The Importance of Fairytales and How We Tell Them
Fairytales pull from mythology to teach basic rights and wrongs. Here’s how you can write your own.
As little kids, we often find ourselves being told stories of brave knights rescuing princesses and dangerous witches being defeated by determined children with hearts of gold. You may have had some of Aesop’s Fables read to you, or heard tales from One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights – Aladdin comes from these tales). Fairytales are an important part of just about every culture on Earth, but why? What makes a fairy tale, and why do we keep telling them? If they’re that important, can you tell your own fairy tales?
Let’s explore these fantasy worlds and see why they matter so much to us, as well as how you can tell a fairytale of your own.
What is a fairytale?
Fairytales are actually a subgenre of a larger group of stories known as folktales. In the technical sense, a folktale is a fictional narrative, traditionally passed down through oral storytelling (also called word-of-mouth), that covers semi-historical and semi-plausible stories with supernatural or exaggerated elements. Folktales vary from culture to culture but generally include things like myths, legends, “tall tales,” fables, and fairytales.
So what makes a fairytale a fairytale? How do you qualify it? Well, a fairytale should include:
- A simple “everyman” protagonist with no particular superpowers or high social status. Something like a tailor, shoemaker, or blacksmith.
- A clear villain doing something obviously morally wrong (lying, stealing, cheating, murder - y’know, the usual)
- A helpful secondary character or cast of characters that help the protagonist because the protagonist is nice to them
- Some kind of supernatural element - whether this is actual fairies or something else like dwarves, dragons, or direct magic like spells or curses
- A clear moral message to take away from it - be kind to strangers, be wary of gifts from people you don’t know, don’t make deals you don’t understand, appearances aren’t everything, etc.
Typically, fairytales have our plucky, resourceful protagonist going through some kind of harrowing trial only to emerge on the other side safe and living happily ever after. That being said, not all versions of the stories will let our protagonist get a happy ending - consider the original version of The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen. The source material is much darker than the Disney version you’re probably familiar with. (You’ll see throughout this article Disney owes a lot to classic fairy tales. Did you know Frozen was inspired by a fairytale called The Snow Queen?)
Why fairytales matter
Fairytales are important to our culture in a couple of different ways.
First of all, they acted as cautionary tales for small children still learning how society works; they warned them away from dangerous things like strangers and wild animals while also showing them the right way to behave that would keep them safe and make them a better part of the culture they grew up in.
Secondly, they act as a way to record what our society values and what it looks like - fairytales may have similar morals and structures around the world, but each culture changes the story so that it reflects their world and their people. Fairytales are intentionally familiar and comforting in that familiarity.
On top of that, fairy tales offer historians and anthropologists a unique lens into societies that might otherwise be lost; paper and carvings can be worn out or ruined, but as long as one person is still telling their children bedtime stories, some small part of the culture lives on.
How fairytales differ from fantasy and science fiction
Fairy tales differ from typical fantasy and science fiction in that they were most often explained to children to teach them some important lessons. Many fairytales revolve around kind wariness of strangers, which was good when you lived in remote places where there was an honest and intense belief in the fae as a real physical threat.
According to many Celtic and Germanic traditions, the fae are creatures belonging to another ethereal realm including fairies, pixies, gnomes, and others who followed completely different rules of logic and etiquette, and who would put a curse on you or just kill you outright if you offended them. They were and, in many places, are still believed to live in parallel worlds accessible through certain portals such as “fairy rings'' or circular patterns of mushrooms or stones, as well as certain forests and forest paths. So, if you lived near one of those areas, you taught your children to avoid being taken by the fae through fairytales.
These strict moral themes and etiquette lessons aren’t a necessity for fantasy or science fiction, so not every fantasy or sci-fi story is a fairy tale. That being said, you may consider a fairy tale a fantasy story in that it involves some kind of supernatural element or a science fiction story if the protagonist prevails using some kind of reasoning to outwit a less-obviously supernatural villain.
Is it fairytale or fairy tale?
