When you hear the word Fairytale, what images immediately infuse your mind?
**(By the way, that’s a genuine question- we really do want to know, so please leave us a comment!)
For many folks, the word Fairytale will conjure up an illustration from a favourite childhood bedtime story, long locked away in a mental keepsake treasure chest. Maybe it’s Goldilocks confronted by three disgruntled bears, Little Red Riding Hood facing off a ferocious wolf, or Ariel singing on a rock in a mist of ocean spray.
The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Walt Disney have all contributed to our notions & mental images of fairytales, whether or not we can put our finger on just what makes a Fairy Tale… well, a fairytale.
So what is it that all these stories have in common. What makes them a patch in the vast fabric of Faerie?
A Fairytale is impossible to define academically. Even one of the greatest Masters of Fairy Stories in the English language, George MacDonald, admitted in his “The Fantastic Imagination,”
Were I begged to… describe the Fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer that I would as soon describe the abstract human face… a fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face.
If MacDonald couldn’t describe it, I’m sure as anything not going to try! Perhaps it’s easier to say what a Fairytale isn’t. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien clarifies that,
Fairy stories are not in normal English usage about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm of state in which fairies have their being.
Of course by “fairies,” Tolkien doesn’t mean tiny wee, winged folk with flower-pettle tutus and bonnets. Did you know, that picture of fairies didn’t come around until the Victorian period? And that’s really quite recent in the long history of Faerie.
Far from being being a bunch of Tinkerbells, the residents of Faerie include King Arthur, Robin Hood, and many other larger-than-life heroes and heroins. The borders of Faerie stretch far away, and long ago… across time and space. And the laws of Faerie, though formidable when broken, are not the same as our laws – man can speak to beasts, magic enchantments can transform a prince into a toad, or a servant into a princess! And, for those who adhere to the laws of that magical realm, there awaits justice, triumph over evil, a Happy Ending. But be warned! For those who dare to break its laws, it is a Perilous Realm.
So there’s a hint of the ingredients in this Fairytale Soup we’ve all tasted, and all recognise even if we can’t describe it.
But where do fairytales come from?
The fairytales we know and love have their roots in many different cultures: French, German, Celtic, Nordic, Russian… the list goes on. It would seem the Realm of Faerie dates back further than any of our modern cultures, a sort of common ancestry that knits us all together. As Tolkien points out,
The history of fairy stories is probably more complex that the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of the human language. All three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story. It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it.
It’s no wonder we love fairy tales so much! It’s as if they’re in our blood; part of what makes us human. This “Web of Story” connects us across age gaps, cultures, even time periods! Fairytales remind us that we were made for more than the mundane: we were made for the High Romance, the heroic deed, the unexpected & hard-earned Happy Ending. Long live the Fairytale!