A fairy tale is a story featuring folkloric characters such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, giants, talking animals and others. These stories often involve royalty, and modern versions usually have a happy ending. In cultures where demons and witches are perceived as real, fairy tales may merge into legendary narratives, where the context is perceived by teller and hearers as having historical actuality. However, unlike legends and epics they usually do not contain more than superficial references to religion and actual places, persons, and events although these allusions are often critical in understanding the origins of these fanciful stories.
Fairy tales are found in oral folktales and in literary form. The history of the fairy tale is particularly difficult to trace, because only the literary forms can survive. Still, the evidence of literary works at least indicates that fairy tales have existed for thousands of years, although not perhaps recognized as a genre; the name “fairy tale” was first ascribed to them by Madame d’Aulnoy. Fairy tales, and works derived from fairy tales, are still written today.
The older fairy tales were intended for an audience of adults as well as children, but they were associated with children as early as the writings of the précieuses, the Brothers Grimm titled their collection Children’s and Household Tale, and the link with children has only grown stronger with time.
Folklorists have classified fairy tales in various ways. Among the most notable are the Aarne-Thompson classification, and the morphological analysis of Vladimir Propp. Other folklorists have interpreted the tales’ significance, but no school has been definitively established for the meaning of the tales.

Defining marks

Although the fairy tale is a clearly distinct genre, the definition that marks a work out as a fairy tale is considerably more disputed. Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folktale, criticized the common distinction between “fairy tales” and “animal tales” on the grounds that many tales contained both fantastic elements and animals. However, to select works for his analysis, he used all Russian folktales classified as Aarne-Thompson 300-749 — in a cataloging system that made such a distinction — to gain a clear set of tales. His own analysis identified fairy tales by their plot elements, but that in itself has been criticized, as the analysis does not lend itself easily to tales such as Rapunzel, which do not involve a quest, and furthermore, the same plot elements are found in non-fairy tale works.

The Russian tale Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf features no fairies, but a talking wolf. One universally agreed-on definition is that the nature of a tale does not depend on whether fairies appear in it. Many people, including Angela Carter in her introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales have noted that a great deal of so-called fairy tales do not feature fairies at all. This is partly because of the history of the English term “fairy tale” which derives from the French phrase contes de fée which was first used in the collection of Madame D’Aulnoy in 1697. As Stith Thompson and Carter herself point out, talking animals and the presence of magic seem to be more common to the fairy tale than fairies themselves.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, agreed with the exclusion of “fairies” from the definition, and defined fairy tales as stories about the adventures of men in Faërie, the land of fairies, dwarves, elves, and not only other magical species but many other marvels. However, in the same essay, by that very definition, he excludes tales that are often considered fairy tales, such as The Monkey’s Heart, which Andrew Lang included in The Lilac Fairy Book.

Some folklorists prefer to use the German term Märchen to refer to fairy tales, a practice given weight by the definition of Stith Thompson in his 1977 edition of The Folktale: “a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses.” The characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal: princesses and goose-girls; youngest sons and gallant princes; ogres, giants, dragons, and trolls; wicked stepmothers and false heroes; fairy godmothers and other magical helpers, often talking horses, or foxes, or birds; glass mountains; and prohibitions and breaking of prohibitions. Italo Calvino cited the fairy tale as a prime example of “quickness” in literature, because of the economy and concision of the tales.

History of the genre
Originally, stories we would now call fairy tales were merely a kind of tale, not marked out as a separate genre. The term “Märchen” means, literally, “tale” rather than a specific type. The genre itself was first marked out by writers of the Renaissance, who began to define a genre of tales, and became stabilized through the works of many writers, becoming an unquestioned genre in the works of the Brothers Grimm. In this evolution, the name was coined when the précieuses took up writing literary stories; Madame d’Aulnoy invented the term contes de fée, or fairy tale.

Prior to the definition of the genre of fantasy, many works that would now be classified as fantasy were termed “fairy tales”, such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit or George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Indeed, Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories includes discussions of world-building considered a vital part of fantasy criticism. Although fantasy, particularly in the sub-genre fairytale fantasy, draws heavily on fairy tale motifs, the genres are now regarded as distinct.

Folk and literary
A picture of Mother Goose by Gustave Doré: reading written (literary) fairy tales
The fairy tale, as orally told, is a sub-class of the folktale. From this form, many writers have written down forms of fairy tales, often with considerable modification. These are the literary fairy tales, or Kunstmärchen. The oldest forms, from Panchatantra to the Pentamerone, show stylistic evidence of considerable reworking from the oral form. The Brothers Grimm were among the first to try to preserve the features of oral tales, and even so, they considerably reworked the fairy tales to fit the written form.