So this is a bit of a trick question, but answer me this: is it fairytale or fairy tale? I’ve used both in this article so far - am I doing it wrong? Did my editor miss something?
Nope. Turns out, both fairytale and fairy tale are correct ways of writing it. The difference is largely cosmetic and a matter of preference; “fairy tale” is most often used to describe the actual stories themselves while “fairytale” or sometimes even “fairy-tale” is usually used to describe the fantastical quality or feeling of the stories and to describe things with similar vibes. That being said, it’s actually grammatically correct to use any variation in any context.
So, I’ll be using them interchangeably.
Famous fairy tales
The best way I can explain to you what a fairytale is and what makes it a fairy tale is by example, so let’s look at four popular fairytales, examine their elements, and consider some retellings.
There are versions of the Cinderella story dating back as far as ancient Greece, but the familiar version of the story emerges sometime in the 1600s. Traditionally, Cinderella is the story of a girl who is down on her luck, abused by her family and wishes desperately to escape. She manages to go to a ball where she meets a handsome royal and they hit it off, but she must leave, and only her shoe remains (a glass slipper, in later versions). The handsome royal uses the shoe to find her, and they’re married.
Now, many early versions of the story fall more into folktale range, with unhappy marriages and (in the case of the notorious Brothers Grimm version) pecked-out eyes, but from about 1700 on, the Cinderella tale ends happily with Cinders escaping abuse to live a life of luxury thanks to her kindness, innocence, and beauty, which have been important values in society since that time.
The most famous adaptation of the story in modern times is, of course, Disney’s animated film from 1950, which portrayed our heroine as a blonde bombshell in disguise rescued by a dashing prince and helped by adorable forest creatures. This version of the story is heavily sanitized from earlier versions, relying on a kindly old fairy godmother and some loveable talking animals to move the plot along, but it retains that element of kindness begetting kindness and goodness winning out over evil. There have been countless retellings in the modern era, though, including the Rogers and Hammerstein musical and the 2004 movie, A Cinderella Story, starring Hilary Duff, which reimagines the fairytale in the modern era with significantly less magic and more technology.
All of these versions of the story have something in common, though: they’re made with their contemporary audience in mind, adapting the main themes in ways that make sense to an audience living in the time of this retelling’s creation.
Beauty and the Beast
My favorite fairytale of all time is Beauty and the Beast. Like Cinderella, this story has been around since practically the dawn of mankind, with stories of woeful women married off to monsters who suddenly transform into handsome suitors due to the women’s kindness going as far back as ancient southern African folklore and Chinese mythology. The story as we recognize it today originates in 1740 in France, with Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve, whose version of the story was later abridged by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont.
In this French retelling, Beauty is the youngest daughter of a merchant whose family is left penniless by a pirate raid on the merchant’s fleet. Hearing that one of his ships may have been saved, the merchant goes to inspect it, taking with him Beauty’s humble request for a single rose. Unfortunately, the ship is a dud, but on the way back home, the merchant stumbles upon a gorgeous castle that seems unoccupied. When he takes a rose from the garden for Beauty, he’s confronted by a boar-like beast man who demands he become a lifelong prisoner for his theft, but allows him to travel home to say his goodbyes first. Hearing what her father’s fate is, Beauty takes his place and goes to live with the beast, who gives her free reign of the castle but asks her each night to marry him, which she refuses. After roughly a year, Beauty is allowed to go home to visit her family for one month, after which time she returns to find the beast dying. She weeps for love for him and is astonished when he transforms back into a prince and tells her that he had been cursed the entire time. Her family is saved and brought to live with the new couple.
Again, the most popular modern interpretation is that created in the 1991 Disney animated film. Here, Disney takes quite a few liberties, adding talking object servants and a huntsman villain to make the story more interesting and (presumably) take blame from the beast himself. This and other adaptations, including novels like Christine Pope’s Dragon Rose, Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, and Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, though they each put their own spin on the magic of the story, center around the idea that you can’t judge someone by what they look like or your first impressions of them, and the way to save yourself from an unfortunate situation is to aim for understanding, respect, and kindness.
