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A fairy tale is more than just a fairy tale

When some one says to you – and I’ve heard this comment in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian – “that’s just a fairy tale,” it generally means that what you have just said is untrue or unreal. It is a polite but deprecating way of saying that your words form a lie or gossip. Your story is make-believe and unreliable. It has nothing to do with reality and experience. Fairy tale is thus turned into some kind of trivial story – silly, infantile, not to be believed. Moreover, fairy tales are allegedly for children, amusing stories to pass the time away and to be dismissed. If children believe in them, read them and listen to them, they cannot be taken seriously.

Yet, we all know that the opposite is true. We all know we believe or want to believe in fairy tales. We are all ready to answer Peter Pan’s monumental question whether we believe in fairy tales with a resounding “yes!” We all know that fairy tales are tied to real life experiences more than we pretend they aren’t. We ward off fairy tales and pretend that they are intended mainly for children because they tell more truth than we want to know, and we absorb fairy tales because they tell us more truth than we want to know. They are filled with desire and optimism. They drip with brutality, bluntness, violence, and perversity. They expose untruth, and the best are bare, brusque, and concise. They stamp our minds and perhaps our souls. They form another world, a counter world, in which social justice is more readily attained than in our actual world where hypocrisy, corruption, hyping, exploitation, and competition determine the outcome of social and political interactions and the quality of social relations.

“Russische sprookjes poster,” by marlarle. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Though it is impossible to trace the historical origins and evolution of fairy tales to a particular time and place, we do know that humans began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity of speech. They may have even used sign language before speech originated to communicate vital information for adapting to their environment. Units of this information gradually formed the basis of narratives that enabled humans to learn about themselves and the worlds that they inhabited. Informative tales were not given titles. They were simply told to mark an occasion, to set an example, to warn about danger, to procure food, to explain what seemed inexplicable. People told stories to communicate knowledge and experience in social contexts. Though many ancient tales might seem to us to be magical, miraculous, fanciful, superstitious, or unreal, people believed them, and they were and are not much different from people today who believe in religions, miracles, cults, nations, and notions such as “free” democracies that have little basis in reality. In fact, religious and patriotic stories have more in common with fairy tales than we realize except that fairy tales tend to be secular and are not based on a prescriptive belief system or religious codes. Fairy tales are informed by a human disposition to action – to transform the world and make it more adaptable to human needs while we try to change and make ourselves fit for the world. Therefore, the focus of fairy tales, whether oral, written, or cinematic, has always been on finding magical instruments, extraordinary technologies, or powerful people and animals that will enable protagonists to transform themselves and their environment and make it more suitable for living in peace and contentment. Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy and resolve conflicting desires and instincts.

Fairy tales are rooted in oral traditions, and they were never given titles, nor did they exist in the forms in which they are told, printed, painted, recorded, performed, and filmed today. They were never specifically intended for children. Folklorists generally make a distinction between wonder folk tales, which originated in oral traditions throughout the world and still exist, and literary fairy tales, which emanated from the oral traditions through the mediation of manuscripts and print and continue to be created today in various mediated forms throughout the world. In both the oral and literary traditions the tale types influenced by cultural patterns are so numerous and diverse that it is almost impossible to define a wonder folk tale or a fairy tale or explain the relationship between the two modes of communication. In fact, together, oral and literary tales form one immense and complex genre because they are inextricably dependent on one another.

One thing is clear: this genre that we call a fairy tale is utterly relevant in its vast and diverse forms, glimmers with truth, and keeps challenging us to definite it.

Featured image credit: Classics for Summer Reading, by David Masters. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Ruth

    Thank you for this remarkable article about fairy tales. “Storytelling” is a digital buzz syndrome and everybody seems to be telling stories on the internet. But fairy tales are different, they don’t just tell a story, they take the content of the story to a different place and setting. Fairy tales transform stories into something more comprehensive for children and adults.
    I’m glad I found this article and I will link to it in my fairy tale blog! :)
    Greetings from Hamburg, Ruth

  2. […] und vielleicht künftigen Leben in Deutschland. Zum anderen möchte ich euch auf den Artikel A fairy tale is more than just a fairy tale von Jack Zipes hinweisen (er hat übrigens den Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales herausgegeben). Hier […]

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  4. Sara

    Always a joy to hear from Professor Zipes. Please credit your artwork appropriately: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Gray Wolf, by Victor Vasnetsov. The original hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Vasnetsov painted many richly textured, glowing paintings based on Russian folk tales.

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