Fairy tale

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Fairy tale

Fairy tale: A prose narrative intended to entertain or instruct that typically relates fantastic or magical occurrences involving a hero or heroine. While the term fairy tale, a translation of the French conte de fée, is sometimes used to refer specifically to a story about fairies, this usage is uncommon. As J. R. R. Tolkien explained in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1938), “fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” Indeed, many fairy tales contain no fairies at all. Accordingly, many scholars prefer the term Märchen, a German word meaning “tale.”

Fairy tales are characterized by a number of elements. They often begin “once upon a time” in an unspecified setting (in terms of place and time); feature flat characters; and involve magic, talking animals, disguises or physical transformations, and prohibitions or taboos. Fairy tales also employ motifs such as cruel stepmothers, fairy godmothers, and prolonged sleeps and address the theme of good versus evil. Modern versions usually end “happily ever after.”

There are two types of fairy tales: folk fairy tales (or wonder tales) and literary fairy tales. Folk fairy tales, oral tales verbally transmitted through successive generations within a given community, tend to evolve over time and to emphasize plot and repetition as memory aids. Literary fairy tales, written by a specific, identified person, may be original stories or may retell, draw on, or adapt stories from folk fairy tales or other sources such as myths. Many folk fairy tales are eventually committed to writing; examples include Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, perhaps the earliest written versions of which are in Italian courtier Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) (2 vols., 1634, 1636), also known as Il Pentamerone.

Although fairy tales are commonly considered children’s literature today — a view firmly established since the mid-nineteenth century — in the past they were composed by and for adults; many incorporated social or political critique, a subversive subtext disguised by the fairy tale form. Several women in late-seventeenth-century France, for instance, used the genre to resist and critique social constraints on women, reworking tales first in literary salons (in oral retellings) and then in writing, as exemplified by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s Contes de fées (Fairy Tales) (1697). As oral versions began to be written down in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, however, many stories were recast as morality tales and sanitized for children’s consumption by the removal of violence, the punishment of villains, and the addition of happy endings. In the twentieth century, many writers sought to reinvigorate the fairy tale, for both children and adults, by putting new and often comic twists on traditional stories. Fractured fairy tales, as these stories are often called, are usually designed to be funny but may also provide multicultural or feminist critiques of Western or patriarchal bias. Early examples include James Thurber’s three-paragraph story “The Little Girl and the Wolf” (1939), which ends with the girl shooting the wolf and the moral “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be,” and the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959—64), which included such stories as “Riding Hoods Anonymous” and “Slipping Beauty.”

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The “Cinderella” story appears in cultures the world over; the earliest known version, “Yeh-Shen,” is Chinese and was first put in writing in the mid-ninth century by Tuan Ch’eng-shih. Other versions include the Algonquin Indians’ “The Rough-Face Girl”; England’s “Tattercoats”; Germany’s “Aschenputtel,” or “Ash-Girl”; and Zimbabwe’s “Nyasha.” There are also Caribbean, Egyptian, Hmong, Korean, Persian, Philippine, and Zuni Cinderellas, among others. Major collections of fairy tales include Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) (1697), also known as Histoires ou contes du temps passé; Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Nursery and Household Tales) (2 vols., 1812, 1814), by the Brothers Grimm; Hans Christian Andersen’s Eventyr (Fairy Tales) (1835); and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book series, starting with The Blue Fairy Book in 1889 and ending with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.

Contemporary fractured fairy tales for children include Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (1982), about a princess who saves a prince; Fiona French’s Snow White in New York (1986); and Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989), which tells the tale from the wolf’s point of view. Fractured fairy tales for an adult audience include Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a dark feminist reworking of traditional tales; Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods (1986; adapted to film 2014), which incorporates a number of fairy tales and speculates about what would really happen [in the] “happily ever after”; and Black Thorn / White Rose (1994), a collection edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The tagline of Shrek (2001), a twisted fairy tale that lampoons the fairy-tale formula, was “[t]he greatest fairy tale never told.” Grimm (2011—17), a television crime drama in which the protagonist battles supernatural creatures, was inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairy tales.