Literary fairy tales and oral fairy tales freely exchanged plots, motifs, and elements with each other and with the tales of foreign lands. Various folklorists of the eighteenth century attempted to recover the “pure” folktale, uncontaminated by literary versions, but while oral fairy tales likely existed for thousands of years prior to their literary forms, no such pure folktales exist — nor do pure literary fairy tales, not drawing on the folk tradition, exist.

The fairy tale was part of an oral tradition; tales were told, rather than written down, and handed down from generation to generation. Because of this, the history of their development is necessarily obscure. Illiterate peoples, in particular, may have long told tales without there being any records of them. The oldest known written fairy tales stem from ancient Egypt, and fairy tales appear, now and again, in written literature throughout literate cultures, as in the Panchatantra or The Golden Ass, but it is unknown to what extent these reflect the actual folk tales even of their own time. The stylistic evidence indicates that these, and many later collections, reworked folk tales into literary forms. What they do show is that the fairy tale has ancient roots, older than the Arabian Nights collection of magical tales, such as the Panchatantra, The Golden Ass (which includes Cupid and Psyche), Vikram and the Vampire, and Bel and the Dragon.

Fairy tales allusions appear plentifully in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and the plays of William Shakespeare; King Lear can be considered a literary variant of fairy tales such as Water and Salt and Cap O’ Rushes. The tale itself resurfaced in Western literature in the 17th century, with The Facetious Nights of Straparola by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, which contains many fairy tales in its inset tales, and the Neapolitan tales of Giambattista Basile, which are all fairy tales. Carlo Gozzi made use of many fairy tale motifs among his Commedia dell’Arte scenarios, including among them one based on The Love For Three Oranges. The fairy tale itself became popular among the précieuses of upper-class France, and among the tales told in that time were the Contes of Charles Perrault, who fixed the forms of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Although Straparola’s, Basile’s and Perrault’s collections contain the oldest known forms of various fairy tales, on the stylistic evidence, all the writers rewrote the tales for literary effect.
The first collectors to attempt to preserve not only the plot and characters of the tale, but the style in which they were preserved were the Brothers Grimm; ironically enough, this meant although their first edition remains a treasure for folklorists, they rewrote the tales in later editions to make them more acceptable, which ensured their sales and the later popularity of their work.

Such literary forms did not merely draw from the folktale, but fed back into it. The Brothers Grimm rejected several tales for their collection, though told orally to them, because the tales derived from Perrault; an oral version of Bluebeard was thus rejected, and the tale of Briar Rose was included only because Jacob Grimm convinced his brother that the figure of Brynhild proved that the sleeping princess was authentically German folklore.

This consideration of whether to keep Sleeping Beauty reflected a belief common among folklorists of the nineteenth century: that the folk tradition preserved fairy tales in forms from pre-history except when “contaminated” by such literary forms, leading people to tell inauthentic tales. However, further research has concluded that fairy tales never had a fixed form, and regardless of literary influence, the tellers constantly altered them for their own purposes.

The work of the Brothers Grimm influenced other collectors, both inspiring them to collect tales and leading them to similarly believe, in a spirit of romantic nationalism, that the fairy tales of a country were particularly representive of it, to the neglect of cross-cultural influence. Among those influenced were the Russian Alexander Afanasyev, the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, the English Joseph Jacobs, and Jeremiah Curtin, a American who collected Irish tales.

Cross-cultural transmission
Fairy tales with very similar plots, characters, and motifs are found spread across many different cultures. This is generally held to be caused by the spread of such tales, as people repeat tales they have heard in foreign lands, although the oral nature makes it impossible to trace the route except by inference. Folklorists have attempted to determine the origin by internal evidence, which can not always be clear; Joseph Jacobs, comparing the Scottish tale The Ridere of Riddles with the version collected by the Brothers Grimm, The Riddle, noted that in The Ridere of Riddles one hero ends up polygamously married, which might point to an ancient custom, but in The Riddle, the simpler riddle might argue greater antiquity.

Folklorists, of the “Finnish” (or historical-geographical) school, attempted to place fairy tales to their origin, with less than conclusive results. Sometimes influence, especially within a limited area and time, is clearer, as when considering the influence of Perrault’s tales on those collected by the Brothers Grimm. Little Briar-Rose appears to stem from Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, as the Grimms’ tale appears to be the only independant German variant. Similarly, the close agreement between the opening of Grimms’ version of Little Red Riding Hood and Perrault’s tale points to an influence — although Grimms’ version adds a different ending (perhaps derived from The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids).

Fairy tales also tend to take on the color of their location, through the choice of motifs, the style in which they are told, and the depiction of character and local color.

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