Difference Between Fairy Tale and Fantasy

Posted July 10, 2015 by Carlisa in Fairy Tale Fridays, Features / 7 Comments

fairy tale fridayThe Inspiration

Two days ago, in the kitchen, a woman (Carlisa’s mother) stands by the sink washing dishes. Carlisa sits at the table, her computer and a blank WordPress document open in front of her. Her mind is scrambling for ideas for a Fairy Tale Friday post because she hasn’t posted one in three weeks and needs to get her butt in gear. Camera focuses in on the blinking cursor. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Me: Mom, what’s a fairy tale thing I could write about?

Camera pans back out to show entire kitchen.

Mom: I don’t know, is Harry Potter a fairy tale?

Carlisa, with her mighty Harry Potter knowledge, sighs. 

Me: No.

Mom: Why?

Carlisa bites her lip, unsure of how to respond…even with her mighty Harry Potter knowledge.

Me: Er, I don’t know. It’s fantasy.

The gears in Carlisa’s head start turning, wondering where the line between fantasy and fairy tale is drawn. They both could have dragons and princesses and even fairies. But the knowledge seems instinctive, she muses. She smiles because she has an idea and then closes the blank page and works on other things until Thursday night when she starts writing the post because she is a perpetual procrastinator. 


The Question

Here’s the question of the day: Why am I not a professional screenwriter? I mean, look at that genius above.

I’m totally kidding.

…Also, I’m not kidding.

Anyways, the real question today is: What is the line between the fantasy and the fairy tale genre? Let’s discuss

The Non-Answer

From what I’ve gathered and thought about, this is the almighty answer: Fairy tales are always fantasy but fantasy is not necessarily fairy tale. Like Harry Potter is a fantasy but not a fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast would be both. But how can we make the distinction between what is a fairy tale and what’s exclusively fantasy?

The Definitions

Fairy Tale:
:  a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins)–called also fairy story
b :  a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending
2:  a made-up story usually designed to mislead

is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least). Often, the plot involves magic or witchcraft and takes place on another planet or in another — undiscovered — dimension of this world.

The Moral

I think often fairy tales have morals, while fantasy stories don’t. And fantasy stories can have morals. Of course things have morals. They’re just not the main aspects like old fairy tales used to be. Most fairy tales were originally written to scare children into doing the right things so they had these big morals. These big don’t-get-distracted-or-you’ll-be-eaten-by-a-wolf types of morals. But in modern day retellings, a lot of these morals are lost. When people are reading fiction, they don’t want to be chastised. And authors don’t want to chastise their readers. So in old fairy tales, yes. Modern retellings, this is probably not going to be the way you can know if it’s fairy tale or fantasy.

The Characters

I saw one website that said in fantasy there is much more character development. Again in the old, original fairy tales, this may hold true. But in retellings? In modern fairy tales? I don’t think so. Characters are usually deep and rich no matter the genre or subgenre…so I don’t think this holds up today.

The Tradition

I guess with fantasy, it’s original–or as original as fantasy can be. And fairy tales are deeply rooted in tradition, in their long history. Especially re-tellings. So this does seem to be a legitimate difference.

But Is There Even Much of a Line?

Lewis Carroll called his Alice in Wonderland a fairy tale, but now we would not say the same. That’s fantasy. But the qualities are there. So what is it? Is it just something in our gut, something from what we know Disney fairy tales to be, that tells us whether or not it’s a fairy tale? Is it the handsome prince? What is it? 

The Conclusion

I don’t know exactly what the line is. I know when a retelling is a fairy tale because I’m familiar with the original fairy tales…but what makes the distinction in the first place? Fairy tales seem to be a sub-genre of the overall fantasy genre. That much is made clear. But other than that, there is a lot of overlap and haziness.

Yeah, so, um, this is awkward. I don’t have an definitive answer for you.


But I want to hear your opinion! Please give me your ideas and thoughts!

  • I think it’s a really interesting question and the only answer I have would be similar to yours – it’s instinctive. I know some things are fairy tale and some are not without being able to identify the aspects that *make* it a fairy tale.

    I would even contest the definition that all fairy tales are fantasy. Tolkien, would disagree with me. His definition of fairy tale or fairy story was anything that interacted with fairie or magic. But that was a lifetime ago before the world was filled with fantasy stories. Before contemporary retellings of especially Cinderella brought stories with no magic at all under the umbrella of “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.”

    Fantasy is easy enough to define. But there is a particular quality to a fairy tale – the way magic is handled; the rules of the world have a particular order to them.

    And I think we keep messing with that line – in contemporary retellings with no magic – in rehashings of plots and characters that aren’t actually a fairy tale (like Once Upon a Timethat uses fairy tale elements but I wouldn’t consider to be a fairy tale itself).

    But it is fun to talk about 🙂

    • I saw something somewhere that said the fantasy genre actually developed out of the fairy tale stories. But because fantasy became so varied and such a *huge* genre, fairy tales became the subgenre of fantasy…which I think it really interesting.

      And I didn’t even think about OUaT like that! But it’s really true. It contains all of the fairy tale elements because it’s basing itself off of the original fairy tales…but it’s not a fairy tale. Fairy tale contemporary? Is that a thing?

      Ah, great comment! Lots of things to think about.

  • I love discussions like this!
    I think that fairy tales are more cliche and straight-forward. Most of them are that a princess fancies and prince, so they go through a ton of stuff to get married. The stories always end with a wedding. Pretty simple. Fantasy books are a little bit more complicated than that. The main character has to save the world, figure out who exactly they are, and find love somewhere along the way. And that character may or may not accomplish all of these things. But, in fairy tales, there is always a happy ending. I am seeing more and more fantasy books that do not have that happily ever after.
    Fairytales can also be a little bit more absurd. Like a flying carpet in Aladdin or the talking teapots in Beauty and the Beauty, fairy tales are just a little more out-there.

    • If you’re talking about Disney fairy tales, then, yes, I’d say for sure they always end up with the happily-ever-after. With books and stories though, I think I disagree. Especially the original fairy tales…most of them don’t have the traditional “happily ever after.” Disney has taken them and made them that way and that’s kind of what we think of when we think “fairy tale.” I’ve been noticing that a lot of the fairy tale retellings now-a-days have become darker and not necessarily princesses and happiness and weddings. But you bring up a great point, thanks for the comment! 🙂

  • For some reason I view fairy tales as originating for the purpose of reaching children, directly. I looove fairy tales and their subsequent retellings, but I think they all originate from folklore or just OLDER stories that are geared towards kids. I agree about the moral/message thing. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself correctly, but I feel like the fantasy world could be pretty huge, but writing a fairy tale retelling is really specific to a certain number of stories that already exist. Does that make any sense? lol

    • That’s true that most of them come from really old stories–like the Grimm brothers or Hans Christian Anderson. There are some books that aren’t necessarily retellings that still have the “fairy tale” feel to them so it’s interesting to think about!

  • This is so interesting. I always differentiated it by scope. Fairy tales to me are much smaller. They take place in a wood, a cottage, a castle. Beyond that the details aren’t really addressed. It is almost as if every fairy tale takes place within the same world. Fantasy on the other hand, to me, implies a larger context and world building.