You have heard of Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Shoemaker and the Elves, but have you heard about The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage? How about Farmerkin, or Thousandfurs, or Gambling Hans? Or the Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers?
These stories, some well known, some less so, all have something in common – they are all Fairy Tales. I finished George MacDonald’s Fairy Tale The Princess and the Goblin a couple of days ago, and since then have been engrossed in Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Grimm Tales) and now am reading another edition of the Brothers Grimms’ Fairy Tales – an edition that was first published in 1823.
All these different fairy tales has got me wondering – what is a Fairy Tale? We know Fairy Tales can be a bit formulaic – there might be a princess as beautiful as the sun, with golden hair, or a wicked stepmother, or a wise woman always ready to give some advice. There’s probably a castle, and a forest, and maybe a cottage. A witch, an enchanted mirror/apple/gingerbread house… that’s what makes a fairy tale, isn’t it?
Well, it’s not as straight forward as that. Reading all these fairytales has made me realize this.
Some stories have princes and princesses, some have humble millers, or fishermen, or farmers. In some, the protagonists can be animals, or in one story, a sausage! There might be magic, but sometimes not; there might be a wise woman to guide the way, or a wise man, or a wise fox, or bird, or even a wise stream… or the hero or heroine might get no advice at all, but have to fend for themselves. There might be a supernatural element, with fairies, or witches, or giants, or wishes to be granted, but sometimes the story might be so ordinary it could happen to you or me. Some have happy endings, some have sad endings. Often the evil characters come to a bad, sometimes violent and gory end, but not always. God is a character in a couple of fairy tales, as is St Peter, and Death… I think the tale entitled Godfather Death is one of my favourite.
Even the way they are written can vary a great deal: they can be written so simply, that there is barely a description, or they fill can be elaborate, beautiful images. There can be a lot of dialogue, or there might be none at all.
George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is undoubtedly a fairy tale – it has a princess, a brave miner’s son, a wise great great grandmother, a magical ring, a castle, a quest, and nasty goblins that need to be defeated – but unlike Grimm’s fairy tales, which are usually less than a dozen pages long, this story was about 200 pages (at least, it was in the edition I read). But it is a fairy tale.
So many stories now form part of the collective canon labeled ‘fairy tales’. I have heard Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan swept under this label, as well as 1001 Arabian Nights, and work by Oscar Wilde, Italo Calvin, Jasper Fforde, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, to name a few. There seems to be no end to how many Fairy Tales exist in literature, and our collective imagination, but this, to me, makes it even harder to classify exactly WHAT is a Fairy Tale.
All these stories, however, stay with us. We all have one classic image from these fairy tales that stick in our mind, be it a gingerbread house, a red hood, red ruby slippers, a thimble, thieves hidden in jars, or a golden statue of a prince. There are certain characters, whether they be in the form of a princess, or a wild creature who can speak, or even a rose, that resonate with us, and talk to the human condition. I can’t say exactly what makes a fairy tale. But I can say that it is because they are so varied and different that makes them so enjoyable. And so powerful.
As Albert Einstein said, ‘ If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’