So what ARE fairytales? We throw the term around to reference many things, both specific to literature, and to life! Ask a folklorist, and you will likely get a very different answer from the average adult, who may think that “fairytales” is a generic term for any children’s story that has an element of fantasy in it (such as The Little Engine That Could which is NOT a fairytale!). Many even think that Disney wrote the fairytales that dominate popular American culture. NOT TRUE!!!!
To complicate things, fairytales can be either “traditional,” coming from the vast pool of stories passed by storytellers on via word of mouth for centuries before they were ever written down, or “literary:” stories written by one individual author, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, or James Barrie’s Peter Pan.
There are thousands of amazing stories that children love. But there are certain characteristics of traditional fairytales that seem to align perfectly with what children in the 21st century need…as they’ve aligned perfectly for centuries with the unique and wondrous way that children (and adults!) make sense of the world.
That’s the label that serious scholars of folklore gave them back in the 19th century, and it’s pretty much stuck. Other categories of folk narratives that have been passed down by storytellers, such as folktales, myths, and legends may contain unusual events, such as talking animals or heroes that overcome great obstacles with superhuman wit or strength. But it is only fairytales that have magic as a primary factor in the plot.
Fairytales aren’t tied to a specific time or place; “once upon a time” allows us to enter the story with no expectations that it’s going to be like anything we have ever experienced. Places are “the forest,” “the castle,” “the cottage:” all of which invite us to create a world in our imaginations where anything can happen!
Fairytale characters are stock characters: “the youngest son,” “the princess,” “the evil witch.” This offers us a familiar vocabulary of flat characters which storytellers, and the rest of us, can bring to life! If they have names at all, they are generic, like “Jack,” or have to do with the character’s situation, like “Cinderella” who slept in cinders.
The plots of fairytales are simple and action-packed. Every event has something to do with the obstacle to be overcome, the problem to be solved, or the quest to be conquered. Exactly the right solution comes at exactly the right time, often in the form of a magical helper or object.
Fairytales are known for their endings, where everyone lives “happily ever after.” However, before this happens, good has to triumph over evil, and it’s often the young, the weak, and the disenfranchised who manage to save the day by overcoming great adversities.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of fairytales is that they are universal. Many of the fairytales American children know from Disney and other media have dozens, and even hundreds, of variants that have been told in far-flung cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Each storyteller tweaks the story to reflect the traditions and norms of the spellbound listeners, but the stories usually revolve around universal concerns and relationships, and how to best meet the demands of the world.
Discover the magical world of fairytales, and you’ll be unlocking treasures of diversity, equity, and our common needs for connection and resilience (while having a delightful time imagining!)