What is a Fairy Tale? - Definition & Characters

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  • 0:03 The Real Fairy Tales
  • 0:37 Folk Story Vs. Fairy Tale
  • 1:30 The Wondrous Element
  • 2:27 Not Just for Children
  • 3:07 Character Transformations
  • 3:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alicia Taylor

Alicia has taught students of all ages and has a master's degree in Education

Learn about the origins of fairy tales and what defines a fairy tale and sets it apart from a folk story. Find out about how fairy tales have changed over time and read about examples of wondrous elements and character transformation.

The Real Fairy Tales

At some point in our lives, most of us have heard about the ''real fairy tales.'' We know the Disney movie version, but we have been told that, somewhere, there is a book with the original Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast in it.

Usually, whoever tells us this is saying that Disney messed up the stories, or perhaps that fairy tales used to be very violent to scare children into obedience. However, the real tale about the ''real fairy tales'' is a little more complex than that.

Folk Story vs. Fairy Tale

The father of the fairy tale is the folk story. A folk story tells a tale created by a community over many generations and passed down orally. A fairy tale is a folk story that has been written down and includes a wondrous element. Writing it down makes a big difference; when one person writes the story, he or she changes details to tell the tale his or her own way. Basically, folk tales don't have specific authors, but fairy tales do.

However, since folk tales spread across countries, a folk story might have been written down by any number of people in very different ways. So, many versions of ''Cinderella'' were written all over Europe. Next time people tell you that Disney messed up the real fairy tale, you can let them know that there is no such thing as the original version of a fairy tale.

The Wondrous Element

Plenty of folk tales don't become fairy tales when written. Some give birth to fables, and others become myths or epics. For a folk tale to become a fairy tale, it must have a wondrous element. According to scholars like Vladimir Propp and Jack Zipes, the wondrous element is something supernatural that brings about transformation in a character's life.

In Jack and the Bean Stalk, the wondrous element comes in the form of magic beans. For Snow White, the home of the seven dwarves in the forest is wondrous, as is the poisoned apple. In Cinderella, the wondrous element is represented by the fairy godmother.

You may be thinking, but, only one of those includes a fairy! Despite the term ''fairy tales,'' fairies need not be present in traditional fairy tales. These stories only need to include what Zipes calls ''the celebration of wondrous change.''

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