a world where all the fairy tales take place, and the characters are aware of their role in the story.
Other authors may have specific motives, such as multicultural or feminist reevaluations of predominantly Eurocentric masculine-dominated fairy tales, implying critique of older narratives. The figure of the damsel in distress has been particularly attacked by many feminist critics. Examples of narrative reversal rejecting this figure include The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch, a picture book aimed at children in which a princess rescues a prince, or Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, which retells a number of fairytales from a female point of view.
One interesting use of the genre occurred in a military technology journal named Defense AT&L, which published an article in the form of a fairytale titled Optimizing Bi-Modal Signal/Noise Ratios. Written by Maj. Dan Ward (USAF), the story uses a fairy named Garble to represent breakdowns in communication between operators and technology developers. Ward's article was heavily influenced by George MacDonald.
Other notable figures who have employed fairy tales include Oscar Wilde, A. S. Byatt, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, Kate Bernheimer, Espido Freire, Tanith Lee, James Thurber, Robin McKinley, Kelly Link, Donna Jo Napoli, Cameron Dokey, Robert Bly, Gail Carson Levine, Jasper Fforde and many others.
1981 paperback edition.
It may be hard to lay down the rule between fairy tales and fantasies that use fairy tale motifs, or even whole plots, but the distinction is commonly made, even within the works of a single author: George MacDonald's Lilith and Phantastes are regarded as fantasies, while his "The Light Princess", "The Golden Key", and "The Wise Woman" are commonly called fairy tales. The most notable distinction is that fairytale fantasies, like other fantasies, make use of novelistic writing conventions of prose, characterization, or setting.
Fairy tales have been enacted dramatically; records exist of this in commedia dell'arte, and later in pantomime. The advent of cinema has meant that such stories could be presented in a more plausible manner, with the use of special effects and animation; the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 was a ground-breaking film for fairy tales and, indeed, fantasy in general. Disney's influence helped establish this genre as children's movies, despite the fact that Snow White, as well as the company's other early feature-length films, were originally intended for adults as well, and has been blamed for simplification of fairy tales ending in situations where everything goes right, as opposed to the pain and suffering - and sometimes unhappy endings - of many folk fairy tales.
Many filmed fairy tales have been made primarily for children, from Disney's later works to Aleksandr Rou's retelling of Vasilissa the Beautiful, the first Soviet film to use Russian folk tales in a big-budget feature. Others have used the conventions of fairy tales to create new stories with sentiments more relevant to contemporary life, as in Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, My Neighbor Totoro and the films of Michel Ocelot.
Other works have retold familiar fairy tales in a darker, more horrific or psychological variant aimed primarily at adults. Notable examples are Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and The Company of Wolves, based on an Angela Carter's retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.Likewise, Princess Mononoke and Pan's Labyrinth create new stories in this genre from fairy-tale and folklore motifs.
In comics and animated TV series, The Sandman (Vertigo), Revolutionary Girl Utena, Princess Tutu, Fables (Vertigo) and MÄR are all notable examples. However, partly due to the demands of a longer narrative, all of these cross over into fairytale fantasy.
Beauty and the Beast, illustration by Warwick Goble.
Any comparison of fairy tales quickly discovers that many fairy tales have features in common with each other. Two of the most influential classifications are those of Antti Aarne, as revised by Stith Thompson into the Aarne-Thompson classification system, and Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale.
This system groups fairy and folk tales according to their overall plot. Common, identifying features are picked out to decide which tales are grouped together. Much therefore depends on what features are regarded as decisive.
For instance, tales like Cinderella - in which a persecuted heroine, with the help of the fairy godmother or similar magical helper, attends an event (or three) in which she wins the love of a prince and is identified as his true bride - are classified as type 510, the persecuted heroine. Some such tales are The Wonderful Birch, Aschenputtel, Katie Woodencloak, The Story of Tam and Cam, Ye Xian, Cap O' Rushes, Catskin, Fair, Brown and Trembling, Finette Cendron, Allerleirauh, and Tattercoats.
