What ever happened to fairy tales?
Sure, we still see them in popular culture today, but as a genre, fairy tales seem to have faded into obscurity. Mostly, the term is applied to Disney movies or new adaptations.
And most writers, if they say they’re writing a fairy tale, really mean that they’re retelling a fairy tale they grew up hearing (like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast). And there’s nothing wrong with that. At least, I hope not, since I’m one of those authors who rewrites fairy tales.
The fairy tale has a long and fascinating history. But if you distill the genre into a list of bullet points, this is what you come up with. (Or at least what I came up with.)
Fairy tales are magical, moral short stories, in which the main character is transformed.
Obviously, that’s a very brief description of the genre, but I feel like it encompasses all the important aspects. Let’s unpack them, one at a time.
One of the most important traits of a fairy tale is magic. Despite what the name might imply, that doesn’t mean fairies. A large number of fairy tales don’t have fairies, but magic is almost always a driving plot point.
Whether intentional or not, most fairy tales teach a lesson of some sort. Some writers were a little more heavy handed in that respect. But the protagonists of most fairy tales are described as good, and when characters act badly, they are punished severely.
Think of your favorite fairy tale. Now think about the main characters. Did one of them undergo a massive transformation? Probably. Now, I’m talking about transformation in the metaphoric sense, but that’s often reflected by a physical transformation as well.
So far, a lot of these traits might sounds familiar to you. A lot of books in the fantasy genre check all those boxes. So why don’t we call them fairy tales?
For a while, fairy tales started to get longer, the length of a novel. George MacDonald proudly branded works like his Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, and Lillith as modern fairy tales. J.R.R. Tolkien drew on both MacDonald and fairy tales in general for his works set in Middle Earth and was emphatic that world-building was an integral aspect of a fairy tale. But the term has fallen out of our language, except to refer to old tales already written.
Well, I have a theory. It has to do with that fourth trait of fairy tales that I skipped over.
For hundred, maybe even thousands, of years, fairy tales were only conveyed orally. Because of that, they tended to be short. And even in the more recent past, fairy tales are considered children’s stories, which are shorter by nature. So I think we tend to associate fairy tales with short works.
So, no, I don’t think fairy tales have disappeared. I think they’ve evolved into what we now call the fantasy genre. They share a lot of the same characteristics, and I don’t think most people realize that literary genres change and evolve just like the rest of humanity. I’m a little sad that we don’t call them fairy tales anymore, though.
What’s your favorite “modern fairy tale”?
Until next time, word nerds!
P.S. If you haven’t already heard, I’m going to be doing a live stream I’m calling Ask an Editor tomorrow (April 9) at 11 am Central. It’s going to be hosted on my Facebook page. So if you have any burning questions about being a writer or editor, or the publishing industry, head on over!