Monday, 20 August 2012

Once upon a time, we wondered, what is a fairy tale?

Recently over on the SCWBI (Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators) British Isles Facebook page, there was a discussion on what Fairy Tales are. The discussion was interesting and varied displaying one astonishing thing, that what a fairy tale is subjective, and that different people have very different perceptions on what a fairytale is. This has prompted three SCBWI members to think at little more about how we see fairy tale and what they mean to us. 
These are our thoughts....

What is a Fairytale?  by Emma Graham

It should start with ‘Once upon a time’ and end with ‘they lived happily ever after’. This is how my daughter defines a fairy tale. But once we start to discuss this question further she agrees that maybe not tales are laid out in this way.

As children we are all read the stories of The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and such like. Some create our childhood fears and some hold strong under lying morals. These are probably what most people would describe as a fairytale. The stories written by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm would fall under this classification.

Should they contain fairies? If so then is Peter Pan a fairytale? The old-school definition of a fairytale is any story that starts with the ordinary, and then moves into the extraordinary. Peter Pan fits that perfectly, but many consider a fairytale to be a short story. My interpretation of a fairytale they are tales full of magic, mystery, strange creatures that talk, goblins, elves, wizards and maybe the occasional fairy as in Cinderella, but they are not always good, and it doesn’t matter how long the story is.

These traditional stories have been told and retold through generations and often the same themes and basic plots are used over and over. Take for instance Beauty and the Beast, this old tale is the basis of East of the Sun and West of the Moon which is an enchanting Norwegian folk tale, that tells the story of a White Bear and a peasants daughter. The Bear is a handsome Prince by night and a bear by day. The story is full of mystery and beauty, sadness and passion.

The tale has recently been retold in the story of North Child by Edith Pattou. The book is filled with beautiful descriptions of desperation, beauty, sadness, loneliness and hope, beautifully retold in this timeless tale. But at over 500 pages long, does this still class as a fairytale? 

What is a Fairy Tale? by Donna Vann writing as D.V. Hawkes 

I think all the best stories give glimpses of a world unseen by our ordinary practical and tangible one. Sometimes these two worlds collide, so that mystical elements seep into this world, or else people from this world visit the magical world and return changed and able to change this one. 

Think of Mary Poppins, who drops in on a chaotic household and pulls whatever she needs out of her carpetbag. Narnia, where children from Britain at war enter an enchanted kingdom through a wardrobe. The Snow Queen, in which shards from a broken mirror dropped by careless goblins pierce the eye and heart of a boy of this world. Roald Dahl is a master of the fairy tale, as is Eoin Colfer in his Artemis Fowl books.

The way I see it, fairy tales do not have to contain fairies and are not the same as fantasy. For me, the essential ingredient in a ‘fairy tale’ is the presence of this world. I’d agree with the traditional definition that the fairy tale starts in the ordinary world and moves to the extraordinary. So Harry Potter would qualify, but not Lord of the Rings – even though it contains humans, the story takes place entirely within the fantasy kingdom of Middle Earth. I love the juxtaposition of two worlds, which is why pure fantasy doesn’t interest me very much. Everything takes place in the world created by the author, and I can never quite believe in it. 

What is a Fairy Tale? by Sally Poyton

Fairy tales have distinct characteristics which they use to prey on primal fears; they are usually short and use repetition in combination with their unique language. But what are fairy tales? The answer is; they are many things. They are about love, (Hans christen Anderson actually referred to them as Love Tales), they are about family, but most of all they are about survival. Fairy tales teach us that there is only one person who is responsible for our life (if you bet on the prince swinging in and saving you at the last minute you’ll end up dead or wanting to be).  In fairy tales, the protagonist may not be the strongest, the richest, the fairest, the most fortunate or the most moral (Jack wasn’t adverse to theft, and Red Riding Hood has been known to adopt prostitution to save her skin) but they all have one common weapon; their wit. The fairy tale hero/heroin uses their mind to outwit the villain; who is usually stronger, faster or even magical.  It is a strong message; be nimble of wit to survive. It’s no wonder Einstein said ‘if you want your children to be intelligent then read them fairy tales!


  1. This really interesting, emma, donna and sally.
    Do you think it's something to do with the characterisation too? Are fairy tale characters more archetypal, caricature rather than character. I know it's Disney but a bit like how the princess is to the real world charaters in the film Enchanted ?