Further analysis of the tales shows that in Cinderella, The Wonderful Birch, The Story of Tam and Cam, Ye Xian, and Aschenputtel, the heroine is persecuted by her stepmother and refused permission to go to the ball or other event, and in Fair, Brown and Trembling and Finette Cendron by her sisters and other female figures, and these are grouped as 510A; while in Cap O' Rushes, Catskin, and Allerleirauh, the heroine is driven from home by her father's persecutions, and must take work in a kitchen elsewhere, and these are grouped as 510B. But in Katie Woodencloak, she is driven from home by her stepmother's persecutions and must take service in a kitchen elsewhere, and in Tattercoats, she is refused permission to go to the ball by her grandfather. Given these features common with both types of 510, Katie Woodencloak is classified as 510A because the villain is the stepmother, and Tattercoats as 510B because the grandfather fills the father's role.
This system has its weaknesses in the difficulty of having no way to classify subportions of a tale as motifs. Rapunzel is type 310 (The Maiden in the Tower), but it opens with a child being demanded in return for stolen food, as does Puddocky; but Puddocky is not a Maiden in the Tower tale, while The Canary Prince, which opens with a jealous stepmother, is.
It also lends itself to emphasis on the common elements, to the extent that the folklorist describes The Black Bull of Norroway as the same story as Beauty and the Beast. This can be useful as a shorthand but can also erase the coloring and details of a story.
Father Frost acts as a donor in the Russian fairy tale Father Frost, testing the heroine before giving her riches.
Vladimir Propp specifically studied a collection of Russian fairy tales, but his analysis has been found useful for the tales of other countries.
Having criticized Aarne-Thompson type analysis for ignoring what motifs did in stories, and because the motifs used were not clearly distinct, he analyzed the tales for the function each character and action fulfilled and concluded that a tale was composed of thirty-one elements and eight character types. While the elements were not all required for all tales, when they appeared they did so in an invariant order - except that each individual element might be negated twice, so that it would appear three times, as when, in Brother and Sister, the brother resists drinking from enchanted streams twice, so that it is the third that enchants him.
One such element is the donor who gives the hero magical assistance, often after testing him.In The Golden Bird, the talking fox tests the hero by warning him against entering an inn and, after he succeeds, helps him find the object of his quest; in The Boy Who Drew Cats, the priest advised the hero to stay in small places at night, which protects him from an evil spirit; in Cinderella, the fairy godmother gives Cinderella the dresses she needs to attend the ball, as their mothers' spirits do in Bawang Putih Bawang Merah and The Wonderful Birch; in The Fox Sister, a Buddhist monk gives the brothers magical bottles to protect against the fox spirit. The roles can be more complicated.In The Red Ettin, the role is split into the mother - who offers the hero the whole of a journey cake with her curse or half with her blessing - and when he takes the half, a fairy who gives him advice; in Mr Simigdáli, the sun, the moon, and the stars all give the heroine a magical gift. Characters who are not always the donor can act like the donor.In Kallo and the Goblins, the villain goblins also give the heroine gifts, because they are tricked; in Schippeitaro, the evil cats betray their secret to the hero, giving him the means to defeat them. Other fairy tales, such as The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, do not feature the donor.
Analogies have been drawn between this and the analysis of myths into the Hero's journey.
This analysis has been criticized for ignoring tone, mood, characters and, indeed, anything that differentiates one fairy tale from another.
Bluebeard gives his wife a key-a motif specific to that variant of that fairy tale.
The erotic permeates many fairy tales. Bettelheim, in his book The uses of enchantment, highlights sexuality in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as sexual symbols in other tales. He also points out that the Brothers Grimm adapted many fairy tales to their audiences' taste by removing sexual references. Clair Bloom in her collection Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales notes that many Danish fairy tales have explicit sex in them, for instance in The Girl Clad in a Mousekin, and Temptation.
There have also been modern erotic adaptations of fairy tales.
Many variants, especially those intended for children, have had morals attached. Perrault concluded his versions with one, although not always completely moral: Cinderella concludes with the observation that her beauty and character would have been useless without her godmother, reflecting the importance of social connections.
Many fairy tales have been interpreted for their (purported) significance. One mythological interpretation claimed that many fairy tales, including Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and The Frog King, all were solar myths; this mode of interpretation is rather less popular now.Many have also been subjected to Freudian,