What Counts as a Fairy Tale?

Curiouser and Curiouser…

ABC’s popular new show Once Upon a Time has brought the definition of  “fairy tale” into question recently. The show revolves around a variety of well-known storybook characters, most prominent among them being Snow White. Everyone knows everyone in the aptly named town of Storybrooke, although they don’t realize exactly who their neighbors truly are. Within the next few weeks, Once will be featuring an episode entitled “Hat Trick,” which alludes to an appearance of the Mad Hatter. If viewers have watched closely enough, they will have already noticed that Henry’s book of fairy tales has shown a picture from the Alice in Wonderland story, so we knew this might be coming in the future. But this particular inclusion makes the distinction between beloved children’s story and fairy tale a bit murky. What exactly is a fairy tale?

Webster’s dictionary certainly defines it in a broad way: “a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins); a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending; a made-up story usually designed to mislead.”

While fairy tales are generally part of folklore, all folklore are not fairy tales. Nor do all fairy tales have happy endings, as Webster would have us believe – in fact, MOST fairy tales do not have truly happy endings. Fairy tales, along with myths and legends, are simply under the umbrella of the larger category of folklore.

For a much longer, in-depth explanation of a fairy tale, we must look to the master. J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of folklore and language, and can probably best help lead us down the right rabbit hole.

“I said the sense “stories about fairies” was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

“The definition of a fairy-story — what it is, or what it should be — does not, then, 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. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.”

In the mind of the public, Alice in Wonderland is certainly a fairy tale. It has all the elements of a fairy tale. Tolkien definitely considered it a part of the Perilous Realm, and went so far as to term the Wonderland style of writing a “dream story.”

Then again, Alice and her adventures did not come from lore; the story was not passed down in an oral tradition, but was made up and put into a book by its author. This is much the same as Winnie-the-Pooh, and I highly doubt that anyone would consider A.A. Milne (although a greatly gifted children’s author) a creator of fairy tales.

The question will continue to puzzle me, but I will nonetheless enjoy Once Upon a Time and its inclusion of Alice and her fantastic friends.

 

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