Traditional fairy tales have existed for hundreds of years and are still around today. What makes these stories so popular? And how does their magic capture the imagination of children and adults alike?

What is a fairy tale?

Madame d’Aulnoy may have been the first to coin the phrase in her collection of stories, ‘Les Contes des fees’ (Tales of Fairies) in 1697. However, what actually defines a fairy tale, as opposed to other types of folklore, such as moral tales, legends or beast fables, is still debated. Generally it’s considered that a fairy tale is a short story which involves folklore or fantasy characters, such as witches, elves, trolls, mermaids or fairies.

However, despite the genre’s name, the inclusion of fairies themselves is not essential. I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I love his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’ (from ‘Tree and Leaf’, HarperCollins, 2009), where he defines fairy tales as stories about the adventures of people in Faërie(the land of the fairies): “The definition of a fairy-story, what it is, or what it should be – does not…depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.”

The magic of magic

There is another special element commonly found in such tales – magic. As Tolkien explains: “A ‘fairy-story’ is one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.”

Spells…enchantments…curses…in some way, magic is woven into many of the fairy tales we know and love. Cinderella’s fairy godmother works wonders; Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold; Sleeping Beauty is placed under a wicked curse…The prevalence of magic in the old tales indicates that it was as captivating to the audience in the past as it is today.

The essence of magic attracts us – that otherness, that whole new realm of possibility which opens up when the usual rules of the world can be twisted and broken. There is marvellous adventure and power with the presence of magic. And yet, even if that power is directed maliciously against the hero or heroine, it can still be overcome and we are shown repeatedly that ‘good’ can and does conquer ‘evil’.

The telling of tales

Analysing the properties of fairy tales (such as characters, plot, themes and tone) can help us understand them better. And, as writers, this can enable us to develop and refine our own work. There have been numerous attempts to classify fairy tales. The Aarne-Thompson system groups fairy and folk tales according to their overall plot, so recurring plot patterns are identified. For example, the story Type 510 is ‘The Persecuted Heroine’, including tales such as Cinderella. Type 327 is ‘The Children with the Witch’, with stories like Hansel and Gretel.

In 1968, another scholar, Vladimir Propp analysed a collection of Russian tales. He concluded that a tale was composed of 31 elements – events or functions within the plot (for further information, see Morphology of the Folk Tale, by V. Propp and Louis A. Wagner). The 31 elements were not all required for all tales, but when they did appear, it was always in the same order. Propp also suggested the elements fitted into six basic stages within the tale:

  1. Preparation – the scene is set
  2. Complication – a problem occurs or evil happens
  3. Transference – the hero receives help (often via magic) and goes on a quest
  4. Struggle – the hero fights
  5. Return – the hero succeeds and returns home
  6. Recognition – the villain is punished and the hero is rewarded.

For example, consider these stages in the story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.

  1. Preparation: Jack lives with his mother and they are poor.
  2. Complication: They have run out of money and food. Jack is sent to sell their cow for money but swaps it for magic beans. His mother angrily throws them out of the window. They now have nothing.
  3. Transference: Magically, the beanstalk appears and Jack decides to climb it.
  4. Struggle: With great daring, Jack steals golden items from the giant’s castle at the top of the beanstalk.
  5. Return: Jack survives and brings the valuable item home. ‘Struggle’ and ‘Return’ stages repeat with different golden items. Finally, Jack steals the golden goose but is chased by the giant.
  6. Recognition: Jack chops down the beanstalk; the giant dies, and Jack is a popular lad.

This analysis of the structure is useful for us as writers. Although it could be criticised for oversimplifying plot, it serves well as a reminder of the basic functions in narrative. 

With the harsh reality of life, there will always be a longing for the magical to penetrate our world or, as Tolkien suggests, an opportunity for us to step into the world of Faërie. Because of this, new generations will continue to fall under the magical spell of fairy tales, even if these tales evolve into slightly different forms.

If you enjoyed this and want to go deeper into the enchanted forest, watch out for a fairy tales workshop coming in 2023!