Home Link: SurLaLune Fairy Tales Logo
Home Link: SurLaLune Fairy Tales Logo Introduction | Annotated Tales | eBooks | Bookstore | Illustration Gallery | Discussion Board | Blog
Answering What Is a Fairy Tale?

AS any one who has picked up a copy of Grimms, Perrault, Andersen, or countless other fairy tale collections will know, most fairy tales do not have any fairies in them at all. So some of the most frequently asked questions are:

"What is a fairy tale, anyway?"
"Why are they called fairy tales?"

Let me state this plainly: Intuitively, after working with them for so long, I know what a fairy tale is. Can I easily define it for you? No, I cannot, but this page will hopefully give you some tools to help recognize one when you read or hear one. I am not going to give a neat, pat answer since I don't think one exists. Scholars like to look for a pat definition to help control the large, living body of tales found all around the world.

I will state clearly that fairy tales do not have to be stories about fairies. Also, fairy tales are part of folklore, but folk tales are not necessarily fairy tales. The simplest way to explain this is to think of fairy tales as a subgenre of folklore along with myths and legends. If that is enough to answer your questions, stop here. It is as simple as this exercise is going to get.

Then there is the whole explanation of how folklore comes from oral storytelling tradition. Be aware that this website and most fairy tale studies deal with literary fairy tales, tales that are once removed from oral tradition, set down on paper by one or more authors. Once the story is written down, it becomes static in that version. It is no longer only folklore, but part of the world's body of literature. In contrast, the beauty of storytelling is how the same story is slightly different each time it is told, even by the same storyteller. Oral fairy tales are elusive creatures that folklorists study, record and try to trace through history. It is an invigorating field of study, but not the one I have pursued on SurLaLune. Note that sometimes the literary fairy tale came first and was then absorbed back into oral tradition, such as with "Beauty and the Beast."

The simpler question to answer is why these tales are called "fairy tales." It is from the influence of the women writers in the French Salons who dubbed their tales "contes de fees." The term was translated into English as "fairy tales." The name became so widely used due to the popularity of the French tales, that it began to be used to describe similar tales such as those by the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.

Below I have quoted passages from some of my favorite articles about defining a fairy tale. To start, I am also offering Webster's Dictionary definition of "fairy tale." As you will see, it does not really help at all. I hope the other quotes will. Of course, I highly recommend going to the sources of these quotes and reading the full articles. These quotes are meant to whet your appetite for the source material.

fairy tale: a story for children about fairies, or about magic and enchantment // a very improbable story // a lie

The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, 1990 Edition.  New York: Lexicon Publications, 1990.

"I said the sense "stories about fairies" was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."

"The definition of a fairy-story -- what it is, or what it should be -- does not, then, 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. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: 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. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away."

Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy Stories." Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Amazon.co.uk: Buy the book in paperback.

The essay is currently available in the United States in The Tolkien Reader: Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy Stories." The Tolkien Reader. 1972.
Amazon.com: Buy the book in paperback.

"My own definition of fairy tale goes something like this: A fairy tale is a story-literary or folk-that has a sense of the numinous, the feeling or sensation of the supernatural or the mysterious. But, and this is crucial, it is a story that happens in the past tense, and a story that is not tied to any specifics. If it happens "at the beginning of the world," then it is a myth. A story that names a specific "real" person is a legend (even if it contains a magical occurrence). A story that happens in the future is a fantasy. Fairy tales are sometimes spiritual, but never religious."

Lane, Marcia. Picturing a Rose: A Way of Looking at Fairy Tales. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1993.

The incomparable Jack Zipes has written extensively about the literary fairy tale and the need to define it. One of his best articles on the subject is the introduction to The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Below is a short excerpt from only the beginning of this article. Zipes continues to expand and expound upon the subject after this short excerpt:

"In his first short monograph, [Jens] Tismar set down the principles for a definition of the literary fairy tale (das Kunstmarchen) as genre: (1) it distinguishes itself from the oral folk tale (das Volksmarchen) in so far as it is written by a single identifiable author; (2) it is thus synthetic, artificial, and elaborate in comparison to the indigenous formation of the folk tale that emanates from communities and tends to be simple and anonymous; (the differences between the literary fairy tale and the oral folk tale do not imply that one genre is better than the other; (in fact, the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author."

Zipes, Jack, ed. "Introduction: Towards the Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale." The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University, 2000.
Amazon.com: Buy the book in paperback.

If you would like to read more on SurLaLune about defining fairy tales, please read the following discussions from the SurLaLune Discussion Board Archives.

Define "fairy tale" from April to May 2001

Definition of fairy tales from October 2001


Support SurLaLune

Available on

SurLaLune CafePress Shop

Available from

The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie

Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes

Great Fairy Tale Tradition by Jack Zipes

A Companion to the Fairy Tale

From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

Fairy Tales from Greenhaven Press

Fairy Tales and Folklore by D. L. Ashliman

The Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

Grimm's Grimmest

©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 6/1999; Last updated 7/2/07