What We Mean When We Talk About Fairy Tales

I thought I would talk about some of my favorite stories, but in considering fairy tales and other fantastical things, it’s useful to have some definitions.

Photo: Jonny Lindner


Fairy Tales

Broadly when we talk about fairy tales, we mean stories that come out of a common folklore tradition associated with a general geographic region. The region does not matter in the stories, but the stories themselves will tend to be told within a relatively defined space – we can speak broadly about European, Central American, or East Asian folkloric traditions, for example, which will have relatively discreet fairy tales within them. Within fairy tale stories specifically, though, the specifics don’t matter! Though fairy tales within a given tradition tend to be associated with defined geographic region (there are some that seem to transcend geography, but that’s another blog post), fairy tales never happen in a specific place. They are never in a town that appears on any map; most often our heroes and villains simply live in “the village,” or “the castle,” and have their adventures in “the kingdom” or “the forest.”

Similarly, fairy tales tend to be set, more or less, “once upon a time,” or “long ago,” and not, “five years ago,” or “in the 1700s,” or “around the time of William the Conqueror.” One of the defining characteristics of fairy tales is that they are told as happening out of time.

Lastly, fairy tale heroes are unnamed. Think of your favorite fairy tale – Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Princess and the Pea – the characters are called by what they do, or what they are; or occasionally, they will have very common “everyman” names, such as Jack and the Bean Stalk, or Hansel and Gretel. But, importantly, fairy tales don’t happen to a person anyone knows, or that anyone has ever heard of. Rather, they are stories about anyone – a princess, a merchant, a farmboy – and so, they are stories about everyone within the community where they are told.



What about King Arthur, or Robin Hood?

These stories fall into the realm of legend. The characters all reside in a more or less specific, named place – Camelot, Sherwood Forest. The happenings of these stories are also time-bound – the Dark Ages, or Norman England. And finally, the reason we’re told these stories is, ostensibly, that they are true – or at least, could be! These things happened to arguably real people in arguably real place at a more or less specific time in history – we’re told! The defining quality of a legend is, instead, the extraordinary actions of the heroes, and that it all could have happened just like the story says it did.



Mythology has to do with the doings of gods. While fairy tales may tell us that anyone can be a hero, and legends will regale us with the stories of those who were heroes, mythology gives us our back story. It answers questions about how did the world come to be, who were the first people, why are we farmers instead of herdsman (or vice versa), where do animals come from, why do disasters happen, and what happens when we die. Mythology also tends to be geographically contained, and while the heroes are named, everything happens outside of time.



Folklore is the big category that all of these, and other things like music and dance and weaving – and all the other ways that humans have come up with to tell stories – fall into. Our folklore is the way we think about our world, our place in it, and what it all means.

So what do fairies have to do with any of it?

Fairy tales can include fairies, or magic, but it isn’t required. The word “fairy” comes to us from the same root as the word “fate.” In mythology, the Fates guide or determine the course of each individual’s life; so fairy tales are those stories about how the paths of our lives are determined.

Or (and maybe, also), in Middle English, faerie refers not to a creature but to a place – a country out of common time and space where strange creatures and happenings exist – and so a fairy tale is a story that, by having no defined place or time, is tied to that other mysterious land.

I identified Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town as a fairy tale because, although a good portion of the book does take place in Toronto, a significant portion – including much of the driving action of the story – takes place in unspecific other spaces; and although the characters are called by different names, I argue that, in that lack of specificity, they essentially remain unnamed. Also, although the portion of the story set on Toronto takes place sometime in the early-2000s, in much of the story, time in also unspecified – things take place sort of in our modern era, but we don’t really know when, and placement in time is not at all important to the story.


So that’s what I mean when I throw these words around! If you have other definitions, I’d love to hear them!


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