WHAT IS A FAIRY TALE?
Distinctions between a Fairy Tale and Fairy Lore
fairy tale is a tale told in a morbid age to the only remaining
sane person, a child. A legend is a fairy tale told to men
when men were sane.
The distinction between a fairy tale and traditional
fairy lore may in some cases be a subtle one. One
difference is that fairy lore deals directly with the subject
of fairies, while fairy tales may or may not involve fairies
in their plot lines.
The word fairy (also spelled faery, faerie,
fae, or fay) derives from the Old French fae,
or faerie, meaning illusion. Hence, fairy
tales are stories that involve marvelous or magical events,
and/or characters such as fairies, elves, or trolls, as
well as talking, shape-shifting, or enchanted animals or
While the exact origins of fairy tales are murky, it's
clear that they derive heavily from the myths and folklore
of their respective cultures. Some fairy tales were written
specifically to be told or read to children, and hence are
modified or watered-down versions of the original myths,
which may have been much darker and described more horrific
Often, the fairy tales themselves are quite dark and violent,
and it's hard to imagine more horrific versions. However,
most fairy tales (with notable exceptions such as many of
those of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen's
bittersweet tales) at least end happily for the main characters,
which is almost the exception to the rule with stories of
traditional folklore, which evolved at least in part as
a way to deal emotionally with the harsh realities of their
times -- realities such as war, political oppression, and
pestilence -- as well as timeless experiences such as love,
loss, sex, birth, and death, not to mention the classic
literary themes of Man against Nature, Man Against Man,
and Man Against Himself.
The authors of most of these derivative stories written
for children are now unknown, exceptions once again being
the writings of such luminaries as Hans Christian Andersen
and the Brothers Grimm.
Then, of course, there are more modern literary works that,
by the definition given here, fall easily into the category
of "fairy tales," such as Frank Baum's The
Wizard of Oz.
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