On What Makes a Story a Fairy Tale

Posted May 15, 2015 by Carlisa in Fairy Tale Fridays, Features / 2 Comments

fairy tale fridayWhat makes a story a fairy tale? Because not every story that contains magic and dragons and fairies are fairy tales. Like would you ever call Harry Potter a fairy tale? No. Fantasy all the way. And if a story doesn’t have fairies, does it mean it’s not a fairy tale? No. So where is the line? What exactly is a fairy tale? Let’s explore.

Elements of a Fairy Tale

First, let’s open with the famous “Once upon a time…” This simple phrase carries so much history. The first recorded use of this phrase was in 1380. They spoke Middle English back then, people. Middle English. It looked more like this, though: “Onys oppon a day”…at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But that phrase has been carried through written and oral stories that have passed down through the many, many years. And it’s still being used today. I think that’s beautiful. And though a fairy tale doesn’t have to start with this classic line, it’s a pretty frequent occurrence.

Usually there are very distinct good characters and very distinct evil characters. Most fairy tales were used for didactic or teaching purposes so the moral could be easily represented in these characters. Like for instance, in Snow White, the evil queen is a clear contrast to the innocent and pure Snow…and the evil queen is used to represent the evil of vanity, among other things.

Often there is royalty involved. Beautiful princesses and hunky princes and castles and balls…yep, it happens. But not in every fairy tale. But a lot of them, yes. Little girls’ dreams of being a princess often stem from these initial fairy tales they hear as children.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, there is often a show of poverty. Some time of poor farmer or a poor working girl. This kind of goes along with the clear evil/good characters. These fairy tales are pretty black and white so when there’s royalty and the wealthy, there’s often going to be the poor to show the opposite side of the spectrum.

MAGIC MAGIC MAGIC. Yes, like the best part. More than magic though, these stories just have the fantastic. Whether that’s talking animals (one of my favorite is called “The Fisherman and His Wife” from Grimm’s where there’s a talking magic flounder who is also snarky…it’s the best), or actually fairies, or witches…there is always something fantastical about the story. This is honestly probably the key element to these stories.

And, yes there is a problem that needs solving. This relates back to the morals I was talking about earlier because there is a problem in the story and it will get solved. Often it’s with love or whatever, you know…but you’d be surprised how gruesome anddragon quote non-Disneyish some of these original fairy tales can be.

Finally…there’s the happily ever after *wistful sigh.* I looked up this first recorded use too and here it is: “Paganino, hearing the News, married the Widow, and as they were very well acquainted, so they lived very lovingly, and happily, ever after.” From 1702. I really like their add of the word lovingly. If only everyone could live happily and lovingly forever *second wistful sigh.*

So, there’s that. And you all lived happily ever after.



I was requested to post what I’m going to talk about next week so you could read the story or follow along in some way. I don’t have everything scheduled out yet, I just have a long list of ideas…but next week I’m going to be talking about when those happily ever afters go awry… *cue thunder and bolt of lightning* Or really like what our expectations are going into fairy tales and then what happens when those expectations are not met. So there’s not really anything to read or follow along. If you haven’t see Into the Woods, though, then you could watch that because it’s weird and funny and I’ll most likely rant about it next Friday. Just sayin’.




  • Sinjon

    I really liked the blog post, Carli. Fairy tales are definitely some of the most instinctive and relatable forms of human storytelling. But I did want to tell you that quote about dragons and fairy tales isn’t from Neil Gaiman, it’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton. It gets confused with Gaiman often since it appears at the beginning of Coraline. I didn’t mean to be nitpicky but I thought you’d like to know.

    • Thanks for the heads up, Sinjon!