What is and what isn’t a fairy tale? When in doubt, this blog post helps you with the characteristics of fairy tales.
How do you know if something is a fairy tale?
As a professional storyteller, I have a lot of experience with fairy tales. People ask me questions about whether a story is a fairy tale. Often I find it difficult to answer their questions because my knowledge is primarily intuitive. This blog post helped me to break it down.
Wikipedia writes about fairy tales:
A fairy tale, fairytale, wondertale, magic tale, fairy story or Märchen is an instance of European folklore genre that takes the form of a short story. Such stories typically feature mythical entities (…), and usually magic or enchantments. In most cultures, there is no clear line separating myth from folk or fairy tale; all these together form the literature of preliterate societies.Wikipedia article on ‘Fairy tale’
With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the characteristics of fairy tales.
1. Fairy tales are short stories
Fairy tales are not very long. Why? Because people used to tell them (or read them aloud) and listen to them. There is a limit to how long people can listen to a story.
Most fairy tales are easily told within 15 minutes, and almost all fairy tales can be told in less than one hour.
Longer fairy tales often string several episodes together into one frame story. Examples: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ and the Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was‘ come to mind.
2. Fairy tales contain magic
Fairy tales are magical stories; maybe the most apparent characteristic of fairy tales. It’s safe to say that a fairy tale is only a fairy tale when there is at least some magic in there.
What is magic? Let’s say: everything that does not happen naturally. We will also include ‘religious acts’ here for convenience, although people have different opinions about those.
In some fairy tales, you find users of magic, like witches and wizards. Other times there is a magical transformation. In addition, there are items with magical properties or magical creatures.
N.B.: Not all stories in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales collection are actually fairy tales! There are many fables, legends, nursery rhymes, etc., in there.
3. Fairy tales often feature royalty
Fairy tales often contain kings, queens, princes, or princesses. Or counts, shahs, or sultans. This is not a defining characteristic of fairy tales, but it is true for many of them.
There are a few plausible reasons.
First of all, fairy tales are full of strong contrasts. Contrasts in an oral tale make for a strong telling. The main character is often poor and powerless, so their opposite must be rich and powerful: royalty.
Second, listeners like to hear about royals and their life. Why would a listener want to hear about the humdrum life she feels she lives herself? No, she (or he) wants stories of princes and princesses, wishing that she would become one one day.
Third, the king, the queen, the prince, and the princess are archetypical characters. They have a meaning. Example: When the king has a problem, it can be interpreted as a problem of the inner ruler in the kingdom of our own heart. The fairy tale tells you how it can be solved.
4. Fairy tales champion the little guy
Fairy tales are almost always on the side of the losers, the little ones, the ones nobody sees or cares about.
Cinderella is a well-known example of this. However, there are also a lot of not-so-known fairy tales about literal small people (Thumbling, Thumbelina), about third good-for-nothing sons (Russian wonder tales featuring Ivan), and about insignificant heroes on an adventure (The Brave Little Tailor).
5. Fairy tales are often rags-to-riches stories
The poor girl ends up marrying the prince or king. The simple guy ends up king. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. Most fairy tales end in a happily ever after.
First of all, fairy tales thrive on big contrasts. The changes are always outward and visible. Inner transformation might be there, but outer changes are for sure there. That leaves us with two options: rising from nothing to everything or falling from everything to nothing.
Second, fairy tales connect to their listeners’ dream: becoming more than what they feel they are now: more prosperous, more influential, happier.
6. It’s clear in fairy tales who’s good and who’s evil
Fairy tales characters are either good, evil, or neutral. There is no room for a complicated hero who has good and bad sides.
Remember, fairy tales originated in orally told stories. You can’t flip back to the previous chapter when the story is told live. So it needs to be very clear for all listeners who is the hero and the villain.
7. Fairy tales are detached from time and place
Once upon a time, far, far away in a distant country…
Fairy tales happen in fairy tale time. A time we intuitively know and which often looks conspicuously like the Middle Ages. This also makes fairy tales timeless. They have no connection to history or real-world happenings.
Fairy tales happen in the fairy tale world, although fairy tales often take the background of the country they are from. Usually, there are no clear indications of where the story takes place. However, sometimes there are still hints of sites and landmarks.
8. Fairy tales feature so-called flat characters
An apparent characteristic of fairy tales is that they almost only contain so-called flat characters.
- They are stereotypical: the bad stepmother, the king looking for love, the girl who wants to become a princess.
- They have no complex personality and we don’t get to know much about what is going on inside them.
- They do not experience much character development. If there is inner development, it is always paired with outer changes.
9. Fairy tales are fast paced stories
Fairy tales originating in the oral tradition flow from action to action. Things are constantly happening.
Of course, when people told these tales, they would add more to the story when they saw that their audience was captivated. Every telling was different.
Two people often change the pace in fairy tales.
The first is the editor. For example, many Brothers Grimm fairy tales became longer between subsequent editions, because Wilhelm Grimm was ‘making them better.’
The second is the writer. Writers who composed literary fairy tales could wax on too long. Their tales did not need to hold the attention of listeners.
10. Fairy tales often feature the ‘rule of three’
Although I would not call this a defining characteristic of fairy tales, you will find the rule of three in many fairy tales.
Three sons, three quests, three magical items. Three times Rumpelstiltskin spins the gold for the girl who will have to give him her baby.
Discover more about numbers in fairy tales here:
Fairy tale or not? Using the characteristics of fairy tales
So, let’s look at some practical questions. Using the characteristics of fairy tales outlined above, are these stories fairy tales?
