Learn about the origins of fairy tales and what defines a fairy tale and sets it apart from a folk story. Find out about how fairy tales have changed over time and read about examples of wondrous elements and character transformation.
The Real Fairy Tales
At some point in our lives, most of us have heard about the ”real fairy tales.” We know the Disney movie version, but we have been told that, somewhere, there is a book with the original Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast in it.
Usually, whoever tells us this is saying that Disney messed up the stories, or perhaps that fairy tales used to be very violent to scare children into obedience. However, the real tale about the ”real fairy tales” is a little more complex than that.
Folk Story vs. Fairy Tale
The father of the fairy tale is the folk story. A folk story tells a tale created by a community over many generations and passed down orally. A fairy tale is a folk story that has been written down and includes a wondrous element. Writing it down makes a big difference; when one person writes the story, he or she changes details to tell the tale his or her own way.
Basically, folk tales don’t have specific authors, but fairy tales do.However, since folk tales spread across countries, a folk story might have been written down by any number of people in very different ways. So, many versions of ”Cinderella” were written all over Europe. Next time people tell you that Disney messed up the real fairy tale, you can let them know that there is no such thing as the original version of a fairy tale.
The Wondrous Element
Plenty of folk tales don’t become fairy tales when written. Some give birth to fables, and others become myths or epics.
For a folk tale to become a fairy tale, it must have a wondrous element. According to scholars like Vladimir Propp and Jack Zipes, the wondrous element is something supernatural that brings about transformation in a character’s life.In Jack and the Bean Stalk, the wondrous element comes in the form of magic beans. For Snow White, the home of the seven dwarves in the forest is wondrous, as is the poisoned apple.
In Cinderella, the wondrous element is represented by the fairy godmother.You may be thinking, but, only one of those includes a fairy! Despite the term ”fairy tales,” fairies need not be present in traditional fairy tales. These stories only need to include what Zipes calls ”the celebration of wondrous change.
Not Just for Children
Tolkien’s essay ”On Fairy Stories,” the professor argues that fairy tales only became associated with children when adults began to snub the fantastical. He has a point. The fairy tale only took its place on the nursery bookshelf very recently.The first edition of the Brothers Grimm had more violence and inappropriate content than later editions, and it wasn’t because they wanted to traumatize children. It was because originally the tales were meant for adult reading.
However, even if fairy tales were not invented for children, kids clearly enjoy them!
Thanks to a few writers like Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang, a few fairy tales stand out in the American and European imagination. This group includes Cinderella, who experiences a transformation from a peasant into a queen because of her fairy godmother. It also includes the lady from Rumpelstiltskin, who transforms from a miller’s daughter to a queen with help from a magic dwarf.
Another example is the Little Mermaid, who transforms from a mermaid to a girl, then becomes sea foam.Most of these characters are only minimally described. The ladies tend to be beautiful and obedient, while the men tend to be heroic and smart. The poor tend to be virtuous. The common thread is that all of them experience a wondrous transformation.
A fairy tale is a folk story that has been written down by an individual author.
It always includes a wondrous element, which is supernatural and leads to change. Historically speaking, the fairy tale has not always been for children. Many fairy tales have been told by a variety of authors, and there is no single ”original version.”