A few weeks ago I talked about Cinderella, the new and old films plus the character, and in the middle of it I had to stop to kinda define what, exactly, a fairy tale was. That got me thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there was some place I could send people so they could know exactly what I meant – okay, enough of that you know what time it is. Genrely Speaking is where I define literary genres, or at least explain what I mean when I mention them. And since I work at a library that means I know what I’m talking about, right?
Never let that stop me before, though, so let’s get cracking, shall we? Fairy tales are a pretty amorphous group of stuff in the modern era, in fact some people will call anything with a remotely unnatural element to it a fairy tale, but in general it’s a characteristic genre referring to a story with these elements:
- An emphasis on circumstances. Jack of beanstalk fame is a fatherless boy who’s family is very poor. Cinderella is a fatherless girl who’s family is wealthy but abuses her. Hamlin is a city overrun with rats. These are the circumstances of the character, the situation they find themselves in, and we tend to be presented with them very matter-of-factly. There’s no backstory, these are just the facts of life. There’s no introspection, each hearer is left to fill that part in on their own.
- Character in action. This is the heart of the story. Jack trades his cow for beans, he climbs a magic beanstalk, he robs a giant and defeats him with cunning. He is bold even when others would call it foolish and it pays off in the end. Cinderella serves quietly and kindly in spite of all cruelty but when the opportunity to leave comes she takes it. She is humble and charitable but not a doormat. Hamlin’s leaders make a promise to get rid of the rats but then backpedal on it. They look after their own but are duplicitous with strangers. We never see deeply into the motivations of these decisions, almost as if the people who told the stories knew their hearers would all have different motivations and just wanted to encourage people to act in a certain way regardless of their motives because certain actions were better for all involved.
- Poetic justice. The protagonist comes out ahead in ways that show their actions and attitudes were better than those of their enemies. The giant dies chasing Jack even though, as the bigger man, it would probably have been better to admit he’d been outdone and left it at that. Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother loose their eyes and parts of their feet because they did not have the humility to admit they were beaten or the charity to let Cinderella move to a station above theirs (not that she would see herself as above them) while if their heart had been more like Cinderella’s they would have been in no danger. The leaders of Hamlin loose all the young people of the city to the Pied Piper because they broke their word. The end of a fairy tale is always a dispensation of justice be it ever so harsh.
What are the weaknesses of a fairy tale? The biggest two are simplicity and brevity.
Fairy tales are simple stories without much depth to them. They’re stories with morals ranging from the blunt to the anvilicious and they exist pretty much only to tell us why we should or should not behave in a certain way. There’s not much you can cram into that and, as a result, most fairy tale characters experience no character arc, have no background and speak for themselves very little if at all. The stories they live in can be retold in just a few hundred words because really, what more do you need for such flat characters?
What are the strengths of a fairy tale? Simplicity and brevity.
Yes, the characters of a fairy tale barely qualify as “characters” but their very simplicity makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes and wonder if we could do the things they did – and then be inspired to strive for or avoid those actions. The brevity inherent to the genre makes it that much easier to remember the stories. And the whole thing in aggregate has made for one of the most memorable and prolific groups of stories in Western literature.
Walt Disney built much of his empire on fairy tales. Bill Willingham’s Fables is a love letter to the genre. There’s plenty to love about these little tales from long ago even though they aren’t the kinds of stories we tell now. So don’t knock ’em – anything that can last that old has to have something good at its core.