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Fairy Tale

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Outside Baba Yaga's Hut, in a Russian Fairy Tale.

"Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of evil.
The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon."

"Fairy tale" is the English name for a specific type of fantastic folktale. The term "fairy" in this case is not a reference to the creatures now called fairies, but to the word's original meaning, the "faery"; the "place of the fae" (c.f. "nunnery", "rookery"). Originally meant to refer to the otherworlds where fairy beings like the elves and the sidhe live, it eventually took on a more generic meaning as "land of magic". Very few fairy tales actually feature fairies; even those European countries with a developed fairy folklore preferred to use Talking Animals instead. The name of the genre can be traced to Madame d'Aulnoy's Les Contes de Fées, which appeared only after literary fairy tales became all the rage.

Folklorists prefer to describe these stories using the German word märchen, which is usually translated to English as "fairy tale" or "fairy story", but a better translation might be "wonder story." Several extremely popular tales such as Perrault's "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" did feature fairies, helping give weight to the name, while others like "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Kate Crackernuts" alluded to a more sinister kind of folkloric fairies. On the other hand, Perrault's "Cinderella" is an odd-ball; normally the Cinderella figure is helped by her dead mother, and "Sleeping Beauty" is as likely to be a victim of prophecy as a curse). Many, such as "Rapunzel", "Puss in Boots", "Hansel and Gretel", and "Snow White", contain no such figures. Fairy tales may include creatures from folklore such as goblins, witches, and dragons, but they don't have to. Likewise, they may include magic, but they don't have to. Some, like "Bluebeard", contain no supernatural elements at all.

What fairy tales do share is a distinct and consistent set of narrative conventions. They usually take place "Once Upon a Time", with few (if any) references to real people, places or events. They are typically told in an extremely spare and laconic style, using archetypical characters and locations that require the audience to fill in the details with their own imagination. Even the fancy dresses the heroine wears to a ball are discussed briefly; "three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars" and the story goes on. Likewise, characters are defined by their actions. When motives are provided (which is only for human characters), they are short and simple: the heroine is out to find her fortune; the hero wants to marry the princess; the Wicked Stepmother is greedy and doesn't want her stepchild to have an inheritance, or envious of her beauty, or if she has a stepson, destroy his wife; the false hero wants to marry the princess; the king falls in love with the strange woman he meets in the woods because of her beauty. And motives may not be provided at all; in the Grimms' "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", we never find out why the princesses are going to the nightly dances, and indeed never discover whether they are doing so voluntarily or not. The limits between a fairy tale and Legends, Fables or epic poetry are blurred, but overall, it is considered that fairy tales can be distinguished from legends and epics for usually not exploring any specific real events, beliefs, locations and/or people, being more timeless and able to happen in several places. Furthermore, fables, differently from fairy tales, mainly focus on delivering and illustrating moral lessons and often feature anthropomorphic animals, inanimate objects, plants and forces of nature as characters.

"Fairy tale" is often used in modern times to depict an idealized romance or ending, but this is largely a result of Disneyfication. Many classic fairy tales are quite dark in their original form, and a few are outright horrific. Heroes may be the victims of such violence as having hands chopped off or eyes gouged out; at the end of the story, villains may be disposed of by such methods as having them wear red-hot shoes and dance until they die or putting them in a barrel lined with nails and having a horse drag it until they die. The spare style helps minimize the impact, as it can deal with the violence briefly and without gory detail, but even so many fairy tales have produced Nightmare Fuel. In some cases, this is intentional, to Scare 'Em Straight. In many others, however, the reason why they were so much darker and more adult than later versions is simply because some of such folktales were never intended for children in the first place, but for adults, only being associated with Children's Literature after being removed from their folkloric roots and portrayed as children's stories by the end of the 18th century.

