What is a Fairytale? No… Seriously.

Welcome to March. March brings with it lots of glorious lovely things. It means daffodils and that big burning thing in the sky is back. It means chocolate bunnies (since when was Easter THIS early???) and finally putting away the winter storm-force coat. And this year it also means something else…

And in honour of the returning of this show (on which I am completely Hooked… get it?), I have decided to dedicate this month to the art of the fairytale. Actually, only a half truth. This month also represents a personal deadline. Over Christmas I signed, sealed and “The End”ed my latest novel project In The Mirror, Darkly and sent it off to agents in the early new year. As those of us that have been around this block will know, the average turn around is six weeks. That should mean, by the end of March, I should have my first answers, for better or worse.

In the Mirror Darkly is a culmination of a lifetime obsession with fairytales. The novel itself is a fairytale retelling of the old classic Snow White and when I started it, I honestly thought I pretty much that this fairytale thing down. I mean, how hard can it be really?

Turns out. Quite.

So this month is also a summary of all the lessons I’ve learnt and the tricks and tips I’ve picked up along the way. Today, I start with a very simple question…

what is a fairytale

I know what you are thinking. “I’ve been reading these since I was six, I think I know what goes in them”. I was right there with you. Until I sat down to actually write about it. I’ve been writing in the fairytale genre for over two years, you’d think I’d be able to define one. And yet, while I had a bunch of key words and ideas, stringing them into a single definition was a struggle. In the end, I came up with this.

An examination of the dualities of human existence (good and evil, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge etc…) set against the simple black and white world known only to a child.

Basically, a fancy way of saying “stories about good and evil as understood by children” But even now, I’m not happy with it. So I decided to run a little experiment. The last couple of weeks, everyone I’ve met, I’ve asked them the same question:

“What is a Fairytale?”

And do you know what I found? None of us really know. Typically reactions all started the same way. There would be this confident opening of the mouth but then the tongue would trip as they suddenly paused. A few moments of flustering. A prompt from me for their gut instinct. And then a blurted reaction. Here are just some.

“A heightened representation of the human experience, our greatest fears, our greatest desires”

“A make believe story with a happy ending”

“A morality story”

Or my personal favourite

“A Grimm morality tale dressed up for children”

Certain things popped out to me. Not one person I spoke to talked about love stories. Nor was there a single utterance of the words “Magic” or “Princesses”. And only one person alluded to Disney. But not one answer was the same. Themes quickly established themselves. Happy endings. Morality. Human nature. Make believe. But no uniform answer. Ask someone what a crime novel is and you’ll get something along the lines of “someone breaks the law. Someone else works out how and catches them,” and I think most people would go along with that. But comments on fairytales split the jury.

How can the same genre both be this dark, bitter unveiling of the underbelly of human nature and at the same time be fairydust and happy endings? More to the point, as writers, how are we supposed to write a genre that we can’t even properly define?

So next stop was the dear old dictionary. Meet my friend Google. Google’s verdict was as follows:

google fairytale

So they all sound exactly like each other… not. Number one is refreshingly cliché and nice to see magic finally turn up but three intrigued me. So I looked around a bit more:

Wiki: “A fairy tale (pronounced /ˈfeəriˌteɪl/) is a type of short story that typically features European folkloric fantasy characters, such as dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments.”

Merriam-Webster: offers us two:

“a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins) —called also fairy story […] a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending”


“a made-up story usually designed to mislead” (I know this isn’t a straight definition in the sense we are looking for but again, interesting to see how the term has adopted a second meaning in modern culture. Says a lot about how we see them)

Dictionary.com: goes back to its history:

“oral narrative centered on magical tests, quests, and transformations,”1749, translating French Conte de feés of Madame d’Aulnois (1698,translated into English 1699). As an adjective (also fairytale), attested by 1963.”

So what is it? Let’s see if I can get this right.

It’s a made up story for children, featuring magical creatures, tests, quests and/or lands, that are involved in an improbable series of events that lead to a happy ending, all the while examining the morality of humanity.

Phew. That’s a bit of a mouthful. Let’s test it out.

Test 1: Snow White

The grandfather of the modern fairytale and a good staple for those of us who know the Grimm originals. So…. Magical creatures/quests/land… I guess “far far away” counts as magical. Improbable quests… check. Morality of humanity… well basically it’s an entire lesson about pride, vanity and jealousy so check.

But then we get to…

Happy Ending… Hmm Disney passes but look to Grimm and Snow White makes the evil queen literally dance to death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes…  Ick. Regina doesn’t know how good she’s got it.

Let’s try another classic:

Test 2: Sleeping Beauty

Magical stuff… spinning wheels count, check. Improbable quest… it’s the very definition, check. Happy Ending… I guess, they end up married…

But when it comes to the “for children” thing, and the morality thing… (about to get disturbing, if you love this fairytale, look away now)… in the original of this fairytale, yes, she’s sleeping. Yes, he finds her. Yes, his kiss wakes her. What Disney forgot to slip in there was the fact he rapes her while she’s comatose and she wakes to find not one but two buns in the oven… Yeesh. Maybe not.

Test 3: Harry Potter

(just humour me)

Magical stuff… check. Improbable quest… an impressive seven of them indeed. Happy Ending… doesn’t get more cliché. Written for children… check. Morality… the whole thing is an examination of how good can always trump evil as long as a heart stays true.

So… that’d be a yes.

Test 4: Pirates of the Caribbean

(just for fun)

Magical stuff… they end up in the underworld at one point, so yeah. Improbable quest… definitely. Happy Ending… well, it isn’t unhappy. Morality… well, there are a lot of discussions on death and greed and doing the right thing and friendship and living forever (okay a stretch but still). Written for children… definitely.

So… a second yeah.

So back up a minute. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are out but the boy wizard is a princess and Jack Sparrow is prince charming? “Stop being so literal” I hear you shout. That definition is more of a guideline.

Image courtesy of Kristen Lamb’s Blog

Couldn’t resist.

So maybe it’s a “gut” thing. A “we just know” thing. My impromptu survey showed me one thing. As readers, we aren’t that focused on the content of the fairytale. Not as adults anyway. What we take away from them are the “lessons” they teach. We feel the need to justify the existence of a fairytale to ourselves for some reason. Like, it can’t just be about dragons, princesses and a wicked witch – there has to be more to them than that. I bet if I did the survey again but asked only people under twelve, I’d hear an awful lot more about magic and princesses and a lot less about morality and “the human experience”.

So… are fairytales different for adults than they are for children? Same story, different response. As kids, we just want to believe in magic. It’s just an adventure. But as adults, we can see a deeper level to them. What was innocent when we were children is suddenly racism, or genocide, or indeed Stockholm syndrome. What does that mean for writers?

In short. The old saying stands true. No one is too old for fairytales.

To quote JRR Tolkien: “Fairy tales do not belong exclusively to children… Fairy tales evoke a secondary world which has its own logic and values which allows for escape and recovery from the real world.”

Pretty decent definition now I come to think of it. As writers, it means this genre is completely flexible across all audiences. Just look at Once Upon A Time. Its audience range from six years old girls to forty year old men and all between and beyond. And each will enjoy it for a different reason. Fairytale is a genre not just for Disney. It is real and right now very commercial. We may not be able to neatly describe one, but we know a fairytale when we see one.

Next week, I’ll go one step further and discuss the components of a fairytale and how to begin to build your own Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After. Until then, please, take to the comments section below. I want to hear about what fairytales are to you.