Is Alice in Wonderland a fairy tale?
Alice in Wonderland is not a fairy tale, despite what the author Lewis Carroll claimed. It is a children’s book, not a short story. Where fairy tales have an inner logic and consistency, Alice in Wonderland is filled with dreamlike chaos and is seen as an example of the literary nonsense genre.
Is Brave a fairy tale?
Brave (a movie by Pixar) is not a fairy tale, although it contains many fairy tale elements, and its writer, Brenda Chapman, considers it one. However, it has a clear set place (Scotland) and an elaborate story arc, featuring round multifaceted characters and focusing on their inner development.
Is Cinderella a fairy tale?
Cinderella is a fairy tale, maybe the most famous fairy tale worldwide. Variants of the story exist worldwide, and it was already being told 2000 years ago. Perrault, Basile, and Grimm collected it for their collections of fairy tales.
Is Encanto a fairy tale?
Encanto (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale. Fairy tales are set in the fairy tale world, but Encanto starts with an armed conflict in Colombia and fleeing refugees. Fairy tales feature flat characters; Encanto focuses on the inner development of the characters and their relationships.
Is Frozen a fairy tale?
Frozen (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale. It is, however, inspired by the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen. Contrary to the fairy tale, there is no clear separation between good and evil characters, but the focus is mainly on the inner world of multiple round characters.
Is Goldilocks a fairy tale?
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a fairy tale. A British fairy tale from the 19th century, to be precise. It was first written down and published in 1837 by English writer and poet Robert Southey. It is not clear whether anybody invented the tale, but it was being told before he wrote it down.
Is Harry Potter a fairy tale?
Harry Potter is not a fairy tale. It is a far too long and comprehensive set of stories to be classified as a fairy tale. Instead, it is classified as fantasy. However, it contains many elements also found in fairy tales, most notably the use of magic and magic items.
Is Hercules a fairy tale?
Hercules (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale but is loosely based on Greek mythology. The film focuses on the inner development of Hercules and his relationship with Meg, contrary to the flat characters in fairy tales. It is far too long and detailed to be considered a fairy tale.
Is Humpty Dumpty a fairy tale?
Humpty Dumpty is not a fairy tale but a character in a short English nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
Is The Lion King a fairy tale?
The Lion King (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale. It does not contain notable magical elements. Furthermore, the story focuses mainly on the inner development of Simba and his relationships instead of featuring mostly flat characters like fairy tales do.
Is Little Red Riding Hood a fairy tale?
Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy tale from the oral tradition. It was collected and written down in the 18th/19th century by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers (amongst others). It contains magical elements, a clear villain, flat characters, and is fast-paced.
Is Lord of the Rings a fairy tale?
Lord of the Rings is not a fairy tale. It is far too long to be a fairy tale. While it has many magical elements, its main characters are primarily round, capable of both good and evil, and having an inner development. Therefore, Lord of the Rings is better classified as fantasy.
Is Moana a fairy tale?
Moana (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale. It draws from Polynesian legends and folklore but is not based on one story. The story is far too complicated and focuses too much on the characters’ inner journey to be considered a fairy tale.
Is Mulan a fairy tale?
Mulan (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale but a retelling of an ancient Chinese poem about the legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan. While most of the characters in fairy tales are so-called flat characters, Mulan focuses on developing the round main character.
Is Peter Pan a fairy tale?
Peter Pan is not a fairy tale but originated as part of a book. J. M. Barrie wrote a couple of chapters about him in his book “The Little White Bird.” As Peter Pan became more popular, more stories and plays were created, ultimately resulting in a now-famous Disney movie.
Is Pocahontas a fairy tale?
Pocahontas (a movie by Disney) is not a fairy tale. It is based on the real-life story of Matoaka, the daughter of Chief Powhatan. The story is situated in place and time, unlike fairy tales usually are. The film focuses more on romance and inner development than fairy tales do.
Is Rapunzel a fairy tale?
Rapunzel is a fairy tale. While the Brothers Grimm version is the most well-known, Giambattista Basile told it long before, in 1634. Rapunzel features the classic characteristics of fairy tales: royalty, rags-to-riches, magic, flat characters, good vs. evil, etcetera.
Is Robin Hood a fairy tale?
Robin Hood is not a fairy tale but a retelling of legends around a legendary outlaw from England. He lived in the time of King Richard, primarily hidden in Nottingham Forest. The stories of Robin Hood do not contain any magical elements.
Is Shrek a fairy tale?
Shrek (a movie by Dreamworks) is not a fairy tale but does play with many fairy tale elements. However, it could be passed off as a fractured fairy tale because it makes a lot of jokes alluding to well-known fairy tales.
Is Stone Soup a fairy tale?
Stone Soup is not a fairy tale but a folktale. It contains no magical elements, and almost all other characteristics of fairy tales are also lacking. Many variants of this folktale are known throughout Northern Europe and Russia.
Is Three Little Pigs a fairy tale?
The Three Little Pigs is not a fairy tale. It is a folktale, or maybe even better, a fable. It contains talking animals but no magic. Of course, the rule of three is prominently featured in this story.
Final words on the characteristics of fairy tales
When George MacDonald, one of the inspirational fathers of the fantasy genre, answered the question “What is a fairy tale?” in an essay, he wrote:
Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination
What I wrote about the characteristics of fairy tales needs to be taken with a grain of salt; there are exceptions to be found to each characteristic.
Fairy tales are like delicious food: they do not exist to be analyzed but to be enjoyed.
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