Fairy tales are found in cultures all over the world. Many tale types have wide-spread variants. However, only a tiny handful of them are widely known in modern culture. Consequently, when a writer goes to rewrite a fairy tale into Fractured Fairy Tale, with parody or subversion, it generally invokes one of that handful. For instance, the Fairy Godmother is a relatively rare figure in fairy tales, but having featured in "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty", is epidemic in the Fractured Fairy Tale. Even retellings that do not parody the fairy tales generally stick to the best known.

We know that fairy tales are Older Than Dirt because clearly recognizable fairy tales turn up, occasionally, in written form as far back as there has been writing. A 2016 Linguistic study suggested that two ("the Boy steals the Ogre's Treasure' (Jack and the Beanstalk in English) and various Faustian Bargain stories) date back to the very beginnings of civilization (3500-4500 B.C.E.). The story of Jason and Medea is a form of "The girl helps the hero flee" like The White Dove; a whole cycle of Chivalric Romance are tales of "The girl without hands" like The One-Handed Girl. However, many of these are also clearly written in literary form, and the others may also be far removed from the orally told tales of their time. Nor were they distinguished from other types of story. Giambattista Basile's The Pentamerone in 1634 (or so) was the first collection to contain only what we would recognize as fairy tales, but heavily rewritten into a literary style. The Brothers Grimm were the first to even try to save the folk version, and all tales collected from the oral tradition post-date theirs.

Fairy tales were originally intended for all ages, but for a long period of time, they were only written or presented as children's stories. Disney is rather famous for adapting fairy tales into movie musicals, often with changes to make them more light-hearted. Writers who seek to restore fairy tales to their original intensity may intensify it to the point of Grimmification.

See also Fairy Tale Tropes for a list of tropes common to fairy tales, Propp's Functions of Folktales, and Fairytale Motifs. If they're parodied, you get a Fractured Fairy Tale. Not to Be Confused with the similarly-named manga Fairy Tail.

For works about fairies, see Fairy Fiction.

