Questions represent an interesting contradiction, when you’re asked one you would like it to be good, but not so good that you can’t answer it. We ran into a question that straddled this line during the Fairytale Remix panel I participated in at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con. An audience member asked, “What makes a story a fairytale?”
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
It was a seemingly innocent query, but there was a moment of silence in response, during which the panelists looked up and down the table at each other rather blankly, and then I think I said something about “magic” and someone else mentioned an “otherworldliness”, and then nothing. Shannon Hale, our moderator, saved us by saying, “We don’t have any PhDs up here to answer that kind of question,” and moved us along. (Those of you that know your humble correspondent will know that this was not technically true, although in this context it was practically true.) However, since then I’ve been pondering the issue, and I’ve decided to follow Robert McNamara’s advice:
“Don’t answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you wish you were asked.”
Specifically, even if I can’t say what the essential elements of a fairytale are, I think I can say that many of the things people think are essential are not.
One of the most common beliefs is that a fairytale must start “once upon a time” and finish “happily ever after”, however in a number of fairytales this arc is absent. Indeed, the idea that the characters in fairytales (or at least the main characters) must end up happy is quite often violated in alarming, tragic, and disturbing ways. I would point to three tales out of the original Grimm Brothers’ collection to prove this point. Two extreme examples of not just tragic, but grotesque, endings would be The Stubborn Child and Mother Trudy, both brief stories in which young children, through no real fault of their own except perhaps the fault of having their own minds, are brutally killed. In these stories there is no redemptive moment or fairy intervention, just a tragic end to a brief life. A more well known story that, at least in my mind, violates the “happily ever after” rule is The Fisherman and His Wife. In this story a fisherman catches a fish and is granted a wish for letting it go again. Over the next few days the fisherman’s wife asks for ever grander and grander homes and titles until finally she asks to be God at which point the fisherman and his wife are returned again to the sty in which they had been living at the beginning. Again, in this story there is no final rise in fortune or happily ever after moment, just a return to misery and poverty.
Another standard belief is that in order to reach this—uncertain—happily ever after the main character must overcome challenges or hurdles, thereby earning his or her reward. I stress the word “earning”, because that is at the heart of this mistaken belief, that the characters must be worthy of reward, or that they receive it based on merit. In fact, fairytales often reward the stupid and lucky over the wise. In The Three Feathers the story begins, with the following,
Once upon a time there lived a king who had three sons. Two of them were sharp and clever, but the third didn’t have much to say, and he was considered dim-witted. Everyone called him Dummy.
I will leave you to guess which of the three brothers ends up with the throne.
Nor is this the only use of a literal “Dummy” in fairytale. The hero of The Golden Goose is also called Dummy, who is “forever belittled, mocked, and disdained.” And, these are not the only examples of the dim-witted and undeserving winning the day. The hero of The Golden Bird is not only a fool, but also a thief and a rogue (he forcibly kidnaps a princess), and yet in the end he wins the jackpot: riches, the princess and the throne. The fact is, despite the common vision of the fairytale hero being dashing and handsome, in truth such heroes show up very rarely, and it is the guileless and often foolish anti-hero that more often wins the day.
Finally, most people earnestly believe that fairytales are inherently moral, or at least that they tell a “moral”. In other words, that good is generally rewarded and evil is generally punished in these stories. After all, this is why we read them to our children. Right?
Of all the false beliefs about fairy tales this is perhaps the least grounded in the actual stories. Terribly cruel fates befall the perfectly innocent all the time, and the wicked and lazy go unpunished with surprising frequency. Take the story Puddocky: in this tale our heroine, Parsley, is innocently combing her hair in a window one day when three princes happen by. They are so taken with her beauty that they fall to quarreling in the street. The witch with whom Parsley lives is irritated by the noise and…
It is cruel and pointless, and, even if in the end she ends up happily married to one of the princes, her punishment can serve no moral purpose except perhaps to teach women that they should not be too beautiful. (A proposal I cannot agree with.) More famously, the classic story of Rumpelstiltskin ultimately rewards a farmer, who is boastful and vain, and his daughter for deceiving the king into thinking she can spin straw into gold. And, although he is not very sympathetic, what of poor Rumpelstiltskin? The gnome that actually does the work of spinning straw into gold is cheated of his price–merely the girl’s first child. (Okay, maybe he was deserving of punishment after all). However, even if Rumpelstiltskin is deserving of punishment, again there can be no moral lesson in rewarding the objectively bad behavior of the farmer and his daughter.
And when she had convinced herself that this was so, she stepped forward, and, full of wrath over the quarrels and feuds Parsley’s beauty gave rise to, she cursed the girl and said, ‘I wish you were an ugly toad, sitting under a bridge at the other end of the world.’
So, we know some of the things that a fairytale does not have to be—they do not always end happily ever after, or reward the deserving, or teach us a moral truth—but the original question remains unanswered. Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps fairytales are simply stories, entertainments, that fit no single mold, but onto which we have placed a label to recognize their enduring character and to signify their importance to us. And so, we can add a Princess Bride or a Lord of the Rings or an Into the Woods into our lists of fairytales, not because they borrow certain elements from the fairytale archetype (though they all do), but because we value them so highly.
Whatever fairytales are, we can thank this bright member of the audience for the most thought-provoking moment of the panel. And, in the end perhaps having the question remain open is the best thing, after all, Madeleine L’Engle said,
“An infinite question is often destroyed by finite answers. To define everything is to annihilate much that gives us laughter and joy.”