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What Makes a Fairy Tale a Fairy Tale?

Addison Lucchi, Guest Contributor

What-makes-Fairytale

The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.

– J.R.R. Tolkien

When I try to answer the “what is a fairytale” question in conversation, I usually answer the same way George MacDonald did: I simply recommend my favorite fairy tales… “Read Peter Pan!” I say. “Read Grimm, read Anderson, read Stardust, read the Narnia books… and perhaps by reading all of those, you will then understand what a fairy tale is.”

And then of course, I also direct them to great essays such as “On Fairy Stories” by Tolkien, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” by C.S. Lewis, “The Fantastic Imagination” by George MacDonald, and “The Ethics of Elfland” by G.K. Chesterton.

Guided by some of these stories and essays, here are some of the key elements that make a fairy tale what it is:

1. Fairy Tales Put the Ordinary into the Extraordinary

Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.

– J.R.R. Tolkien

The protagonist of a fairytale is never a superhero, never a fairy, and never a magical creature. Fairy stories are about someone ordinary, someone seemingly unimportant, who then travels into an extraordinary realm full of wonder, and magic, and fantastical beings.

Often, this is a normal, somewhat discontent human child who leaves behind the monotony and difficulties of real life to travel into the Perilous Realm of Fairyland—The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz all come to mind. Another wonderful modern fairy tale that does this beautifully is Cathrynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

When an ordinary protagonist enters an extraordinary world, it’s almost as if we ourselves are entering Fairyland.

2. Fairy Tales Evoke Wonder

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this…

– G.K. Chesterton

True fairy tales have a certain mood to them, a certain power that I cannot describe as anything else but wonder. It is not essential that fairy stories contain adventure; it’s not essential that they contain allegory; it’s not even essential that they are fantasy in genre. But this “elementary wonder” is a vital part of a true fairy tale.

It’s what Tolkien referred to as the “nature of Faërie.” The magical air that blows in the country of the Perilous Realm. It’s something that cannot be described by a single word, but wonder comes the closest—though perhaps joy is another way to describe it.

Wonder and joy are the true source of the magic of Fairyland.

3. Fairy Tales Are Reasonable

There are certain sequences or developments which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary… We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity.

– G.K. Chesterton

An important fact about Fairyland is that it has rules. In Fairyland, anything can happen—magical, whimsical, fantastical things—but they all happen very reasonably and according to the rules of the place. This doesn’t mean that these laws can’t be broken—the very definition of a law is that it CAN be broken—but only according to reason.

Fairyland must have laws, and rules, and reason—just as the real world has magic, and adventure, and miracles.

4. Fairy Tales Are Meant To Be Retold

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.

– G.K. Chesterton

Fairy tales are meant to be retold. Isn’t it incredible that stories as old as “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” (first published by Basile in 1634) are still being told today? And who knows when the oral tradition of these stories began? Versions of each of these exist in numerous cultures, and they’ve also been adapted and retold in operas, plays, ballets, films, and novels. Clearly these stories are worth retelling.

This isn’t to say that fairy tales can’t or shouldn’t be original. In Fairyland, there are infinite new ideas, and an unending number of new stories to tell. But even the new stories will carry some element or some inspiration from a story that has already been told… and that’s okay.

There is beauty in repetition.

5. Fairy Tales Mean Something

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.

– George MacDonald

A true fairy tale has meaning—a reason for reading beyond entertainment or escapism. This isn’t to say that a fairy tale should be an allegory, or that it even needs to have a particular lesson or moral associated with it. But a fairy tale that contains true wonder and beauty cannot help but have some sort of meaning.

It is true that some fairy tales DO have intentional, easy-to-spot themes or morals. The tales collected by Charles Perrault were even written with a moral stated at the end. For instance, Perrault’s version of “Cinderella” (or “The Little Glass Slipper”) ends with the stated moral that grace is more important than beauty. Hans Christian Andersen is also very well known for intentionally writing themes and lessons for children into his stories—most of the stories he wrote were reflections on his own life, people he met, and things he experienced.

But regardless of whether a fairy tale has an intended theme or moral, if it contains wonder, beauty, and truth, it will have meaning, and it will at the very least wake things up in the reader and inspire him to think.

There is so much more to fairy tales than I can hope to cover in a short blog post, but hopefully you now have a basic understanding of some of the key elements that make a fairy tale a fairy tale.

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself… if any strain of my “broken music” make a child’s eyes flash or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

– George MacDonald

Addison photo 200x300About Addison

Addison has been part of The One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) since the very beginning, and he still loves the OYAN community with both of his hearts. He has a B.A. in English Literature, focusing on children’s literature and fairy tales. Mostly, he hopes to use his passion for stories and life to show people the joy and love of Christ. Teaching literature classes, playing music with friends, working at the library, and going on adventures whenever possible are some of Addison’s favorite activities!

Addison hopes to eventually release a collection of original fairytales, as well as complete his quirky time-travel mystery series. Notably, Addison also loves penguins.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Fairytales, for me, take my heart and mind to places that foreshadow what is real. They ring true. They create longing.

  2. Addison, Thank you for this post. Since Mr S’s SW address, I’ve been thinking about fairy tales. The beautiful quotes you included have made me want to chase up all their sources. You breathed the wonder of fairy tales into your piece!

  3. Addison!!

    You MUST let me know when you have written your time-travel mystery and your original fairy tales. I am always on the lookout for good stories along those lines. Cannot wait.

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