When I was little, my dad used to read fairy tales to me at bedtime. He read from a picture book of fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. I never outgrew my love for them, though I wasn’t always quick to admit that love. In fact, on one of my bookshelves, you’ll find Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales. I also have books of Irish fairy tales, Russian fairy tales, and others.
The other day, the Brain Pickings newsletter featured an article by Maria Popova on J. R. R. Tolkien’s discussion of fairy tales. Popova included many quotes from Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” Maybe you’ve read that essay. I was interested, since I recently saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (awesome) and I basically love all things Tolkien.
This quote resonated with me:
Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused. It is not the choice of the children which decides this. Children as a class—except in a common lack of experience they are not one—neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant.
“Relegated to the nursery’”? True enough. Fairy tales are shelved in the children’s section of my library—hundreds of picture books. I’ve read many of them. But you can also find fairy tales in other places in the library. Many novels for teens and adults are fairy tale retellings. Case in point: The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire; The Black Swan by Mercedes Lackey; Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.
Wikipedia defines fairy tale thusly:
A fairy tale (pronounced /ˈfeəriˌteɪl/) is a type of short story that typically features European folkloric fantasy characters, such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, dwarves, giants, mermaids, or gnomes, and usually magic or enchantments. Fairy tales may be distinguished from other folk narratives such as legends (which generally involve belief in the veracity of the events described) and explicitly moral tales, including beast fables.
By this definition, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy fall under the fairy tale category, though they’re clearly not “short stories.” The stories in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, however, are folk tales, rather than fairy tales, though fairy tales fall under the folklore umbrella.
For me, fairy tales are the ultimate escapist fiction. (I never miss a Disney adaptation of a fairy tale either. And I’ve enjoyed those by other studios.) The novels I write are fairy tales, though I never thought about writing them until a friend challenged me almost ten years ago. The novel I wrote at the time was going nowhere. I felt totally stuck.
“You love fairy tales, right?” she asked.
“Um, yeah” was my astute answer.
“Have you ever thought about writing them?”
Boom. It’s like the sky opened up, horns played, and a choir sang. Epiphany! But as you can see, the first step was admitting that they were my drug of choice: “I am an adult who loves fairy tales.” (I’m sure there is a support group for this.) Seriously, for years I felt a little embarrassed running down to the children’s section and carrying away a stack of fairy tale picture books. I used to bring a big tote bag in which to hide them. Now I don’t care who knows. I’ll shout it to the hills: “I READ FAIRY TALES!!!!!”
So yes, I write fairy tales. And you might even find a fairy or two in them. Although I’m writing novels for teens, I hope adults will enjoy them too, after they admit, like I did, that they might possibly love fairy tales. As Tolkien said, they’re not just for kids.
Got a favorite fairy tale or maybe two? One of my favorites is “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Another is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” What are some of yours?
Books covers from Goodreads. Fairy image from mvscreen.com.