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Fairy tales are locally constructed stories of wonder passed down through the generations by oral tradition.
The best ones have been transformed into written stories, comic books, plays, movies, and other forms of popular entertainment. Many fairy tales have mutated over time and across cultures to the point where numerous variations on the original now exist.
Although the name suggests that fairy tales should include a fairy, most do not. The term was originally coined to describe certain 17th Century French folk tales that did indeed include fairies. Fairy tales from other cultures and periods can be recognized primarily by their aura of wonder and enchantment.
Fairy tales also can be distinguished from other mythologies by three outstanding factors.
Fairy tales embody the values of the common people, not the upper or ruling classes.
Religion takes a distinct sideline to the main story, if it is indeed mentioned at all.
No single person can be called responsible for a fairy tale. Someone may be credited by virtue of being the first to write a story down, but the chances are they did not create it from scratch. Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, and the Grimm Brothers are examples of this phenomenon.
Fairy tales contain similar themes across so many cultures that they embody some hidden part of the human psyche1.
In more languages than we can count, female servants marry the prince, starving children find new homes, and young low-class boys discover they are actually the heirs to a large kingdom. In fact, the most popular theme is that of the low-class or common person rising above his or her station. No doubt this is a form of escapism and wishful thinking.
Also popular is the theme of the trickster. Some wily character, often overlooked by his peers, is followed through his victories and follies. Some cultures embody the trickster as a single figure, such as the Fox or Wolf in Native American tales or Brer Rabbit in the Southern US. Other cultures simply designate a different trickster for each story. Trickster stories provide good-natured humour, and are sometimes used to explain natural phenomenon such as why the sky is blue, why the leopard is spotted, and why mother feels cranky a few days out of each month.
Another very common theme is that of the cautionary tale. Such stories serve as a warning to each new generation, often exaggerating the consequences of social or other faux pas. Some cautionary tales espouse the values of hospitality or good manners. Others are blatant attempts to convince wives to obey their husbands or children to obey their parents. Beauty and the Beast can be seen as a cautionary tale to women who would judge potential husbands on their looks alone.
Written vs Spoken Tales
Fairy tales that have been written down generally differ from their oral counterparts. Scribes are usually pressured to remove graphic descriptions from within the stories. Ironically, much of this censorship takes place because the upper-class editors viewed the prurient interests of the common people's fairy tales to be, well, distastefully common.
The Arabian tales originally contained many graphic depictions of sexual acts, but these escaped translation. The Grimm Brothers were pressured to remove many gory descriptions of murder, maiming, and torture. Even today, a series of books about campfire myths called Scary Stories is on many censored book lists for its honest account of tales like 'The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers'.
Uncensored tales are frequently as eerie as nursery rhymes are. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood was originally tricked into eating her dead grandmother's flesh. The original Sleeping Beauty (Talia) was raped and gave birth to twins while she continued sleeping. And it was Snow White's own biological mother who tried to kill her out of jealousy in the original story.
Since fairy tales and nursery rhymes are passed down orally, they both have a tendency towards addictive singsong phrases. Nursery rhymes have cadences such as 'Ashes, ashes, we all fall down' and 'Please put a penny in the old man's hat'. Fairy tales have their own charm in phrases such as 'Once upon a time, a long, long time ago', 'Fee Fie Fo Fum', 'Open Sesame', and 'happily ever after'.