Friday, November 25, 2011

What is a “fairy tale”? Part 3

A fairy tale is normally about an average person who collides with this world of wonder, a world that actually dwells beneath or alongside the everyday one, or maybe is the "truth" behind the everyday one. (Magic in this context is part of the fabric of the world or “otherworld,” not an add-on.) Often this everyday person is the victim of powerful people. In the old days, when most fairy tales were first being told, that was usually a king or a queen, sometimes a wicked mother-in-law (who might be a queen) or an older brother (who might be a king). For whatever reason, the unlikely hero finds herself or himself crossing some kind of frontier. Usually a forest, though not always. That new environment is, of course, inhabited by outlandish or fey creatures. Sometimes the rules that hold there are just … different.

In one common kind of tale, the hero has to survive this strange otherworld through the goodness of his or her moral character, wits, cleverness, or some words of magic he or she somehow comes across. Heroes are rarely magicians or masters of magic, more often day-laborers, subsistence farmers, fishwives, or the like. Often help comes because of help offered to someone (or something) in need on the way. Hospitality is usually rewarded as much as skill. Goodness and luck are more important than physical strength.

The tales I’m thinking of aren’t moralizing. They aren’t always very sensible even, or easy to draw some simple meaning from. Their purpose is probably entertainment, though sometimes they have a moral in the sense that the good person tends to win the day, while the bad person tends to suffer some misfortune—not always in the same tale.

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