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Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: What About Fairy Tales?


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

6. Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: What About Fairy Tales?

There exist few phrases as deeply ingrained in the common knowledge of the West as “once upon a time” and some variation of “long, long ago, in a land far, far away”. The weight the two phrases carry stems from the many children’s stories that one either read or listened to in youth. Commonly, the stories in question were fairy tales. This article will provide an insight into what fairy tales are, followed by a discussion as to why they are not subsumed by the larger genre of fantasy even though they are indubitably fantastical.

Figure 1. Cinderella – Touched by Magic. Gustafson, S. (n.d.).

The very term fairy tale “came into common parlance in the mid-18th-century, was borrowed from the French contes des fées to describe folktales that had been adapted for use as children’s fiction” (Stableford, 2009, 141). Fairy tales, however, have long been theorized and thought of as much more than children’s literature (this is not to say that children’s literature is necessarily less valuable, but that it is often perceived as such).

Fairy tales have long created potent cocktails of beauty, horror, marvels, violence, and magic, drawing in audiences of all generations over the course of centuries (Tatar, 2010, 55).

And even though this list of nouns does not a definition make, it does encapsulate the plurality and the allure of fairy tales. The same story, the same core fairy tale, can be (and often is) told with varying degrees of beauty, horror, violence, and magic. Yet, everyone still recognizes the story and its core principles—this is perhaps the best indicator of how deeply culturally ingrained fairy tales are.

Figure 2. Beauty and the Beast. Crane, W. 1901.

Due to the popularization of certain fairy tales through their animated adaptations, the term “fairy tale” for many carries a different, narrower meaning (Snowden, 2010, 161). Generations that grew up watching these animated movies are not necessarily aware of the complex and rich history of fairy tales as a genre that was deeply and profoundly submerged in and shaped by the culture of the time in which they were created. It has become common knowledge that the tales as written by the Brothers Grimm are significantly more gruesome than their contemporary animated counterparts; what is often overlooked, however, is that said adaptations often rid these stories of their cultural heritage. This is not to say that such an action is malignant; after all, the adaptations seek to create a memorable and enjoyable viewing experience and are, for the most part, primarily aimed at children. However, as is the case with mythologies and fables, fairy tales are texts indivisible from the culture and context in which they were created.

Figure 3. Vintage Fairy Tale Artwork. Grypons Art. 2017.

A genre of literature so rich and so deeply immersed in the tradition of many different nations and peoples cannot simply be put under the fantasy umbrella. Fairy tales predate fantasy; even though they themselves are endlessly whimsical and fantastical, they possess an uniqueness that clearly sets them apart from other fantasy texts/narratives. As Jack Zipes put it, most people can intuit or sense that a particular narrative they are consuming is a fairy tale without any theoretical background or analytical framework (1997, 61). All fairy tales refer to a "once upon a time", to a distant past that they are indivisible from even when retold or otherwise reshaped (Stableford, 2009, lviii). No matter how one alters the story of the Little Red Riding Hood, as long as it remains recognizable, it carries with it the enitrety of its written and oral legacy. Fantasy need not (and is most frequently not) so deeply connected to cultural tradition and production; a fantasy story may be inspired by a myth or two, or a wayward folk tale about a monstrous werewolf, but fantasy stories are written and shaped by authors, not cultures.

Figure 4. The hare and the hedgehog. Leutemann, H. 19th century. The lines between fables and fairy tales are often blurred; however, it is safe to say that stories where animals are protagonist should be treated as fables.

The stories themselves are of a shifting form; a story by the roughly same name can vary across countries and cultures, but changes also occur when “they migrate into other media. The tales in the Grimms’ collection have been inflected in so many new ways that they have become part of a global storytelling archive drawn upon by many cultures” (Tatar, 2010, 56-57). However, the wide reach of the stories also led to their being criticized; the nature of criticism changed with the times. In the 16th century they were believed to be negatively affecting children’s minds with the “themes of jealousy, covetousness, hatred and rags-to-riches fulfillment”; in the 20th, they “were criticized for their gender stereotypes” (Gamble & Yates, 2002, 157). The latter still remains a valid form of criticism, questioning the representation and agency of female characters.

A desire to inquire and ponder the problematic aspects of traditional fairy tales led to a rise of the myriad retellings of said tales; generally speaking, the retellings tackle perceived problematic aspects of particular tales in an effort to adapt them to the needs of contemporary society. In its essence, this practice is not far removed from the way fairy tales have been shaped and molded throughout their entire history, but they are slightly less culturally driven seeing as one can clearly point out the single author who came up with the retelling. Still, the retellings keep the original stories alive and bring forth valuable topics of discussion and thought that must not be neglected.

Figure 5. Snow White and the Red Rose. Leutemann, H. 19th century.

Myths, fables, and fairy tales are all predecessors of fantasy as a genre and as such they each constitute their own genre of literature. However, all of them possess something fantastical to them as they allowed for the contemporary proliferation of fantasy. To this day, there exist overt and covert references to the vast tradition established by those texts; to this day, authors are inspired by what came before, by mythical truths, fabled messages, and the inimitable magic of the fairy tale.

Neil Gaiman is an author who is frequently lauded as one who managed to instill a fairy tale-esque whimsy into his novels; as a concluding remark to the 102 series as a whole, his comment seems apt:

Horror and fantasy (whether in comics form or otherwise) are often seen simply as escapist literature. Sometimes they can be—a simple, paradoxically unimaginative literature offering quick catharsis, a plastic dream, an easy out. But they don’t have to be. When we are lucky the fantastique offers a road-map—a guide to the territory of imagination, for it is the function of imaginative literature to show us the world we know, but from a different direction (Gaiman, 1999, 80).

There expressed is the idea behind this 102 series and the 101 series that precedes it: if some fantasy fiction is simple, basic, and pure entertainment, that does not mean all of it is. There is value to these stories, these tales that evoke the imagery of myths of antiquity. Something gave birth to mythologies; some innate drive, a desire for wonder, for a fantastical answer to common questions; a fantastical mirror in which the real world is forever reflected.

Bibliographical References

Gaiman, N. (1999). Reflections on Myth. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 31, 75–84.

Snowden, K. (2010). Fairy Tale Film in the Classroom: Feminist Cultural Pedagogy, Angela Carter, and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. In P. Greenhill & S. E. Matrix (Eds.), Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity (pp. 157–177). University Press of Colorado.

Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press.

Tatar, M. (2010). Why Fairy Tales Matter: The Performative and the Transformative. Western Folklore, 69(1), 55–64.

Zipes, J. (1997). Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. Routledge.

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Dino Mušić

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