Fairy tales are magical. But how does magic in fairy tales work? Who uses it? For good, for bad, for ugly?
There are many, many fairy tales worldwide. Here I talk about magic as we find it in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
How does magic in fairy tales work?
Magic in fairy tales might look very unpredictable, but some principles govern it.
Author Brandon Sanderson formulated a widely used spectrum of magic systems in stories. You have ‘hard magic’ on the one end of the spectrum; on the other, you have ‘soft magic.’
💡 Hard magic operates on clear and specific rules and solves problems for the protagonist. On the other hand, soft magic has no clear rules and is generally used by the antagonist to create problems for the protagonist.
Magic in fairy tales operates as mainly soft magic. There are almost no protagonists using magical powers. Instead, most magic either exists without explanation or is used by others to create problems for them.
Magic in fairy tales
Magic just happens
There is no explanation for a lot of the magic in fairy tales. It just is there and happens.
For example, in the first Brothers Grimm fairy tale (The Frog Prince), a prince has been turned into a frog. We never get to know why this happened and who did it. It is simply a given. Furthermore, it is only discovered by accident when the princess throws the frog against the wall.
Another example are the curses in the fairy tale of Faithful John. Faithful John hears three ravens talk about curses waiting for his master, the King. Nobody tells us why these magical curses exist or who put them there.
Witches and wizards wielding magic
Who does not know the bewitching fairy tale witch? She wields her evil magic, destroying the main characters’ happiness in the fairy tale.
She curses the brooks to transform little brother into a roebuck (Little Brother and Little Sister). She curses Rapunzel‘s prince with blindness. A particularly evil one (Mother Trudy) changes a curious girl in a warming wood block for the fire.
While the 13th wise woman in Sleeping Beauty is not called a witch, she is still witching, cursing the girl to fall dead when a spindle pricks her.
Besides the evil female witch, there are also several evil wizards/enchanters. For example, what to think of the wizard in Fitcher’s Bird, who has the power to put you under his spell by touching you with his finger? Creepy!
Magic helpers in fairy tales
So, are all users of magic evil? No, not at all.
There are the Helpers. They give you magical help when you behave well. Maybe the most well-known is Mother Holle, who helps the girl who helped her. The Three Little Men in The Woods also magically help a girl who helped them.
The Helpers often also have a dark side, though. When you are not kind to them, their help turns into a vengeful curse.
The biggest trickster in Grimm fairy tales probably is the man in the shadows, the wheeling-and-dealing stranger, the one with the horns: the devil. His magical help is welcome, but the price you have to pay for it is high, too high.
Magic items in fairy tales
There are no characters with magic abilities in many fairy tales, but instead, there are magic items.
One of the most famous magic items in fairy tales is the magic mirror in Snow White. This magic mirror is almost a living thing, and in movie adaptations, it often has been featured as a character with real opinions and feelings.
The fairy tale The Knapsack, The Hat, and the Horn is about three brothers and the three magic items (actually four, including the wishing cloth). A fairy tale with the same motif is Wishing Table, Gold Ass, and Cudgel in the Sack.
When hunger ravages a village, a family, a girl, there appears an older woman who gifts her a magic pot. She can make Sweet Porridge for all the village with this magic pot. A good gift!
Magic animals in fairy tales
Sprinkled throughout the fairy tales, you find magical animals. They not only speak but also have other supernatural powers.
- The donkey that drops gold coins (Wishing Table, Gold Ass and Cudgel in the Sack)
- The fox that guides and flies with you through the forest (The Golden Bird)
- The fish that grants wishes (The Fisherman and His Wife)
Magic in fairy tales: what you won’t find
Compared to our modern fantasy stories, the magic in fairy tales is pretty simple. There are no complex wizards like Gandalf. No wand wielding sorcerers like Harry Potter. No time-traveling, no wielding of the elements, no spoken spells.
The magic in fairy tales often just is. There is not that much of it, and 9 out of 10 times, it causes problems instead of helping characters solve them.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like my blog post on numbers in fairy tales.