Fairy tales appear in many cultures.They differ from folk tales or legends, in that they deal with magical beings and archetypal characters rather than real people, gods or events.
Characters are not usually named and there is a timeless quality to the fairy tale with its ‘once upon a time’ setting. But is the fairy tale form itself anonymous and timeless? Well, almost. Its literary tradition in the west dates back almost five hundred years, with the first recorded tales appearing during the Renaissance. But the oral tradition is potentially thousands of years old, although of course there are no records to substantiate this, and no documenting the many embellishments and transformations of the mythical ‘original’ tale wrought by centuries of retelling.
And that is one source of fascination with the form, the many possible reworkings of the skeleton story and the fact that there is no copyrighting process to deal with when returning to the author-less ‘original’ with a view to retelling it. This makes the genre immensely appealing to writers. A fairy tale can be a template for wondrous reworkings, new associations and fresh questions. Take the many feminist reworkings of latently misogynistic tales, examples of which are numerous in the work of Angela Carter. If the fairy tale form was solely limiting and repugnant to the reader, s/he would surely not choose to revisit it as an adult writer.
Fairy tales are peopled with liminal archetypes, most notably the witch. She lives on the margins of society, often in the forest, a dense and wildly complex borderland to civilization and the known world. Even where she is negatively portrayed, the witch still embodies an idea of a long lost wisdom, of magical herbs and the mysterious origins of life. Fairy tales can be updated, their heroes and villains reversed, but there is often a subversive vein to be mined in the original tale to begin with.
Unlike fables, fairy tales can be amoral. In many of Grimms’ Tales, it’s hard to extract a clear moral message; even where vice is explicitly punished, the punishments are often out of all proportion with the original transgression, and moral standards are arbitrarily applied to certain characters and not others. In more recent tales, like those of Hans Christian Andersen or the thinly veiled Christian allegories of Oscar Wilde, morality is more transparent. Perhaps this is because these stories were written expressly for children.
It’s widely assumed that fairy tales are for children. The Brothers Grimm, in collating material for their massive and seminal project to document the fairy tales of Germany, decided to present the collection as ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ (Kinder- und Hausmärchen), although the tales were not originally intended to be told to children. Most people first encounter fairy tales in childhood when these simple yet mystifying yarns cast the most bewitching of spells.
Children get the better of adults in many of the tales, for example in Hansel and Gretel where the young siblings survive parental abandonment, starvation, imprisonment and death, relying only on their wits and resourcefulness to triumph over the grownups they encounter. This was one of the main arguments of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s brilliant The Uses of Enchantment, which, through a story-by-chapter analysis of the psychological content of various well known fairy tales, presents them as narratives of empowerment for young readers.
But we can reclaim the fairy tale form as and for adults. I recently taught a course on writing fairy tales where not one of the writers chose to write for children. Their stories had very adult themes, exploring questions of identity, sexuality and mortality. Most students chose to delve into the darker side of fairy tales, often dispensing with the traditional happy ending altogether. Their writing, when most successful, was compelling and starkly beautiful.
Interestingly, few of the stories they wrote featured magic, yet magical elements define a fairy tale as such. in a fairy tale, magic parts the thin veil between worlds, transforming the real and known in unexpected ways. But perhaps the writers of adult fairy tales don’t need it; perhaps the words used to tell the tale present magic enough.
To learn more about fairy tales and how to write them, book your place on Polly’s new course More Magic of Fairy Tales.
POLLY TUCKETT is a published writer and tutor of creative writing with over fifteen years teaching experience. She teaches in a range of settings and pitches her courses to people of all abilities and varying levels of writing experience. Polly has good knowledge of the local literary scene having curated Short Fuse, a short fiction spoken word showcase for several years in Brighton and Leicester. She is a tutor for Writing School East Midlands.