Thursday, August 5, 2010

What Is A Fairy Tale?

The other day on my Facebook page, I was asked by a reader . . . "How do you define a fairy tale?"  Is it something that features fairies?  Or, in more general terms, something magical?  Or, can it also feature talking animals?  Does it always have to have a moral to the story?

I am not going to claim expert on this topic at all because I am far from it!  I am simply an "Average" Tif that simply likes to read the stories!  However, I will put my own two cents in here considering that I do have my weekly fairy tale feature and have been visiting many this year.

I personally believe that fairy tales do not necessarily have to contain fairies, but it is not uncommon to find these creatures within them.  I tend to believe that fairy tales can feature anything within the magical or fantasy realm . . . fairies, trolls, talking animals, fairy godmothers, talking inanimate objects (i.e., mirrors), things that can be brought to life or take on humanistic qualities.  As I read more of the cultural tales, I may even go so far as to say that I believe some tales can even be rooted in legends or belief systems based on that culture. 

This leaves quite a large general definition and many tales can fit into the fairy tale genre?  For example, Harry Potter contains trolls, magic, animals with special abilities, inanimate objects with humanistic qualities (i.e., Whomping Willow), etc.  Do I consider Harry Potter a fairy tale?  No!  I do consider it fantasy that may take some of its themes from fairy tales, however (i.e, The Philosopher's Stone). 

BUT, what is the difference between the two?

Maybe it would be better to look at a more technical definition of fairy tales.  For this, I am going to refer to Wikipedia for the first example . . . 
"Fairy tale is an English language term for a type of short narrative corresponding to the French phrase conte de fée, the German term Märchen, the Italian fiaba, the Polish baśń or the Swedish saga. Only a small number of the stories thus designated explicitly refer to fairies. Nonetheless, the stories may be distinguished from other folk narratives such as legends and traditions (which generally involve belief in the veracity of the events described)[1] and explicitly moral tales, including beast fables. Fairy tales typically feature such folkloric characters as fairiesgoblins,elvestrollsgiants or gnomes, and usually magic or enchantments. Often the story will involve a far-fetched sequence of events."
However, this source also goes into stating that fairy tales are only one of what they consider "traditional stories."
"Traditional stories, expressed as mythlegendfolklorefairy tale, and fable, are used interchangeably in common speech as a synonym for popular fiction. Similar terms include anecdoteparable, and fairy stories. In the academic circles of literature, religion, history, and anthropology, these terms are important jargon to identify and interpret stories more precisely. Not every story will fall into exactly one category. Some stories belong in multiple categories and some stories do not fit into any category."

I would then like to refer you to one of my favorite fairy tale sites, SurLaLune Fairy Tales for their answer to this question.  Here is a very shortened version, but I encourage you to visit "What is a Fairy Tale" for the more detailed (and very interesting!) answer.
"Let me state this plainly: Intuitively, after working with them for so long, I know what a fairy tale is. Can I easily define it for you? No, I cannot . . . I will state clearly that fairy tales do not have to be stories about fairies. Also, fairy tales are part of folklore, but folk tales are not necessarily fairy tales."

I truly can go on and on regarding the definition of fairy tales, but the point I believe I am trying to make is that there is no set definition!  It varies based upon your culture, based upon what is considered magical, and some of it could really be based upon your own belief systems!  Whatever the case may be, ALL of us have had experience with them and can instantly come up with a title if asked to name one!  

So, tell me . . . How do YOU define a fairy tale?  Name one title that you think of instantly when you hear "fairy tale."

This post has been written in honor of Once Upon a Week hosted by Today's Adventure!


  1. This is going to be a funny comparison, but one of the Supreme Court justices when asked "Can you define pornography?" answered, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

    I have a similar sort of answer. There's just a certain feel to them. So like "The Ordinary Princess" which is definitively written in the 20th century falls into the category of fairy tale to me, why? Because it has that feel, and evokes the long ago and far away feel of the best of them.

    So I don't have a set definition.

  2. Erm, a story that's been made into a Disney movie? :P

    I always think of Cinderella when I think fairy tales. There has to be a princess or a girl who gets out of a sticky situation, usually involving magic. She learns her lesson and lives happily ever after.

  3. Going a different route. When I think of fairy tales, I think of The 10th Kingdom. I LOVED this movie. Here's the Amazon link:

  4. I think my definition tends to be a little less broad then yours. I lot of the folk tales that we've been reading, even tall tales, I don't consider fairy tales.

    Of course, I think of the biggies, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty.

  5. I totally agree with the "I know it when I see it" thing. I'm not sure I can define it.

  6. Ticia . . . Interesting comparison!! Though you mentioned that you don't have a set definition, I do like that you mentioned "long ago and far away feel"! That does have something to do with it too!!

    heidenkind . . . LOL!! Disney does have a monopoly on them, don't they?!?

    J. Kaye . . . I've got a fairy tale flick coming up for Fairy Tale Fridays. I have never seen this movie. Maybe I need to check this one out?!?!

    carolsnotebook . . . I have been including a pretty wide variety! I don't always think of them as fairy tales either . . . more "traditional tales" as described above!

    Britt . . . The definition is the hard part, isn't it?!? :)

  7. I watched The 10th Kingdom on TV first and then purchased the VHS. My daughter later watched it. I'd watch it again in a heartbeat!

  8. J. Kaye . . . I am totally going to see if I can find this at the library! I will keep you posted!


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