What Is a Fairy Tale?

Note: Be sure to read the companion piece to this post as well.

In his essay “On Stories”, C. S. Lewis lamented that children didn’t read enough fairy tales. Tolkien worried that adults had relegated fairy tales to the nursery and preferred the realities of “adult life.” To these two great minds, the loss of fairy tales meant the loss of something vital to our humanity.

A while ago a friend asked me what characteristics defined a fairy tale. What makes a story a fairy tale and not a myth or a tall tale? Over coffee, we hashed out what we believed were the two necessary and unique elements of a fairy tale–and also learned a great deal about why they are so important. The two characteristics we identified were these:

  1. Every fairy tale involves a journey to an unusual place. This place is unsought and reached by accident or by the hero’s conscious knowledge.
  2. After his or her adventures in this unusual place, the hero returns home and is clearly the better for the journey, but the hero is not always happier. Sometimes the journey has awakened in the hero’s heart a longing that cannot be quelled by anything in our world.

Though many types of stories involve journeys, only fairy tales take the heroes to the world of Faerie, the odd, enchanting, dangerous land that ordinary folk have the habit of stumbling into. Much can be said about Faerie, but its one defining feature is its paradoxical nature: profoundly beautiful, but terrifyingly deadly. It has beauty and danger in the same degree, and the hero often finds both just behind the next tree.

Once in Faerie, the hero quickly finds himself facing either some overwhelmingly difficult task or having to obey some ridiculously arbitrary command. In short, the hero’s character is tested and often fails, but he always finds help from some source outside himself. (This is how you can tell a true fairy tale from a modern counterfeit: real fairy tales always have the hero come up short and flawed, instead of singing narcissistic songs of self-sufficiency.)

The task is always passed, though often at some cost to the hero, and he (or she) has become wiser, braver, and kinder. He returns home better equipped to live in a world where the monsters and dangers aren’t always so obvious. His laughter is richer, his love stronger, and his life more vital. So it is with the great Samwise Gamgee when he returns to his beloved Shire.

But sometimes the hero’s time in Faerie wounds his soul by awakening a longing for something not to be found in this world. Often this longing connects to the help the hero received in Faerie: he has beheld a beauty, a grace, a wisdom that is simultaneously familiar and foreign.  He soon realizes that his heart can never be at peace but in the presence of this beauty. Such a character is Frodo, whose heart-wounds can only be healed in an eternal, ancient land over the western seas.

Looking over these common elements of fairy tales, it is easy to identify their purpose and function: to teach us how to live in our own world, fairy tales take us to another world for a time. Fairy tales are entertaining, enchanting, alluring. But this delight cannot be separated from what fairy stories teach us.  More on this later.

The best way to end this post is by encouraging you to take a trip to Faerie, to undertake a journey of delight and danger that will deepen the colors and pleasures of your homecoming. Read some fairy tales to yourself. Then read them to any kid who comes near to you.

But if you can’t get to your fairy stories, at least meditate on the approaching feast.  For Christmas is all about the Great Fairy Tale: the story that turns our entire life into one glorious fairy tale that ends with our true and final Homecoming.