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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."

A story which depicts a fantastic sequence of events. Often, fairy tales include creatures from folklore such as goblins, witches, and dragons. Fairy tales usually take place "once upon a time", with few (if any) references to real people, places or events. 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" (cf "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".

Orally told fairy tales are told in extremely spare and laconic style. 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. Even 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; 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.


"Fairy tale" is often used in modern times to depict an idealized romance or ending, although many classic fairy tales are much darker than many people realize. 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.

Fairy tales are found in cultures all over the earth. 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.

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 have made valiant attempts to give the category more accurate names, such as "wonder tale", or the Grimms' original term "household tale" or Märchen, but the name sticks. "Folk tales" include them, but also other tales.

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. Some, like "The Emperor's New Clothes" contain no magic of any kind.

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.

Popular fairy tale authors, collectors, and compilers include:

  • 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)
  • Hans Christian Andersen — the maybe most famous author of literary fairy tales (Fairy Tales Told for Children and New Fairy Tales, 1835-44)
  • Asbjørnsen and MoeNorwegian Folktales (1842/43)
  • Alexander AfanasyevRussian Fairy Tales, 8 volumes (1855-67)
  • Oscar WildeThe Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranate (1891)
  • Andrew LangColored Fairy Books, 12 volumes (1889-1910)
  • Joseph JacobsFairy Tales, 5 volumes (1890-1916)
  • Italo CalvinoItalian Folktales (1956)
  • Angela CarterThe Bloody Chamber (1979)

Fairy Tale analysis includes:

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

Fairy Tale Fantasy

Fairy Tale Adaptations and Retellings:

Fairy Tale parodies, pastiches, and deconstructions:

Alternative Title(s): Fairy Tales


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