On what makes a fairy tale


Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

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.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

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 Princess and the Goblingrandmother, 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.

The Shoemaker and the Elves

The Shoemaker and the Elves

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.’

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Twelve Dancing Princesses



  1. How funny, my five year old asked me just the other day what a fairy tale was and I was stumped. ‘You know, like Cinderella or Rumplestiltskin…but not like…uh…Madeline.’

  2. A very interesting post. I adore fairy tales so much, and it’s interesting because I’ve never really thought about what makes a fairy tale – I’ve just assumed they’re all in some way magic but like you say they vary a lot which is probably what makes them so special. Something for everyone!

  3. Gypsy

    The Tinderbox is the Fairy Tale that always sticks in my mind from childhood… it was the idea of the dogs with eyes as big as various plates… totally weird. It is a fairly gruesome Fairy Tale as many of them are. I did a paper on Fairy Tales at Teachers College and the stuff that has been sanitised out is quite scary. LIke Cinderella’s Ugly sisters cutting their toes off in an attempt to fit the slipper!

    • I had forgotten about the fairy tale about the Tinderbox! Yes, many fairy tales are quite gruesome – often the ‘baddies’ come to very creatively gory endings. In some versions of Cinderella, the sisters have their eyes pecked out by Cinderella’s bird friends as they enter the church to watch Cinderella get married! Bizarre.

  4. There’s nothing more magical than a fairy tale. All puns intended, and not. 🙂

    Also … Gypsy? ‘LIke Cinderella’s Ugly sisters cutting their toes off in an attempt to fit the slipper!’ It’s amazing how the human mindset doesn’t change much, isn’t it? Even today the things people will do for any kind of material gain borders on the ridiculous!

    Clearly, Einstein had the right idea. 🙂

    • I think that because the human mindset doesn’t change must is the reason that fairy tales stick around, and why particular fairy tales are more prominent in our culture than other ones. People don’t really change.

      And that quote by Einstein is one of my favourites 🙂

  5. The odd thing is that not all fairytales include fairies in them.
    And of course they’re not told by fairies, even though folktales are told by ‘folk’ (that is, anyone and everyone, though usually they’re anonymous).

    Sometimes critics distinguish between ‘traditional’ fairytales and ‘literary’ fairytales.
    But as most of what we regard as traditional fairytales have come down to us via somebody literate (the brothers Grimm, or Perrault, or whoever) that muddies the water even more.

    A fascinating discussion of all things to do with fairytales that I can recommend is The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes. I love dipping into it every so often.

  6. This is really hard to answer. I think of a fairytale as being about a magical place (Fairyland or similar) or else about a magical being whose home is in Fairyland (though this person may slip into the mortal world now and then to sow discord, or confer magical gifts etc etc.)

  7. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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