Little Red Riding Hood
Another extremely famous fairytale is that of the little girl in red who wanders into the woods and encounters a beast that threatens to eat her - but is saved by good sense or good people nearly every time. Little Red Riding Hood has its potential roots in ancient folklore around the world, with some African stories portraying a little girl encountering a hyena and some East Asian stories portraying the villain as a big cat. In Iran, the story of Little Red follows a young boy rather than a young girl.
The story as most of us know it now - with Little Red off to visit her grandmother, encountering the Big Bad Wolf, and being rescued by the kindly huntsman - was first recorded in the 17th century when Charles Perrault wrote down the popular legend as a part of his series of fairy tales. That being said, that version of the story was probably already incredibly old by then; it’d been passed down in oral traditions for generations.
Modern retellings of Red’s story, including Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet, tend to give our plucky protagonist a more active role and better agency in her own story. They tend to move away from the “innocent little girl corrupted” idea and lean more heavily into the themes of being willing to put oneself in danger for the sake of a loved one. Conversely, there are some castings, such as her role in Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, that keep and lean into the innocence - nice is different than good, don’t wander off the path, don’t be led astray by strangers.
Jack and the Beanstalk
This particular fairytale is hard to pin down in origins. Some academics believe it to back about 5,000 years, to a time when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages and cultures split off and began to develop independently. At that time, the story was part of a collection called The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, but it still carried the familiar idea of a resourceful young lad stealing from massive monsters using nothing but his wits.
The familiar version of the tale was first written down in the 1700s, as The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean in English Fairy Tales compiled by Flora Annie Steel. In this version of the story, Jack is a poor farm boy whose mother tells him to sell the family cow for food money. Before reaching the market, however, Jack runs into a man who offers to trade the cow for some magic beans. When Jack returns home with the beans, his mother angrily throws them out the window, and in the morning, they discover a massive beanstalk. Jack climbs the stalk and meets the giant’s kind wife, who offers him food, but the giant himself threatens to kill Jack and eat him. With the help of the wife, Jack manages to steal some gold and a magical harp (there is also sometimes a goose who lays golden eggs) and return home, but the giant discovers the theft and tries to follow. Jack chops down the beanstalk, killing the giant, and they all live happily ever after.
Modern retellings of this particular story seem to keep with the 1700s time period and an at least pseudo-European setting, which is interesting, but tend to make Jack a bit older, as in the 2013 movie, Jack the Giant Killer. It’s not as popular as the others in terms of reimaginings but has definite staying power, and retains its themes of ingenuity, kindness winning out over cruelty, and the triumph of brains over brawn.
How to write a fairy tale
Writing your own fairytale may appeal to you if you love to read them. If you choose to write a fairytale, you’ve got two basic options: rewrite an existing story or come up with a brand-new one.
How to write a fairytale retelling
Rewriting an existing fairytale is arguably easier than creating one from scratch, but it does have its limitations. It’s very difficult to be unique and stand out with a tale as old as time. If you choose a popular plot, like Snow White, Pinocchio, or any of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, you may find your work being lumped in with and compared to other rewrites. That being said, most lovers of particular fairytales will simply be happy to have another version of the story to enjoy, and you can play with the formula of your tale to offer new insights into the classic moral dilemma.
When rewriting a fairytale, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
The moral of the story is what makes the fairytale. Do your research into the origins and history of the fairytale you’re retelling and see what the various versions of it have in common - this will help you get an idea for the central themes that you should be exploring and building on. Some of the most popular are true love, trust, faith, and the importance of home.
Look for big-picture, black-and-white morals, and then focus on a smaller aspect with more grey area. For example, with the overarching moral “kindness wins out over greed,” consider exploring the smaller lesson that it isn’t greedy to make sure that your own needs are met, or that kindness does not mean weakness or meekness.
Have recognizable roles with interesting new characters. Fairytales are built on archetypal roles that change from adaptation to adaptation. Learning what those roles are means you can fill them with interesting characters that make the story your own.
