The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation

Illustration for Charles Perrault's Peau d'ane, by Gustave DoréThe Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation
by Erzebet YellowBoy
(First published as a CdF editorial in 2006.)

In our original introduction to this website we said, Cabinet des Fées does not seek to define the fairy tale, but only to share and promote the tale type in all of its various manifestations. While we still do not intend to define the tale type, we’d like to add to the general discussion yet another view on the fairy tale as a type of story and speculate about why that type has retained its power since its birth as a literary form.

What I find interesting about fairy tales is the blending and re-blending of the oral tradition and the literary tradition in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The oral tradition–a tradition of the folk wherein stories were memorized and shared among a community or handed down through the generations–gave birth to the literary tradition, which came into being as these folk tales were collected and compiled in a written form. Like the sands of an hourglass, these two distinct forms flowed into each other and back again, influencing and adding to each telling of the tale until we were left with a literature that defied definition. The fairy tale has retained its fluidity–motifs and themes common to what we know as the traditional fairy tales are easily embedded into the genres and sub-genres of today. Yet, because of this fluidity, it is difficult to determine exactly what a fairy tale is.

If we think of genre as the many-patterned fabrics that make up the story-telling tradition, the fairy tale can be seen as a loom on which those fabrics can be woven. Yet, the fairy tale is in itself a genre of story whose definition depends on the way its author uses the tale’s known functions to induce a sense of wonder in the reader. The fairy tale has certain characteristics that expose its presence within stories of all types and yet mark it as a type unto itself. The most significant of these characteristics is the sense of wonder that it impresses upon the reader. An import from the oral tradition from which the modern fairy tale has partially evolved, this sense of wonder often involves a transformation of some sort–but not just any transformation. The fairy tale concerns itself with the miraculous, the marvelous transmutation of one thing into another: of peasant into princess, of prince into beast and back to prince again, of straw into gold.

In order to more fully explore the fairy tale as a type of story, I recommend Jack Zipes’ introduction to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Titled “Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale,” this sweeping discourse establishes the history and dialogue of the fairy tale from its early beginnings in folk culture through to the modern day. Noting the monograph by Jens Tismar, Kunstmärchen (Sammlung Metzler, 1977), Zipes states that “…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” (vx). Therefore, while the fairy tale certainly falls under the definition of genre, to consider it as a distinct genre of story can be a bit misleading, for the fairy tale slips easily among them all. Horror? We have it. Fantasy? Of course. Romance? We have that, too.

In the oral tradition, the wonder tale usually leaves us with a happy ending, for the tales are expressions of what the scholars call “wish fulfillment”. In the literary fairy tale, this is not always the case. Indeed, some of the most powerful modern retellings do not end happily at all, but they retain that familiar sense of wonder and awe that distinguishes them. And yet, because of the fantastic nature of fairy tales in whatever genre they manifest, and whether they end well or not, they are a part and parcel of that genre known as fantasy. How can this paradox be? How do we have a tale type that transcends genre and yet is of one? That, for me, only serves to add to the wonder of the fairy tale. I can’t explain it, nor do I want to have it explained to me. I prefer to leave every element of the fantastic intact.

One of the defining characteristics of the fairy tale and the sense of wonder to which I refer is that impossible situations are not only possible, but expected and anticipated. Disbelief is suspended–no one questions the great wall of briars around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or that a fairy godmother appears to turn mice into men, or that a wolf can lie in grandmother’s bed. The fantastic is interspersed with the ordinary–birds talk (as they should not) and fly (as they should) and these things occur as naturally as any sunrise or sunset. It is a sign of modern cultural loss that to accept the fantastic in such a manner is seen as a form of escapism from the real world.

I don’t believe in escapism. If you love story (no matter the subject) so much that you spend every possible minute immersed within it, you are not escaping life–story is your life. What the fairy tale offers is not escapism, but a renewed sense of wonder at the world in which we live. I think I need hardly describe why this sense of wonder is relevant to us today. Despite the advances in technology (some of which cause that very sense of which I speak), we are not so much different, as a whole, from those who first committed the oral wonder tale to paper and reshaped it to fit whatever vision or message they chose to impart to their readers. I find that most of us retain the basic human desire to believe in the impossible, the miraculous, and to hope for some sort of transformation–in ourselves, in our lives, and in the very world around us. For no matter where or when we live, the world is fraught with peril–much like the wild wood of old–and we who walk through it ever hope for the miracle that will ease our path or the paths of others. The fairy tale, in whatever genre it manifests, often provides us with the very thing we seek, even though in story form. It lets us believe that, no matter how awful the circumstances, a miraculous transformation will occur that will somehow lead us out of the perilous forest and more, the fairy tale allows us to make that transformation and to make it right here in the very same world from which we have been accused of trying to escape. The fairy tale can therefore be seen as a liminal tale–a literature through which transformation may be found in both fantasy and reality. True to its fluid nature, the fairy tale weaves a sense of wonder into both.