In my review of C.S. Lakin’s The Wolf of Tebron, I quibble about the author applying that label to her story. No fairies, no fairy tale, right? Besides that, it’s not written for kids, and it takes on some fairly heavy philosophical issues. There’s quite a bit of magic in the air, though, and our hero does such things as traveling to the houses of the Sun and Moon, who are people in his world. Of course, you can find those plot elements in many works we would classify as fantasy or mythology. What makes The Wolf of Tebron a fairy tale?
As usual, when I’m confronted with a sticky question on a deadline, I zapped over to Wikipedia for an overview of fairy tales. Wikipedia is always to be approached with caution as source material, but this was a pretty good article, with references, and did a nice job hitting the highlights. Some things I learned:
1. Fairy tales are as old as humanity, with an oral tradition stretching back long before the first known written examples from Ancient Egypt, circa 1300 BC.
2. Fairy tales are a sub-genre of folktales–stories that spring up spontaneously within a culture, explain natural phenomena, and teach moral concepts. Unlike other kinds of folktales, fairy tales aren’t grounded in some historical truth (as are legends) and usually don’t explicitly teach a moral concept (as do fables). Fairy tales happen at an arbitrary time and place (“Once upon a time, in the land of faraway…”), involve magic and/or magical characters integral to the story, and most often have a happy ending.
3. You probably noticed a lot of ‘usuallys’ and ‘oftens’ in paragraph 2. There is violent disagreement about nearly everything in any definition of fairy tales. They may include fairies, or not. They may involve a quest, or not. They may include talking animals, or not. You can find lots of counter-examples even to the canonical characteristics. For example, the original version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid had a profoundly unhappy ending, though he eventually rewrote it to a more hopeful outcome that still falls far short of Disney revisionism. A definition provided by Stith Thompson in his book, The Folktale, cited in the Wikipedia article, seemed the most helpful to me: “…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.” This fits The Wolf of Tebron pretty well, I think.
Feel free to weigh in with your opinions, favorite examples, and alternate definitions of the fairy tale. One of the most troubling examples I’ve found is C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, subtitled, “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups.” It does feature both magic and fairies. Well, there’s one fairy–and she smokes a cigar.
Other stops on the CSFF Blog Tour:
Christian Fiction Book Reviews
Carol Bruce Collett
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Rachel Starr Thomson