Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is a Fairy Tale?

I had an interesting discussion lately with some writer friends about what a fairy tale is. We agreed a fairy tale is a sub-set of fantasy, thus all fairy tales are fantasies, but not all fantasies are fairy tales. Let's take a step back ... What is fantasy?

In Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, Richard Mathews says that fantasy “is a type of fiction that evokes wonder, mystery, or magic--a sense of possibility beyond the ordinary, material, rationally predictable world in which we live. . . . [it] is clearly related to the magical stories of myth, legend, fairy tale, and folklore from all over the world. . . . [It is] a fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible. It consciously breaks free from mundane reality” (1-2).
So, we're all on the same page regarding what fantasy is.

What about fairy tales? A.S. Byatt says, "The characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal: princesses and goose-girls; youngest sons and gallant princes; ogres, giants, dragons, and trolls; wicked stepmothers and false heroes; fairy godmothers and other magical helpers, often talking horses, or foxes, or birds; glass mountains; and prohibitions and breaking of prohibitions." Apparently, the definition of fairy tale is less straightforward, but I agree with Byatt's comments.

My friends maintained that a fairy tale is merely a fantasy with an internally-inconsistent magic system. I'm not convinced. But, the beauty of being a creative artist type is: you can do what you want and call it what you want!

How about you? What would you say a fairy tale is?


  1. The part that's missing is the moral. Sure, I can see how a fairy tale is a fantasy since they have magical elements, but what makes a fairy tale is the lesson or moral of the story. They are urban legends with a little magic thrown in.

    Great post and discussion.

  2. Yes, the moral element/lesson is very important.
    And you would know!
    Thanks, j.a.!