We all love fairytales, don’t we and we’ve been telling them for millennia!
Humans created, told and acted, danced and sung them to each other and passed them on to the next generation.
Fairytales nourish our imaginations and nurture our creativity. Anything and everything is possible!
They are full of humans, talking animals, elves, giants, trolls, fairies, wicked stepmothers, the list goes on.
They are set in enchanted forests and magical kingdoms. Characters live in gingerbread houses or under bridges, climb tall beanstalks and grow giant vegetables!
But what exactly defines a traditional fairytale story?
Fairytales are short stories filled with enchantment and magic, taking us to another world, through a language of motifs, symbols and images. They often have a moral lesson too.
Examples of traditional fairytales exist in lots of different cultures. They usually have similar features in terms of plot, settings and character ideas which we’ll look at in this blog.
Let’s have a look at all the fairytale elements!
A set phrase at the beginning and end of the story.
‘Once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’
Fairytales usually begin and end with a familiar opening phrase and ending.
What are the first images you conjure up in your mind when you hear the expression, ‘Once upon a time….’?
For most of us we know that we are listening to a fairytale and entering into a world of make-believe, don’t we? We feel a sense of magic. In fact, fairytales throughout the world usually have their own versions of fairytale openers. Polish fairytales, for example, often begin, ‘Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…’ and Korean fairytales, ‘Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked….’.
Similarly, at the end of the fairytale, we usually expect to hear the ending, ‘… and they lived happily ever after.’ As with openers, fairytales in other cultures have their own versions. In Germany, they end with the words, “And if they didn’t die, they’re still alive today.”
It’s so interesting to think that all throughout the world, we bookend our fairytale stories with a set opener and ending, isn’t it?
Time & Place
When we listen to a fairytale, we imagine it is set in the past, although there is never any mention of a particular date or specific period in history.
Given these stories were first told centuries ago, they have retained the feeling of being set in ‘times gone by’ rather than actually referring to it.
Similarly, fairytales are usually set in unknown and unspecific places but there are certain locations which are familiar to lots of stories, aren’t there?
Common examples are forests and magical kingdoms and castles, villages, cottages and caves in lands far away!
Forests, for example, often represent a place of danger, vulnerability and the unfamiliar. Normal rules don’t apply.
They are mysterious places, inhabited by, for example, wild animals (the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood), witches (the witch in Hansel & Gretel), elves or pixies, away from the safety of the village.
The fairy tale castle is the centre of the kingdom, home to royalty, and representing wealth and power, as well as defence, safety and strength.
Castles can also be places of secrecy with lots of passages leading to mysterious rooms and towers where people and objects are locked away out of sight.
Hero, Villain, Helper, Magical & Mythical
Fairytale structures are formulaic and ‘typical’ fairytale characters play a big part in the formula.
Hero & Villain & Helper
There is a clearly defined hero and villain which creates a good versus bad narrative.
The hero often faces a challenge or difficulty which they have to overcome – triumphing over adversity.
The smaller and weaker ‘good’ characters, many of them also children, show courage and guile in triumphing over adversity in a world of bigger and stronger ‘bad’ characters (giants, evil stepmother or cunning wolf).
The villain opposes the hero and is often motivated by greed, revenge or power.
Quite a few stories feature a ‘helper’ character who comes to the aid of the hero, helping them overcome difficulties and enabling them to succeed.
Helpers can be humans, animals and even magic objects!
Magical & Mythical Characters
Whilst lots of fairytale characters are human, there are also a wealth of imaginary characters, such as witches, fairies, elves, pixies, dragons, trolls, genies and giants. They possess magic powers which they use for good or evil.
Some characters are able to change shape, such as the frog who is transformed into a prince.
Words, Phrases, Actions & Events
There is often a lot of repetition in fairytales.
It’s important to remember that these stories began as those told around the fire, passed down from generation to generation, through speech rather than writing.
Repetition, which could be in the form of certain words, phrases, actions or events, not only creates a rhythm but also helps us remember and tell the story.
Magic & Enchantment
Characters and objects with magical qualities
An element of magic is always present in a fairytale.
There might be a character and/or an object possessing magic qualities, as well as mythical or magical characters.
Objects that have magical properties or cause a magical event include wands, rings, beanstalk, a cooking pot, harp, mirror, flying carpet and genie’s lamp.
They are often used by the fairytale hero to help them succeed in their mission.
Along with magic, some stories have enchantment where characters may be placed under some kind of enchanted spell, such as in Sleeping Beauty where she pricks her finger on the spinning wheel and falls into a deep sleep for 100 years.
A Problem/Solution Narrative
A problem which needs solving
Fairytales usually have a ‘problem and solution’ narrative. The story’s hero must solve the problem caused by the villain.
The hero usually manages to do this even when the odds may be against them and they triumph over adversity.
As a consequence of their struggle, the hero becomes happier.
A short rhyme or refrain
Some fairytales have short rhymes or refrains which are repeated in the story. These chants often have a rhythm and rhyming words to help us remember them and the story more easily.
How many can you remember?!
- I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in’
- ‘Who’s that trip trapping over my bridge?’
- ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
- ‘Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum…’
- ‘All the better to see/hear/eat you with!’
The hero in a fairytale is often faced with a seemingly impossible challenge, such as spinning straw into gold.
The challenge usually appears unachievable at first but with a bit of creative thinking and magical help, the hero triumphantly succeeds in the end!
This could be through using their ‘good’ qualities, such as courage, guile or kindness, for example Gretel’s cunning in coaxing the witch to look inside the oven, or by the timely intervention of a helper or object with magical powers, such as the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
Turning a character or object into something else
Transformation features in lots of fairytales. We see characters transforming either themselves or another character or object into something else.
Think about a pumpkin turning into a carriage, a frog becoming a prince, Snow White’s stepmother changing into an old witch and Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.
3 and 7
Recurring numbers and patterns, particularly 3 and 7, is a common fairytale element. 3 is the most common, followed by 7.
They are both considered ‘lucky’ numbers in many cultures, as well as being of significance in many religions and mythology.
3 is the smallest number to establish a pattern, which makes it easy to remember and it’s great for building interest and suspense.
Apparently according to research, 7 is the highest number we can recognise straight away without having to consciously count them.
Examples include Goldilocks & the 3 Bears, 3 Little Pigs, 3 Billy Goats Gruff, 3 gifts from the fairy godmother to Cinderella, 3 guesses of Rumpelstiltskin’s name, Snow White and the 7 Dwarves and The 7 Ravens.
Life Lessons & Critical Thinking
Fairytales also contain life lessons which are designed to make us think about what’s right and wrong. The characters’ choices and actions act as warnings against bad behaviour or inspiration from good behaviour!
These stories, found throughout the world, show us how powerful our imaginations are and how fairytale elements are timeless and universal and used to help us make sense of our world.
I think Dr Mehmet Naci Önal, a lecturer at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University’s department of Turkish language and literature sums up fairytales perfectly when he said,
“Fairytales teach us to wonder, to use reason, to be patient, to dream, to overcome obstacles, not to be intimidated, to struggle, to be good people, to fight against evil, to tell the truth, to detect lies and deceit, to resist, and to listen. These values are universal human values: times change, people don’t.”
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