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Fairy tale

A fairy tale is a story featuring mythical characters such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, giants, and others. The fairy tale is a sub-class of the folktale. These stories often involve princes and princesses, and modern versions usually have a happy ending. In cultures where demons and witches are perceived as real, fairy tales may merge into legendary narratives, where the context is perceived by teller and hearers as having historical actuality. However unlike legends and epics they usually do not contain more than superficial references to religion and/or to actual places, persons and events.

Many critics, including Angela Carter in her introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales have noted that a great deal of so-called fairy tales do not feature fairies at all. This is partly because of the history of the English term "fairy tale" which derives from the French phrase contes de fée which was first used in the collection of Madame D'Aulnoy in 1697. As Stith Thompson and Carter herself point out, talking animals and the presence of magic seem to be more common to the fairy tale than fairies themselves.

Some folklorists prefer to use the German term Märchen to refer to fairy tales, a practice given weight by the definition of Stith Thompson in his 1977 edition of The Folktale: 'a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses' (Thompson: 8)



Although in the late nineteenth and twentieth century the fairy tale came to be associated with children's literature, adults were originally as likely as children to be the audience of the fairy tale. The fairy tale was part of an oral tradition: tales were narrated orally, rather than written down, and handed down from generation to generation.

The tales often had sad endings; such was the penalty for dealing with the fairy folk.

Later fairy tales were about princes and pricesses, combat, adventure, society, and romance. Fairies had a secondary role. Moral lessons and happy endings were more common, and the villain was usually punished. In the modern era, fairy tales were altered, usually with violence removed, so they could be read to children (who according to a common modern sentiment should not hear about violence).

Sometimes fairy tales are simply miraculous entertainments, but often they are disguised morality tales. This is true for the Brothers Grimm Kinder- und Hausmärchen, and much of the drily witty, dead-pan, social criticism beneath the surface of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, which influenced Roald Dahl.

The fairy tale has ancient roots, older than the "Arabian Nights" collection of magical tales, in antiquity: Cupid and Psyche, Bel and the Dragon. Fairy tales resurfaced in literature in the 17th century, with the Neapolitan tales of Giambattista Basile and the later Contes of Charles Perrault, who fixed the forms of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

An extensive collection of European fairy tales were published by Andrew Lang in a series of books: The Red Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and so forth. These provide some excellent examples of the genre.

According to a 2004 poll of 1,200 children by UCI Cinemas , the most popular fairy tales (in the USA?) are:

  1. Cinderella
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Hansel and Gretel
  4. Rapunzel
  5. Little Red Riding Hood

All of these are from the Brothers Grimm collection.

Fairy tales are more than true -
not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
G. K. Chesterton

See also

External links and references


  • Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson: The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography (Helsinki, 1961)
  • Thompson, Stith The Folktale

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