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What is a Fairy Tale?

Updated on November 15, 2010

A fairy tale is a story about supernatural beings or magical events. In addition to fairies, it may involve such creatures as witches or such talking animals as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. The term "fairy tale" is also applied to such stories as The Ugly Duckling and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which do not deal with fairies but contain other elements of the traditional fairy tale. Sometimes classified as fairy tales are certain narratives about the adventures of gods. An example of this kind of fairy tale is the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Characteristics of Fairy Tales

The setting of the typical fairy tale is vague. The events usually take place "once upon a time in a far-off land," where magical and supernatural incidents are everyday occurrences. The characters tend to be types, such as the cruel stepmother, the beautiful but ill-treated young girl, the handsome prince, or the poor young man ready for adventure. Usually they are either unnamed or have common names, such as Hans or Jack, or descriptive names, such as Cinderella. The plot is generally developed in such a way that the events appear logical and credible, provided that the reader accepts the supernatural aspect of the story.

The fairy tale is often a biographical account. It considers the whole life of the hero but concentrates on his or her marriage or most significant adventure. The ending is usually on a happy note, with virtue being rewarded and evil punished. The traditional closing line of a fairy tale is "and they lived happily ever after."

Incidents in fairy tales often occur in threes. Rumpelstiltskin, for example, gives the queen three chances to guess his name. Similarly, the genie offers to perform three tasks for Aladdin, and the magic fish grants three wishes to the fisherman and his wife.

Fairy tales have been popular with people all over the world from the earliest times. They are one of the few literary forms intended primarily for entertainment, although some also contain a moral. Most modern fairy tales are written for children, who know that the events described in them are purely imaginary ones.

The fairy tale frequently expresses the dreams, wishes, and beliefs of people. There are more than 500 basic plots, consisting of one or more motifs, that recur with variations in many different combinations. Both Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince, for example, relate the story of an animal that, through love, is restored as a handsome prince. Many fairy tales are about oppressed or unhappy people, such as

Snow White and Rapunzel, who ultimately attain happiness. Other popular stories deal with magical transformations of shape (The Little Mermaid and Little Black Sambo), .unusual adventures (The Magic Carpet, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Jack the Giant Killer), or magical objects (The Tinderbox, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp).

History of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales were told before there were written records, and for centuries they were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. As the tales were retold, the tellers changed, added, or omitted details. Many fairy tales of different cultures and periods are surprisingly similar in their content, motifs, and style. The story of Cinderella, for example, has been told in several hundred different versions and by such different peoples as the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and Europeans. The universal fairy tale style has been noted in stories of such different countries and ages as a group of Egyptian tales of the 13th century B.C. and the Cupid and Psyche story related by the Latin author Apuleius (2nd century A.D.).

The first European to publish a book of fairy tales was an Italian, named Giovanni Straparola. His volume, which appeared in 1550, contains the well-known tale of Puss in Boots. In 1697 the Frenchman Charles Perrault brought out his famous Contes de ma mere I'Oye ("Stories From Mother Goose"), which includes such favorites as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

Since the end of the 17th century the fairy tale has been very popular in Europe. A well-known French translation of the stories of The Arabian Nights was published in the 18th century, introducing tales of the East to Europeans. The outstanding collection of European folktales was compiled by two German brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Their work, Grimm's Fairy Tales (1812-1822), contains such familiar stories as Hansel and Gretel, Tom Thumb, and Rumpelstiltskin. Some of their tales are included in almost every modern collection of nursery stories. The most famous creator of original fairy tales was the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).


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    • profile image

      Delfia 5 years ago

      What is a plot i don't see a plot

    • WhoWhatWhereWhen profile image

      WhoWhatWhereWhen 7 years ago

      Sounds like they might be real horror stories Patricia?

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Congratulations on an unusual topic, with some fresh insights. Both of us enjoy fairy tales, and also story telling. Those who are interesting may like to read the original version of Grimm's Fairy Tales - many of the stories have been softened for the modern reader.