Collectors and compilers:
  • Gianfrancesco Straparola — author of the first notable collection of European (specifically, Italian) fairy tales, The Facetious Nights of Straparola (1550/53)
  • Giambattista Basile — The Pentamerone (1634/36); the first collection solely of fairy tales
  • Charles PerraultTales of Mother Goose (1697)
  • Madame d'Aulnoy — coined the term "fairy tale" with her Les Contes des Fées (1697/98)
  • The Brothers GrimmChildren's and Household Tales (1812)
  • Asbjørnsen and MoeNorwegian Folktales (1842/43)
  • Ludwig Bechstein — Deutsches Märchenbuch (1845) and Neues Deutsches Märchenbuch (1857)
  • Johann Wilhelm Wolf — Deutsche Märchen und Sagen (1845) and Deutsche Hausmärchen (1851)
  • Božena Němcová — National Tales and Legends (1845/48) and Slovak Fairy Tale and Legends (1856/57)
  • Svend Grundtvig — Gamle Danske Minder i Folkemunde (1854/61) and Danske Folkæventyr (1876/78)
  • Alexander AfanasyevRussian Fairy Tales, 8 volumes (1855/67)
  • Manuel Fernández y González — La Alhambra: Leyendas Árabes (1856)
  • Franz Xaver von Schönwerth - Aus der Oberpfalz (1857-1859).
  • Laura Gonzenbach — Sicilianische Märchen (1870)
  • Francesc Maspons i Labrós — Lo Rondallayre: Quentos Populars Catalans (1871/75) and Cuentos Populars Catalans (1885)
  • Jean-François Bladé — Contes populaires de la Gascogne (1886)
  • Petre Ispirescu — Legende sau basmele românilor (1872)
  • Giuseppe Pitrè — Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari siciliane (1875)
  • Paul Sébillot — Contes Populaires de la Haute-Bretagne (1880/82)
  • Pavol Dobšinský — National Slovak Tales (1880/83)
  • Evald Tang Kristensen — Æventyr fra Jylland (1881/97)
  • Zófimo Consiglieri Pedroso — Portuguese Folk-Tales (1882)
  • Teófilo Braga — Contos Tradicionaes do Povo Portuguez (1883)
  • Emmanuel Cosquin — Contes Populaires de Lorraine (1886)
  • Heinrich Von Wlislocki — Märchen und Sagen der transsilvanischen Zigeuner (Fairy Tales and Legends of the Transylvanian Gypsies) (1886)
  • François-Marie Luzel — Contes Populaires de Basse-Bretagne (1887)
  • Elek Benedek — Magyar mese- és mondavilág (1894/96)
  • Charles Polydore de Mont and Alfons de Cock — Dit zijn Vlaamsche wondersprookjes, het volk naverteld (1896) and Dit zijn Vlaamse vertelsels uit den volksmond opgeschreven (1898)
  • Jonas Basanavičius — Lietuviškos pasakos (1898-1926)
  • Andrew LangColored Fairy Books, 12 volumes (1889-1910)
  • Joseph JacobsFairy Tales, 5 volumes (1890-1916)
  • Carmen Lyra — Cuentos de mi tía Pachita (1920)
  • Aurelio Macedonio Espinosa — Cuentos Populares Españoles (1923/26)
  • Aurelio de Llano Roza de Ampudia — Cuentos Asturianos Recogidos de la Tradición Oral (1925)
  • John Sampson — Welsh Gypsy Folk Tales (1933)
  • Henri Pourrat — Le Trésor des contes (1948/61)
  • Italo CalvinoItalian Folktales (1956)
  • Geneviève Massignon — Contes de l'Ouest (1954), Contes Corses (1963) and Folktales of France (1966)
  • Marie Voříšková — Cikánské pohádky (Gypsy Fairy Tales) (1959)
  • Jerzy Ficowski — Sister of the Birds and Other Gypsy Tales (1961)
  • William Camus — Les Oiseaux de feu et autres contes peaux-rouges (1978)
  • William Camus — Légendes de la Vieille-Amérique (1979)
  • William Camus — Légendes peaux-rouges (1980)
  • Angela CarterThe Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book (1990/92)
  • William Camus — Mille ans de contes : Indiens d'Amérique du Nord (1996)
  • Ana Cristina Herreros — Libro de Monstruos Españoles (2008)
  • Hedina Sijercic — Rromane Paramicha: Stories and Legends of the Gurbeti Roma (2009)

  • E. T. A. Hoffmann
  • Wilhelm Hauff — The Caravan (1825) and The Spessart Inn (1827)
  • Hans Christian Andersen — the maybe most famous author of literary fairy tales (Fairy Tales Told for Children and New Fairy Tales, 1835-44)
  • Zacharias Topelius — Läsning för Barn (1865/96)
  • George MacDonaldPhantastes (1858), The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and many more.
  • Frank R. Stockton — The Floating Prince and Other Fairy Tales (1881) and The Bee-man of Orn and Other Fanciful Tales (1887)
  • Luigi Capuana — C'era una volta (1882), Il raccontafiabe (1894) and Chi vuol fiabe, chi vuole? (1903)
  • Oscar WildeThe Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranate (1891)
  • Helena Nyblom — Debuted in 1897, and since then published several fairy tales, some of the most well-known included in the anthology Among Gnomes and Trolls
  • Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić — Croatian Tales of Long Ago (1916)
  • Mimei Ogawa — Deemed in Japan as the Japanese Hans Christian Andersen
  • Godfried Bomans — Sprookjes (1946)
  • Jan Drda — České pohádky (1959)
  • Jan Werich — Fimfárum (1960)
  • Pierre Gripari — Contes de la Rue Broca (1967)


Traditional fairy tales or fairy tale characters:

Modern works in the style of fairy tales, adaptations of fairy tales, or works that in other ways draw on fairy tales:

Literary Fairy Tales


Adaptations and retellings:

Parodies, pastiches, and deconstructions: