“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / by any other word would smell as sweet…”
I’ve been thinking of the term “fairy tale” in the last little while – partially inspired by William’s and Kyomi’s recent articles on the topic. They have both made an attempt to define “fairy tale”, as well as the related terms “legend”, “myth”, “fable”, and even the overarching “folklore”. I’m not going to bother with the latter here—you can go to their articles and read up on it; they’ve done a fine job already.
But when it comes to “fairy tale”, I found myself disagreeing with them on a few points (just a few minor ones, mind you). And being a congenitally opinionated person, I couldn’t resist shoving in my oar.
To start with, why do we even have to bother defining the term? Everybody knows what “fairy tale” means. Don’t they? Prince William and Kate Middleton had a fairy tale wedding. Neuschwanstein in Upper Bavaria is a fairy tale castle. A hoarfrost creates a fairy tale landscape. And so on and so forth. We don’t have to sit down and define what we mean here—everybody knows it. Fairy tales are stories of happily ever after. Of princes and princesses. Of True Love (spelled with capitals). Of True Love’s First Kiss (more capitals). Of witches and wicked stepmothers. Right? All fairy tales have those elements.
Yeah, right—I can see you rolling your eyes all the way from over here. Anyone with even the slightest aspiration to being a fairy tale buff knows that those are clichés that have a lot more to do with a handful of Disney films than with fairy tales as a genre.
So then I went to the Internet and a number of dictionaries and took a look at what they have to offer by way of definitions. Here is a sampling:
-The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.):
1. a tale about fairies. 2. an incredible story; a fabrication
a : a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins) b : a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending
A fairy tale is a type of short story that typically features folkloric fantasy characters, such as dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, griffins, mermaids, talking animals, trolls, unicorns, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments.
1. a story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures. 2. an incredible or misleading statement, account, or belief.
Hmm. All of that leaves me scratching my head. Because, while those definitions cover some aspects of fairy tales, it doesn’t fit all of them by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t even cover the colloquial use of it (see above, the Royal Wedding etc.). As for fairy tales being “for children”, we won’t even go there.
Wikipedia’s says a fairy tale is “a type of short story”—well, what about Andersen’s novella-length “Snow Queen”, or even more, Mme de Villeneuve’s original “Beauty and the Beast”, which is a full-sized novel? I don’t think anyone would deny them fairy tale status.
I must say I like Merriam-Webster’s option b) the best: “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” But even there, it’s really just the first half of the sentence that works for me, because not every fairy tale ends happily. Cases in point: “The Little Mermaid” (no, in Andersen she does not marry the prince); “The Little Match Girl” (another Andersen—he’s depressing); Perrault’s original “Little Red Riding Hood” (she just gets eaten, The End); Mme D’Aulnoy’s “The Ram” (a “Beauty and the Beast” tale in which the beast just—dies). Again, we can’t claim they’re not fairy tales—Andersen’s name in particular is practically synonymous with the genre.
Another claim I’ve seen is that fairy tales are inevitably set in an unnamed place among unnamed people (they’re only generic princes or miller’s daughters or dwarfs). But how about “The Bremen Town Musicians” (Grimms Tale #27), or “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”? They take place in real cities in Germany that still exist today. As for unnamed heroes, what of Hansel and Gretel, Vasilisa, or Kai and Gerda from “The Snow Queen”?
The fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that the definition of “fairy tale” is as hard to nail down as the tales’ slippery trickster heroes. In the English language, we are furthermore hampered by the word “fairy” in the term, which leads the definition-seeker to false expectations, as demonstrated by all the dictionary entries above that call for magical creatures or fantastic beings. Again, by no means does every fairy tale have a fairy in it, be she godmother, evil, or otherwise. “The Little Match Girl”, for example, has no magical creature in it at all, only a sad child who in her dying moments has a vision of her grandmother.
But that leads me to another point. Andersen’s tales in particular do, in many cases, refute the points that have been claimed as defining the genre—yet I don’t think anyone would argue that they are not fairy tales. But they exemplify a particular type of fairy tale: the literary fairy tale. Literary fairy tales are original tales written by specific, known authors—Hans Christian Andersen, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, to name just a few. This is opposed to folk fairy tales, stories told over many years among “the common people” which were “collected” and written down by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. (There is a large overlap between the two types of fairy tales, with the Grimms, for example, editing and “literarizing” folktales, or, conversely, literary fairy tales becoming folk tales; but that’s a topic too big to deal with here.) Both kinds are fairy tales, but they’re often rather different from each other, with literary fairy tales frequently exploding the bounds of the common understanding of the term.
So back to our definitions: “a story in which improbable events…” Let’s end that sentence right there. Actually, along those lines, the best definition I’ve found so far is not an English one—it’s from the German Wikipedia:
Fairy tales (”Märchen”) are “prose texts that tell of wondrous events”.
That, as far as I’m concerned, nails it. Prose texts—not poetry, not ballads—that contain wondrous events. The essential element of a fairy tale is magic, something unusual, something wondrous. It can be kings, queens, castles, princesses, dwarfs, fairies, ogres, magic objects, spells, unicorns, princes, talking animals… but it has to be unusual, out of the ordinary.
And that, in turn, requires the setting to be, to a certain measure, ordinary. Fairy tales might take place “once upon a time” in “a kingdom far, far away”, but that long-ago time and that far-away kingdom are still part of our world. Fairy tales are not happening in Middle Earth or on the Planet Naboo (because from what we understand, in those places magical events are normal and ordinary, so stories about them aren’t fairy tales), but they can happen at the back of an old wardrobe or by having your house whirled away in a cyclone—ordinary to wondrous.
And of course they happen, over and over, to scullery maids and stable boys, and princes or princesses who have to work as scullery maids or stable boys and meet talking foxes and unicorns and witches in gingerbread houses. And sometimes magic kisses make for magic love stories (though far more often, it’s sheer hard work and determination that saves the day), and for the most part, everyone does live happily ever after, or at least until the end of their days—just like it can happen to us, every day.
Stories of magic in the midst of the ordinary—that, as far as I am concerned, is what the term “fairy tale” means, and what we mean when we refer to something as being “like a fairy tale”. Of course, all the other definitions have very valid points, too; “fairy tale” means many, if not all, of those things, just like an individual fairy tale can take many forms, depending on who tells it.
See, we do know what a fairy tale is—and the rose, by just this name, truly smells sweet.