[Excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.]
A third ring of fantasy [of five discussed in this chapter], in many ways distinct from the sweeping canvas of High Fantasy and the rollicking escapades of Adventure Fantasy, is the delicate canvas of the Fairy Tale. While in many ways a smaller canvas, it is no less ambitious; think of a miniature painting, which still contains an entire world within its borders.
As a branch of fantasy literature, fairy-tale fantasy serves up a cluster of psychologically rich stories. These deep tales are rife with domestic problems, dreadful challenges, and astounding transformation and redemption.
The term “fairy tale” is misleading, as only a small number of such stories actually involve fairies. The German term for such stories is Märchen, freely translated as tales of wonder.
Fairy tales, and fiction that draws on those themes, range from “once upon a time” bedtime stories like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, rooted in polished literary collections by writers such as Charles Perrault in the late 1600s or Hans Christian Andersen in the 1800s, up to modern stories by Angela Carter, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Donna Jo Napoli, and others.
While fairy tales were demoted in Victorian times to the nursery, their original sources in oral lore were powerful, often gruesome cautionary tales. Even the fairies for whom the genre is named were once held to be dangerous, annoyed if crossed, and prone to taking revenge in dreadful ways. Early collections of such tales by folklorists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected Germanic tales in the early 1800s, were full of awful, cruel behavior, mostly used to scare children into being good.
Over time, the fairy-tale stories in published forms were cleaned up and sanitized. In sweeter renditions, fairy tales made perfect bedtime stories for the child, nicely tucked into the cozy bed, on the boundary between being awake and crossing into the magical world of dreams.
Fairy tales have several significant features. First, they tend to deal with personal transformation. People (or creatures) change in dramatic, often miraculous ways. The ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, the toad into a prince, the cinder-maid into a princess, the fool into a wise person.
Second, these tales are easily recognized by their domestic settings, close to home, full of familiar detail. But in fairy tales, these are homes or villages full of shadows and sometimes hidden malice. On a very personal, psychological level, fairy tales explore some invisible boundary between the safety of home with proper behavior – ideally a place of good parents, obedient children, a loyal spouse, a protective lord not far away – and what happens when some boundary is overstepped.
Capricious dangers abound, in the dark forest nearby, or force their way into the cottage or manor house itself, to lurk in dark corners until the wrong word is said or wrong deed done.
The traditional tales so often introduce dangers from within or very near to home: the careless or evil parent, the jealous sibling, the scheming spouse, the old crone or strange man at the door.
In some cases, the transgression is caused by our own penchant for foolishness, vanity, greed, or curiosity, to transgress a command or forget a promise, to open the door or talk to strangers or look into the forbidden chest or mirror or behind the locked door.
When the stories venture outside the home, they quickly leave the relative security of the cottage, village, or protective castle to cross the boundary into the dark forest, the foreign land, the wilderness full of monsters.
The old versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, or Little Red Riding Hood were full of this legacy of terrible deeds, dark shadows, and uncontrolled passions. As Donna Jo Napoli said in an interview:
Fairy tales deal with the evils we know exist in the world around us and in ourselves.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin
Today’s authors use resilient forms of these old traditional tales to explore modern relationships. Their stories blend fairy-tale themes of mischief, malice, and moxie with contemporary issues of dysfunction, alienation, disenfranchisement, poverty, abuse. The evil stepparent, the child bride, the wicked witch, are reinterpreted to expose social injustices and evil deeds.
As Midori Snyder notes, in modern fiction today, Sleeping Beauty takes on new forms “as a helpless 1950s stay-at-home girl, a bold space opera heroine, an oppressed time-traveling queen, a stoic Holocaust survivor, a sexually abused child, and myriad others.”
Jane Yolen’s 1992 book Briar Rose, for instance, tackled the subject of the Holocaust with a fairy-tale approach, using not only themes from the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty story but also what Yolen called “fairy-tale logic,” which allowed her to imagine an escape from a concentration camp where in fact there had been none. In a 2001 interview about the novel, Yolen noted:
The idea for an adult novel on the subject “Briar Rose,” had come to me when I was watching the documentary “Shoah” in which the concentration camp Chelmno was described – a camp in a castle. Castle, barbed wire, and the gassing of innocent folk. It suggested the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” in a horrible way.
Even the Disney versions, those versions of fairy tales so popular with young viewers, often present a fairly evil villain. But the commercialized versions dilute the raw power of the tales, falling into a routine of sappy romances, comic sidekicks, and formulaic endings. As Jane Yolen pointed out in an essay, “Once Upon a Time”:
Cinderella, until lately, has never been a passive dreamer waiting for rescue. The fore-runners of the Ash-girl have all been hardy, active heroines who take their lives into their own hands and work out their own salvations. . . .
To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most cherished dreams and makes a mockery of the magic inside us all – the ability to change our lives. [The Disney film version] set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is “off in a world of dreams.”
. . . Poor Cinderella, Poor us.
– Quoted by Terri Windling in “White as Snow: Fairy Tales and Fantasy,” introduction to Snow White, Blood Red (1993)
Fairy tales, and their modern expressions in fiction today, deal ultimately with choices we make every day: to help a stranger, face a fear, stand up to the powerful, or conquer our base instincts. The fairy tale often comes down in the end to a practical lesson, usually learned the hard way, of personal or household value – about the difference between foolishness and wisdom, cowardice and pluckiness, laziness and industry, dumb luck and just desserts.
They also explore the eventual redemption found in tales of wonder – the transformation or wisdom gained from fairy-tale’s school of hard knocks needed to live “happily ever after” in today’s uncertain world. Next time, we won’t waste our three wishes on sausages or make fun of the village fool or forget our promises.
While High Fantasy describes great battles to ultimately defeat great enemies, and Adventure Fantasy teaches codes of behavior to keep at bay the pesky and everpresent forces of chaos, Fairy-Tale Fiction reveals the closest evil, that dwelling within us, or within those in our immediate surroundings.
As Terri Windling wrote, a fairy tale “goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder.”
We have met the enemy and he is us. Fairy tales have given us our most memorable villains: the jealous witch in Snow White, the stepsisters of Cinderella, the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood who takes the place of sweet grandmother. Are they not so villainous precisely because they reside so close to home?
[This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition” in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]