Fairy Tales and Fantasy Revisited

Earlier this week, Jane Rosenberg LaForge wrote a provocative guest post on what she sees as key differences between fantasy and fairy tales. My first reaction to her argument was a bit of umbrage: my monsters are humans who behave monstrously too! Nevertheless, her essay prompted me to ponder the boundaries between fantasy and fairy tales and whether the “human monster” really does represent a key difference.

RapunzTowerIn the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Donald Haase states that the difference between fantasy and fairy tale is belief—fairy tale–tellers do not ask readers to believe the story actually happened, while fantasy authors want readers to suspend disbelief and, at least for the duration of the story, accept the tale as real. Fairy tale authors explicitly inform readers that the narrative events are impossible. In addition, most fairy tales were crafted to impart ethical and moral lessons and the tellers of these tales, whether they deliver the story orally or in print, usually strive to preserve the original form with only minimal modifications to fit the storyteller’s or editor’s time and society. Conversely, fantasies are original creations of the author. They might contain allegory or demonstrate ideals, but they aren’t meant to be remade or retold without attribution, nor do they always advocate a particular moral position.

Haase never says that fairy tales always have human antagonists, as Jane suggests, but I think she’s (mostly) right on this. A quick perusal of the table of contents of my copy of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, reveals title after title where the villain is a person. Even where they are animals or monsters—the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” or the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”—these creatures represent human attributes (lust and greed, respectively), and certainly the majority of antagonists in the most famous of fairy tales (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel”) are humans who behave very, very badly.

Of course, fantasy is rife with human villains too. For every Smaug, there’s a Cersei. The wicked shadow who pursues Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea turns out to be (spoiler!) Ged himself. The presence of human antagonists in these works doesn’t make them fairy tales, but it does speak to the influence fairy tales have over the work of fantasy authors. Fairy tales are among the first stories we’re told as children, and their narrative elements naturally seep into our work as adult authors.

the_snow_queen_s_second_kiss_by_silence_in_november-d6yivcgThe first two books in The Woern Chronicles tell a story about a girl with long hair she treasures, who is imprisoned in a tower by a powerful person who keeps her enthralled. The man who helps the young woman break free of her captor’s influence is blinded, and later the young woman wanders lost in a wilderness, far from the father of the child growing within her. Those elements of “Rapunzel”—and a healthy dose of “Rumpelstiltskin” (a farmer’s daughter promises to give up her child in exchange for a throne)—crept into Blade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot without conscious intention. After all, I created Victoria the Blade to break from traditional fantasy and fairy tale gender stereotypes. She may be held captive by Lornk in the beginning of the series, but she’s no damsel in distress who passively waits for rescue. On the contrary, Vic is the hero (not the heroine), and she does most of the rescuing in the novels. In the next pair of Woern Chronicles novels, I deliberately use the storyline of “The Snow Queen” (a vengeful woman infects the heart of a boy with indifference, and a girl’s love and loyalty may be the only thing that can save him), but whether the retelling will be more recognizable than “Rapunzel” in Blade and Wizard remains to be seen.

I suppose I’m more interested in the similarities than the differences between fairy tales and fantasy. First, fairy tales contain good stories. I love straightforward retellings such as The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Fairest and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and An Untamed State, the literary retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” Jane described, is now on my to-read list. Second, they offer a template for storytelling and characterization that has strongly informed my work. Most of all, they provide a frame with which to view literature and the world.

eec1db10808be84e2901e46760195bdbA.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. For more information on her work, visit her website, read her blog, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page.

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