What Is a Fairy Tale?

A Kaminsky

For as long as people have recorded their history, they have told stories. In the days when people did not know nearly as much about the world as they do now, they made up myths or legends to explain events. The fairy tale was born from those stories.

In Little Red Riding Hood, a grandma is rescued from the wolf.
In Little Red Riding Hood, a grandma is rescued from the wolf.

Children and adults alike love a good fairy tale. In the archetypal story, good wins over evil, the bad are punished, the good prosper. The hero and heroine must go through trials to prevail, and magic and magical creatures usually appear, but in the end, the protagonist is victorious. Magic is generally the deus ex machina that saves the day.

Red Riding Hood wears a red cloak in the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
Red Riding Hood wears a red cloak in the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.

A fairy tale may exist in several versions. One good example is Little Red Riding Hood. One version is strictly a cautionary tale. Red Riding Hood disobeys her mother, talks to the wolf and ends up being eaten by him. So end all bad children. However, another version of the story has Red Riding Hood being pursued by the wolf, who catches hold of her hood, which, being enchanted by the grandmother, burns his mouth. He goes headlong into the village well and drowns. Some versions have the wolf eating the grandmother but being killed by a hunter, who cuts the wolf open and rescues Grandma.

These stories may also often be sanitized so as not to frighten children. Sleeping Beauty in its original form had the Prince's mother cast as an ogress who eventually attempted to have Sleeping Beauty and her children killed so the ogress could eat them. The Disney version does feature the terrifying Maleficent, but once she is defeated and Aurora wakened with that fateful kiss, all is well forever and ever. They all live "happily ever after," in fact. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty comes fairly close to the original, but many parents have deemed it too scary for their children.

The fairy tale is an important component in children's literature. Many modern themes in movies and television are derived from the fairy tale, in motif if not in plot. Modern people frequently use Cinderella as an example of any person or group with poor prospects that succeeded in spite of the odds. "Prince Charming" is the beau-ideal of manliness. The Shrek movie series probably does as well as any modern media in skewering the genre, but the jokes are much funnier when the viewer is familiar with the original tales. Still, the story is an ideal medium in which children can exercise their imaginations.

A complete collection of the most common fairy tales can be found online at classicreader.com. The fairy books compiled and edited by literary critic Andrew Lang are available there. He compiled these books in the latter half of the 19th century, and his books are required reading for any fan of fairy tales from around the world.

Fairy tales are a common and beloved type of children's literature.
Fairy tales are a common and beloved type of children's literature.

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Discussion Comments


@ aplenty- In the original Hans Christian Andersen little mermaid fairy tale, the mermaid is longing for a human soul and the love of a prince. The original ending is also a tragic ending, and not the happily ever after ending that most think.

The story was originally written as a tragic Ballet; published in Copenhagen in 1837. The story actually ends with the mermaid dying in the sea, dissolving without a soul. Andersen re-wrote the story shortly thereafter to include the ending that was portrayed in the Disney classic. While Andersen claimed the happy ending was the ending he originally intended to write, the story was actually first written and published with the more tragic ending where the mermaid did not get her prince and did not gain a soul that would live on forever.


@ Submariner- The imagery in folktales is superb, but the ending is always so predictable. It seems like they always end with the protagonist achieving what they set out to do. The conflict is always resolved and god trumps evil every time.

In addition to the Hansel and Gretel Story, the original Hans Christian Andersen story of the little mermaid ends with a happily ever after. In the story, the little mermaid wants to become a human so that her soul will live on eternally. In the story mermaids live for hundreds of years, but when they die, their souls perish with them. Humans on the other hand have short lives, but their souls endure. Predictably the little mermaid fairy tale ends with the girl becoming human and fulfilling her dream of an everlasting soul and a body in the human form.


I find it interesting that fairy tales are so morbid. I recently read the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, and was a little surprised at how grisly some of the storytelling is. It would make a great horror movie if someone had the right artistic vision to re-create the pure evil of the witch and the mother. I assume the story was written during times of famine, because I could not think of any other way to explain why a mother would even consider sending her children into the woods to die so that they did not have to share their last stores of food.

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