Fairy tale  

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Fairy tales are more than true -
not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

--G. K. Chesterton

"Rapunzel ! Rapunzel ! Let down your hair."

Related e



A fairy tale (pronounced /ˈfeəriˌteɪl/) is a type of short story that typically features European folkloric fantasy characters, such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, dwarves, giants, mermaids, or gnomes, and usually magic or enchantments. Fairy tales may be distinguished from other folk narratives such as legends (which generally involve belief in the veracity of the events described) and explicitly moral tales, including beast fables.

In less technical contexts, the term is also used to describe 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 farfetched story or tall tale; it's used especially of any story that not only isn't true, but couldn't possibly be true.

In cultures where demons and witches are perceived as real, fairy tales may merge into legends, where the narrative is perceived both by teller and hearers as being grounded in historical truth. However, unlike legends and epics, they usually do not contain more than superficial references to religion and actual places, people, and events; they take place once upon a time rather than in actual times.

Fairy tales are found in oral and in literary form. 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 in the late 17th century. Many of today's fairy tales have evolved from centuries-old stories that have appeared, with variations, in multiple cultures around the world. 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. The Aarne-Thompson classification system and the morphological analysis of Vladimir Propp are among the most notable. Other folklorists have interpreted the tales' significance, but no school has been definitively established for the meaning of the tales.



Although in the nineteenth and twentieth century the fairy tale came to be associated with children's literature, adults were originally as likely as children to be the audience of the fairy tale. The fairy tale was part of an oral tradition; tales were narrated orally, rather than written down, and handed down from generation to generation.

Despite the name, there never appears to have been a time where "fairy tales" depicted solely tales of encounters with fairies. Fairy tales were about princes and princesses, combat, adventure, society, and romance. Fairies had a secondary role.

In later versions, moral lessons and happy endings were more common, and the villain was usually punished. In the modern era, fairy tales were altered, usually with violence removed, so they could be read to children (who according to a common modern sentiment should not hear about violence).

Sometimes fairy tales are simply miraculous entertainments, but often they are disguised morality tales. This is true for the Brothers Grimm Kinder- und Hausmärchen, and much of the drily witty, dead-pan, social criticism beneath the surface of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, which influenced Roald Dahl.

The fairy tale has ancient roots, older than the "Arabian Nights" collection of magical tales, in antiquity: Cupid and Psyche, Bel and the Dragon. Fairy tales resurfaced in literature in the 17th century, with the Neapolitan tales of Giambattista Basile and the later Contes of Charles Perrault, who fixed the forms of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Such literary forms did not merely draw from the folktale, but fed back into it. The Brothers Grimm rejected several tales for their collection, though told orally to them, because the tales derived from Perrault. The rediscovery of a manuscript of Cupid and Psyche quickly produced variants of that tale in regions where the tale had been unknown before.

An extensive collection of European fairy tales were published by Andrew Lang in a series of books: The Red Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and so forth. These provide some excellent examples of the genre.

According to a 2004 poll of 1,200 children by UCI Cinemas, the most popular fairy tales (in the USA) are:

  1. Cinderella
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Hansel and Gretel
  4. Rapunzel
  5. Little Red Riding Hood
  6. Town Musicians

In addition, the Arabian Nights stories like Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves are often thought to be fairy tales themselves.

Contemporary 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. 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. 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.

Other notable figures who have employed fairy tales include A. S. Byatt, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, Kate Bernheimer, Tanith Lee, James Thurber, Kelly Link,Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, Robert Bly, Gail Carson Levine and many others.

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.

Fairy tales are more than true -
not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
G. K. Chesterton

Motifs in fairy tales

Any analysis 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, Cap O' Rushes, Catskin, Fair, Brown and Trembling, Allerleirauh, and Tattercoats.

Further analysis of the tales shows that in Cinderella, The Wonderful Birch, 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, by her sister, another female figure, 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 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.


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, 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, and this function can be independent of any appearance of the donor. 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 Cinderella, the fairy godmother gives Cinderella the dresses she needs to attend the ball; 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 The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, three separate animals pledge the hero their aid in return for his aid. Other fairy tales, such as The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear, 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 at all that differentiates one fairy tale from another..


Many fairy tales have been interpreted for their (purported) significiance. 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, Jungian, and other psychological analysis, but no mode of interpretation has ever established itself definitively.

Specific analyses have often been criticized for lending great importance to motifs that are not, in fact, integral to the tale. In variants of Bluebeard, the wife's curiosity is betrayed by a blood-stained key, by an egg's breaking, or by the singing of a rose she wore, without affecting the tale, but interpretations of specific variants have claimed that the precise object is integral to the tale.


Authors and works:

See also

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