For example, in the story of Beauty and the Beast, you have the kind heroine who cares for her loved ones deeply, the loved one in peril who is rescued and later visited, and the unfriendly but ultimately good beast. Maybe in your version of the story, the heroine is a slightly surly criminal-by-necessity, the loved one is their long-term partner trying to get on the straight and narrow, and the beast is an angry local lord under a curse who just wants to right his misdeeds.
You can have other characters, but it’s important that those three roles are filled for your story to be recognizable as Beauty and the Beast.
Story beats and symbols
Once all of your characters are in place, you have to move them in a way that looks familiar to the audience. Most people will know the general structure of the fairytale you’re working with and will expect those beats to hit in your story in some way.
Let’s look at Beauty and the Beast again for our example. The story beats for that are relatively simple.
- We’re introduced to our heroine and her loved one.
- The loved one has to leave but promises to be back soon.
- The loved one runs afoul of the beast and is captured.
- The heroine hears of the loved one’s imprisonment and offers to take their place. The beast accepts.
- Over time, the heroine and the beast fall in love.
- The heroine leaves to visit the loved one.
- The beast is in peril because of the heroine’s leaving.
- The heroine returns moments too late and mourns the beast, revealing her feelings.
- The beast is transformed and saved.
- Happily ever after.
Take whatever story you’re working with and break it down to the most basic actions that make the plot familiar, then structure your own retelling according to those beats.
How to write your own fairytale
Writing your own fairytale with original fairy tale characters gives you a bit more freedom when it comes to theme, characters, and structure, but it also means doing significantly more research before you get into your own “Once upon a time.” Study the works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Study the rich folklore of Japan, China, or other non-European regions. Fairytales arise from cultural traditions and histories but generally focus on a moral that applies across time and cultures.
The first step in creating a new story should be choosing its large, overarching theme. Again, these are big ideas that are universally recognized and popularly explored in the literary canon: good versus evil, community needs versus needs of the self, the importance of love or family, etc. Look for something that’s important to you and then narrow it down to a more specific lesson: our actions define us rather than our histories, sometimes what is best for oneself is worst for one’s community, love is the most powerful weapon we have, etc.
Once you have a moral, consider how you might illustrate that moral in your characters. Start with your main character. This is who the story is about, so they should be showing us the “right” thing to do. Typical fairytale protagonists are young, innocent, and optimistic, but you don’t have to write them as such if you don’t want to; that being said, I’d recommend keeping them smart and resourceful. From there you can figure out who your antagonist is - the character showing us the “wrong” thing to do - and how you can put them in direct conflict with each other. This might involve bringing in other classic archetypes like the mentor or the parent.
Finally, your fairy tale story should have at least a mostly-happy ending. You can either kill, imprison, or redeem your villain, but the darkness they bring to the story should still be defeated in one way or another to fulfill your moral message. The handsome prince defeats the evil queen and wins the heart of the girl of his dreams. The ugly duckling realizes they’re beautiful. Too dark of an ending and you stray into folktale territory; that’s not a bad place to be and if your story takes you there, go for it, but it’s definitely another genre. Though the original fairytales were meant as children’s stories, your new creation doesn’t have to be. Adults love fairy stories with archetypal characters and clear morals too.
Because fairytales are so well-known, there’s plenty of potential for mash-ups of the classic tales. Hansel and Gretel team up with the gingerbread man to defeat an evil character. Instead of Goldilocks, the Three Little Pigs venture into the cabin of the three bears to taste porridge. Perhaps a lovelorn Rumpelstiltskin turns to the seven dwarfs to learn how to become a better person, so he can awaken his Sleeping Beauty. Have fun with the characters, and think about how the morals and themes between the original stories may overlap. The Shrek movies did this very well, pulling many classic fairy tales together into one shared universe.
Fairy tales are fun little insights into our cultural histories. They’re a great way of finding out what’s important to us now and what’s been important to us in the past. Beyond that, they’re just really fun to read!
If you’re planning to write a fairytale, don’t be afraid to get lost in the whimsy and magic of it. After all, sometimes what you need to make a really good story is faith, trust, and a little bit of fairy dust.